Fr. Trigilio: what makes priests happy, what grinds them down, and a suggestion

My friend Fr. John Trigilio, who head the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, has a not on his blog The Black Biretta about priests and happiness.

Here are a few paragraphs from his longer post, which I encourage you to take a look at.

We jump in media res and I added some emphases

[...]

Professional jealousy and clerical sycophants are what discourage priests. When their bishops do not treat them as sons of the church but as lower level managers whose task is to be a company man at all times, then you get some unhappy priests on your hands. When the same guys have been on Personnel Board for the past 20 to 30 years; when assignments are made not based on qualifications but on church politics and ‘who you know rather than what you know;’ when special treatment is given to those who went to the bishop’s alma mater while those who had to fight tooth and nail to preserve their orthodoxy and virtue while in the seminary are made to feel like misfits after ordination; these make for disillusioned clergy to be sure.

Foibles of parish life are like family life. Any husband and father realizes that no family is perfect and that every day has its challenges. Likewise, every priest knows that no parish is perfect (and no pastor or parochial vicar is perfect either). There are good days and bad days. Many challenges and many opportunities for grace and conversion. What deflates priests, is not celibacy or Magisterium, but subterfuge, duplicity and deceit from their own ordained brethren. When church ceases to be about faith and more about solvency, then priestly zeal can drop dramatically. Yes, bills must be paid and responsible financial procedures and policies be in operation. On the other hand, bishops do not need ‘yes’ men, they need honest, courageous, and un-ambitious advisors to give them reliable and responsible counsel. Sometimes, you wonder if the old Soviet Union did not reincarnate or morph itself into a diocesan bureaucracy.

Priests are happy being priests and doing priestly things, like celebrating the Sacraments, teaching the faith, visiting the sick, and helping parents form their children into Christian men and women. What makes us unhappy is being treated like we’re guilty before we even know what the accusation is. What kills priestly zeal is corporate red tape and extreme micromanagement. I promised respect and obedience to my bishop and his successors but not to a committee or board advising him on numerous matters. That is not to say most priests who work in chanceries and central administration are not devout, sincere, hard working or competent men. Most are. But there are places where the tenure has been so long and the cronyism so pronounced that middle management makes itself indispensible and necessary. During the worst of the clergy sex scandals, it was not just the perverts who misbehaved and a few bishops who swept things under the carpet, it was also a few middle management clergy giving bad advice and a few becoming a buffer between priest and bishop. When that happens, good priests are unable to communicate important information to their chief shepherd because someone in between has blocked or intercepted the message. Access to the bishop for any priest has to be unfettered as any son would be to his dad. When the corporate model is enshrined, however, it feels like only the vice presidents and board members have access and lower level employees just do their work and keep quiet.

I have been ordained 23½ years and can truthfully say I would not be happy doing or being anything else in the world. I love being a priest and love doing priestly things. What disheartens me and my colleagues is not the human element but the dark side of human nature which can tarnish any human heart, be it clergy or laity, priest, deacon or bishop.

When priests are told they need to get anger management treatment merely because they preached a homily in support of Humanae Vitae and in condemnation of birth control and abortion; when priests are admonished for enforcing canon law and requiring sponsors for baptism and confirmation to be Catholics in good standing; when priests are reprimanded for exercising their legitimate liturgical options as stated in universal law; when pastors spend sleepless nights over meeting diocesan assessments; when assignments and transfers are arbitrary and haphazard rather than based on experience, history and qualifications; then zeal begins to erode and evaporate.

On the other hand, when priests feel like they actually belong and work in a family of faith rather than in a corporate business, they are willing to endure any hardship, obstacle or inconvenience. When priests feel that their bishops see them as spiritual sons rather than ordained employees, they will love them in return and serve them to the best of their abilities. Most priests ARE happy but they can be even happier. Does not mean more pay or more vacation. Does not mean eliminating celibacy or the hierarchy. It means ditching the corporate model once and for all. Bishops are more than Vice Presidents and corporate executives. They are SHEPHERDS and priests and deacons are there to serve and assist them.

