Danger for a priest without prayer
Fr Paul Glynn
By Fr Paul Glynn SM
When we were leaving the seminary as new priests we were bluntly told: “Don’t be a linen priest - a priest who doesn’t prepare with prayer, but goes straight from the bed linen, to the altar linen, to the breakfast table linen.
“If you want the Mass to give spiritual energy to yourself and your people so that living the Gospel becomes alive, joyful and creative, then do what Jesus did. He kept breaking away from doing things like preaching, healing and talking to people, to find time to converse alone with his Father.
“If praying alone is not a central part of your life you will end up like that useless gong that St Paul told the Corinthian Christians not to become. Much noise maybe, but no lasting harvest.”
Last year a priest, serving a 12 year jail sentence for sex offences against minors sent out word that he needed books to read.
I sent him one on personal prayer.
Some months later he wrote back: “I have plentyof time to pray now. I wish I had understood the need for prayer earlier in my life ... then maybe I would not have done things that, among other consequences, makes it much harder for you priests to do your job.”
There is the problem and the answer in a nutshell, surely. It also explains why Jesus publicly ticked off the busy-busy Martha, and said Mary had chosen the one thing necessary.
All normal people have strong sexual inclinations. For most people marriage and family is the milieu of the love and companionship that leads to the fulfilment and fruitful living intended by the Creator when he gave us the great gift of sexuality.
Jesus lived a celibate life and the Gospels continually show him seeking out quiet places where he found companionship and love with the Father in prayer.
I’ve just done a quick count and found nine places in the first three Gospels where Jesus goes alone to pray to the Father. To quote one text, Luke 5:15-16, “His reputation continued to grow and large crowds would gather to hear him and to have their sicknesses cured. But he would always go off to some place where he could be alone and pray.”
Every person needs love and companionship as a condition of living a satisfying human life.
Jesus found those two essentials for authentic living in his conversations with the Father - and the love he experienced there flowed out to others during the dynamic course of his earthly life.
Any Christian minister who says he or she is too busy to do the prayerful thing that Jesus “always” did, is speaking a sad truth. He or she is too busy. All the more so if he or she is a celibate.
Without the companionship with the Lord that comes from prayer, there is a great danger, even probability, for the celibate that unhealthy companionships will be sought elsewhere.
At Mother Teresa’ s request Jesuit Fr Travers-Ball co-founded the male side of the Missionaries of Charity. He was the only priest in the new congregation but insisted on being called Br Andrew.
When an extraordinary number of young men had joined and things were really flourishing, he insisted that one of the professed brothers be elected to replace him as Servant General.
Then something quite bizarre happened. He was accused of being an alcoholic. Six months after the charge was made it was totally withdrawn.
Subsequently both branches of the Missionaries of Charity had Br Andrew go to India to lead their annual retreats. He spent his last years writing very effective booklets on how to live the Gospel, and also in giving retreats.
If my memory is correct it was 10 years ago that in the course of leading an Australian retreat he said: “Beware of a priest who does not pray. He is a dangerous man.”
Abuse victims have learned the truth of that warning in the harshest of ways.
He also gave a warning against letting enter into presbyteries and houses of religious the new lifestyle: “The drinks start earlier, TV watching gets longer and rising gets later. Real prayer starts to disappear, and so does a real spiritual life.”
I once did a course on the Psalms at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Fr Carroll Stuhlmueller CP gave the lectures.
He had been president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, editor of The Bible Today, was on the editorial boards of The Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. He had written 23 books and scores of articles on biblical topics.
Those of us who lived in the same building noticed how often he would be in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in the community chapel.
His words rang true when he told us the essential purpose of Bible study, or any theological study, is to grow in loving familiarity with the Lord.
From that, he commented, love of others always flows.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the deep Swiss theologian whom Henri de Lubac called the most cultured man in the modern world, was highly rated by Pope John Paul II - so highly that, even though he was not a bishop, the Holy Father nominated him among the 25 new cardinals he chose in June 1998. In one of the seeming quirks of God’s Providence, Von Balthasar died two days before the public consistory.
He made a statement that really means the same as what Stuhlmueller told us: “One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century has been the divorce of theology fromholiness.”
I fear that many of us priests “graduated” via theology examinations with a poor grounding in contemplative prayer.
Pope John Paul is working hard to make up for lost ground.
