The priests are not doing so well: they find themselves, in many respects, in a situation of exile. A recent survey on their state of health highlights the frequency of depersonalization syndromes, depressive episodes or burnout. In the field of psycho-moral suffering, we are at a fairly high level and this is worrying. Many priests today are struggling to blossom or fulfill themselves. In their unhappiness, they often feel left to themselves and it is not uncommon for them to engage in forms of compensation that do not make life more beautiful.
Priests have obviously been hit hard by the earthquake of sexual abuse in the Church. The people of God generally love and respect their priests. But, whether we like it or not, a veil of opprobrium and suspicion has fallen over the whole clerical body; thus the question arises cruelly and insidiously: can a priest still be trustworthy, respected, even considered exemplary?
In the pastoral reforms undertaken by the dioceses of France from the 1990s, priests have often functioned as an adjustment variable. Many efforts have been made to regroup the parishes, local teams have been set up where the laity are largely associated with the exercise of pastoral leadership, and this is very fortunate. However, little work has been done on the conditions of life and ministry of priests. In the large predominantly rural areas, they were asked to stay at their posts and hold the ground: ever fewer in number, they were inevitably more isolated. To use a fashionable expression, they were sacrificed on the altar of territoriality!
Finally, another path of exile risks opening up for the priests. Indeed, at a time when the whole Church is embarking with enthusiasm on the paths of synodality, it is not easy to situate the place of priests. In the recent synodal experiences experienced by the Assembly of Bishops of France, the dioceses or Church movements were invited to send members of the people of God, lay people of course for the most part, but who of course could be consecrated persons or priests. However, in the synodal collaboration with the bishops, the priests are not interchangeable with any faithful: they are, fundamentally, the first collaborators of the episcopal order, because they too share the apostolic priesthood.
When we talk about the malaise of priests, the nagging question of their commitment to celibacy obviously cannot be avoided. However, it must be placed correctly. The celibacy of priests is more than a law and less than a dogma: it is a charism, that is to say a particular gift that the Holy Spirit has granted for centuries to the Western Church. , as a sign and means of the gift that priests make of themselves in pastoral charity. In joy and tears, this gift bore exceptional fruits of spiritual fruitfulness for the mission of the Church. If this charism needs to be questioned today, it cannot be done around a regional or national synod; it is the whole body of the Church which must take the means to discern this question, why not during a general or ecumenical council. Would also to God that we would not abandon this gift and this commitment for inglorious or largely illusory reasons. In the Holy Spirit, we will have to find other reasons than the fight against sexual abuse or the hope of simply having a few more priests. What could these reasons be? Existential first: that priests can have a happier and fulfilled life as a man in the joy of conjugal and family life; then charismatic: can’t the experience of human love lived in covenant enrich an authentic pastoral charity?
But it seems to me that the most urgent task would be to rehabilitate the apostolic ministry of priests. For centuries, a certain pastoral profile has prevailed: the priest, man of the sacraments, signifying God’s fidelity by living in the midst of a locally determined people. In large territories, this model is very difficult to maintain, one could say that it has lived. But we are not without resources, precisely by going to the source of the ministry. At the center of the great consecratory prayer to ordain priests, the bishop is at one moment seized with the spirit of supplication and addresses God asking him: “Today again, Lord, give us the cooperators whose we need to exercise the charge of the apostolic priesthood. This is what priests are, for and with the bishop.
To recover their apostolic profile, priests must be much more directly linked to the ministry of their bishop. Instead of being used and dispersed as the ultimate territorial markers of Church life, instead of being identified above all with worship service or absorbed in managerial tasks, they should be “priests in the manner of the Apostles”. Among their various responsibilities, the ministry of the Word and of spiritual discernment should regain first place in order to accompany with authority various communities or renewed Christian realities. This more or less itinerant ministry should be balanced by a community of fraternal life, where the commitment to celibacy can receive its meaning and above all its support.