It helps when church authority is employed to discipline all instances of misbehavior (like teaching heterodoxy or committing liturgical abuse) and not just when it involves personally disagreeing with one’s superiors or their prudential judgments. Stepping one someone’s toes is not the same gravity as denying a revealed truth or committing sacrilege, yet often those crimes go unnoticed or unpunished while minor infractions of diocesan policy are punished with severity and swiftness.

The aftermath of the scandals has made some of the faithful suspicious but most still trust and love their priests. The excessive and over-the-top sacrosanct respect given to the clergy until the end of the 1950’s has gone and rightfully so. Sadly, some parishioners have become more bellicose, contentious and disrespectful especially when a priest is merely defending church doctrine or enforcing church discipline. Yet, even these burdens can be borne as long as the priest feels he is supported downtown as well. Priests expect to be called on the carpet if we are guilty of misbehaving in any way but we also presume to be backed up when we defend Holy Mother Church by those lukewarm Catholics who seek to make her irrelevant in matters of faith and morals.

[...]

When the human element of the Church is fair and just, that enables the rank and file to busy themselves with the pastoral work that has to be done. When there is cronyism, politics, skullduggery and intrigue among the clergy (upper and lower), then the zeal can be robbed from those who find it distasteful and inappropriate. Happiness is the natural object of the human person that is why we seek eternal happiness in the next life. Happiness is like joy. It comes from having inner peace which is tranquility of order. When our will conforms to the Divine Will, there is harmony and peace in our soul and that creates a sense of happiness. Knowing you are doing what the Lord wants you to do makes you happy. But human beings can also bring unhappiness when they distort the truth and when they deny justice to fellow human beings.

A former bishop told me that he loved to get letters of support for his priests since most people only write their bishop when they want to complain about a priest and rarely to compliment him. We have all had the experience of the nasty letter from the irate parishioner who feels mistreated. Whenever a positive letter came in, this bishop made the same effort to call the priest in and share the contents. If more parishioners wrote supportive letters before their pastor got transferred or before he leaves this earth, it might help keep more guys happy on the job.

When you doubt that your efforts have any effect, that there may be no fruit to your labor, it can be discouraging. Hence, I always tell people when I visit other parishes that they need to express their satisfaction from time to time, to their priest and to their bishop. No need to remind them to complain when he is not doing what he is supposed to do, people react immediately and rightfully so. Jesus often gave encouragement and so should all of us.

[...]

Father made some good points here.

Also, in the section I cut out, he talks about bishops and getting priests named “monsignors”.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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22 Responses to Fr. Trigilio: what makes priests happy, what grinds them down, and a suggestion

  1. catholicmidwest says:

    Welcome to the real world, the world of human beings. Group dynamics being what it is, these things are the same everywhere individuals form cooperative enterprises, be they business corporations, schools or churches.

    A word to the wise: You can’t let it get you down; you have to keep the main thing the main thing. Young laypeople learn this too if they’re smart, just like young clerics probably do if they’re smart. Of course, if there is real injustice, you go to human resources, right? But otherwise, you attend to what you do have control over, cooperate about what you don’t have control over, be honest and hopeful about the interface between the two, and pray for the best. That’s life and it ain’t bad in general. It’s how things get done.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    This posting has been forwarded to four of the most influential people I know. The last paragraph is something we should not forget.

  3. basenji says:

    Monsignor?

    The priests in Seattle chose (voted?) to discontinue using that title in the interest of equality or something like that. We need prayers as well as bricks, please.

    ps: Thank you for posting the cut from the article.

  4. keithp says:

    Recetnly, I sent a letter to our Bishop commending the priest of our local EF. Especially expressing my and my wife’s gratitude for this priests authentic and orthodox homilies. I recieved a very fast reply from the Bishop thanking me for my letter.