In his At the Beginning of the New Millennium and his On the Most Holy Rosary, he insists that the main purpose of all pastoral work in a parish is leading people to the “holiness” that baptism calls all to. An authentic parish is “a school of prayer”.
In both documents he says time and time again that the call to holiness includes the call to contemplative prayer.
One other point from Stuhlmueller is pertinent to the present discussion.
He told us of an odd request from one US bishop: “Please come and give my priests talks on the psalms because less than 20 per cent of them are praying the Breviary regularly. They can give great talks on ‘the thrilling panoramas and challenges of Vatican II’ yet they do not think Vatican II’s five pages on the Breviary prayer in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has a message for them.”
One could legitimately wonder if that diocese is one of those we read about, threatened with bankruptcy over court cases because of priests’ sexual abuse.
Stuhlmueller used to insist that we Christians are people of the Word. The Holy Spirit gave us the Scriptures to form us and guide us day by day. I can’t see how those serial priest offenders could have been praying the Breviary regularly.
There is so much in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance, about what the Lord thinks of false pastors who use and kill the sheep.
They would either have to stop sinning or stop praying the Breviary. It would be psychologically impossible for them to be doing both, surely.
Children who are sexually molested suffer deep emotional wounds.
They also suffer spiritual ones, sometimes loss of faith in the Gospels, in the Church and even in God. The rest of us suffer, too, when cases hit the media.
I remember hearing Malcolm Muggeridge say when he was in Sydney: “The present moral breakdown insociety can actually strengthen our faith if we take it to prayer.”
Jesus clearly said these things will happen: Wars and rumours of wars, families turning on one another, nations warring against nations, famines, earthquakes (and often the famines and earthquakes are spiritual).
In the same way, the evil of clerical sexual abuse, when taken to prayer with Jesus, makes more realistic and focused what Jesus said about the need “to watch and pray”.
For us priests there is that Last Judgment scene in Matthew 7:22 when some will say: “Lord, have we not prophesied in your name?” To which Jesus will reply: “Out of my sight you evildoers.”
Before my seminary class went out as new priests we were told to read and digest Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate.
To sum up in one sentence the key message of that book is: To live a fruitful life as a minister of Jesus’ Gospel, you must keep in close companionship with the Lord through personal prayer.
And I think that in today’s relativistic society where nothing is allowed to be held as certain, Dom Chautard’s advice for an authentic ministry applies also for surviving as a real disciple of Jesus.
Whether we are a lay person, a religious or a priest,we are all members of the wounded People of God.
We try to share some of the pain of brothers and sisters sexually abused as minors.
Even if we do not know the abused ones, we can take their deep pain to the Mass, praying with Jesus who is offering the pain in his abused body to the Father, asking forgiveness and healing for the members of his Mystical Body.
Fr Paul Glynn is a member of the Society of Mary
I accepted the request by the editor of The Catholic Weekly to write something on priests caught up in sex scandals “from a priest’s position”.
I began writing hesitantly and with misgivings, recalling the Lord’s words about seeing a mote in another’s eye when you have a plank in one’s own.
But I also recalled those other words: If your eye is your downfall, pluck it out. It’s better to enter Heaven with one eye than to be damned with two.
A priest has an obligation to proclaim the Good News - part of which is the bad news: Jesus’ teaching about the real possibility of alienating oneself from the Lord forever.
Not a nice thought, but the Lord speaks of it many, many times in the Gospels.
And we can’t blame his theologically conservative Irish grandmother or the teaching nuns who whacked him as a boy for his frequent repetition of this sobering teaching.
Some time back a distressed mother asked me to help her married daughter who as a child had been sexually molested by a priest.
I tried my best to help, first of all by listening to the sad story. I could see her past pain was still with her, and was still bewildering her as a person, and as a wife and a mother. I did my best to respond to her problems and prayed with her.
She lived a long distance away so I followed up with letters. Then I was stunned to receive a phone call informing me she had just taken her life. The funeral Mass was the grimmest and saddest I’ve ever been part of.
The Catholic Weekly, attempting to respond to this phenomenon of clerical abuse responsibly and helpfully, asks how a priest sees its cause and its cure. I shall attempt to bring some light to this dark evil, with a heavy heart, and painfully conscious of how we are all in daily need of the Lord’s compassionate help
- Paul Glynn