  5. BaedaBenedictus says:

    The local parish of my Knights of Columbus council got a new pastor last year, and he has been hard at work trying to clean up the heterodoxy and filth left behind. The parish council is insane and so are many parishioners, and our college KofC council is constantly encumbered by the tyrannical and dissenting Catholic Student Association.

    Father has such an uphill battle to clean things up, and he has suffered greatly in the task. Liberal busybodies who have run things for years are complaining like hell to the bishop and trying to raise rebellion. He could easily just sit back and relax and go with the flow. Tonight at our KofC meeting, he gave us a pep talk, telling us that together we will fight for change, come hell or high water, because souls are at stake. After his eloquent speech our whole council erupted in spontaneous applause. We love our priest for his courage, and we will back him up in these trials every step of the way!

    EVERY good and holy priest who has the courage to labor to restore authentic Catholicism in his parish needs a core group of parishioners to love him, support him, and stand shoulder to shoulder with him in the inevitable difficulties to come. Support our priests, and we will, step by step, emerge from this great crisis in the Church.

  6. Fr_Sotelo says:

    I like these words of Father Trigilio: “Priests are happy being priests and doing priestly things, like celebrating the Sacraments, teaching the faith, visiting the sick, and helping parents form their children into Christian men and women.” I agree wholeheartedly.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with what catholicmidwest wrote above. Basically, I understood her counsel to be, “Father, be careful not to exaggerrate your problems. All of us who go into a workplace deal with politics, pettiness, and subterfuge, but you’ve got to keep your chin up and not take it all too seriously, or take yourself too seriously.”

    A priest has to deal with bishops, boards, committees, and “middle management” with a certain prudence and to use catholicmidwest’s words, “attend to what you do have control over, cooperate about what you don’t have control over, be honest and hopeful about the interface between the two, and pray for the best.” Most priests who find themselves in a pickle, or a brawl, with parishioners or “management” honestly admit later on that they could have handled things differently and done better with a little more prudence and maturity. Who was it that called prudence the “queen of the virtues” (or perhaps I’m quoting that wrong).

    And for heaven’s sake, brother clergy, if you get caught up and worried about who sits on what board, you are probably creating a lot of tempests in the teapot of your head. When I find out I have not been elected to boards or positions of influence in my diocese, I yell “God is great!!” That just gives me more time and energy to take care of my parishioners.

  7. Joe in Canada says:

    I love this; thank you Father Z.
    I would like to say to catholicmidwest, that it is NOT the same as the ‘real world’ or the corporate model. A priest gives his whole life to this work, ministry, life. He doesn’t go home to a family after 5 pm, he doesn’t get weekends off, he doesn’t have a ‘real life’ other than his sacramental ministerial life. When he takes his collar off in the evening, he still has a phone ringing, a doorbell chiming, and a parish of souls to occupy his attention. He can’t just hide in a corner and do his job and hope for the best. Or rather, he can, but it will only be lifegiving in two circumstances. One is if he is gifted with heroic virtue (hence the need priests have for you to pray for them). The other is if his Bishop is looking after him like a father would look after his son, or a shepherd one of his sheep. A priest who is worked to death and not supported by the ‘office’ might go to heaven, but woe to him who was giving the overseeing.

    As a Religious priest I am in awe of the secular priests who do not have the community support I have. I am also aware that maybe God gave me my Religious vocation because I was too weak to be a secular Priest.

  8. KevinSymonds says:

    God bless this priest.

    I must say though that he was a bit inconsistent in his post’s terminology with his point. He comes down against “corporate” models and yet speaks in terms of the priesthood as a “job.” Similar terminology is employed in this way that undermines his argument.

    Otherwise, I have to say this was a very impressive article and I enjoyed it INFINITELY more than the above observation may relay.

    -KJS

  9. Midwest Girl says:

    While I understand the distinctly different role between priests and lay parish staff, many of these same principles could be applied to parish staff as well.

    While parish staff doesn’t take a vow to the Church, we give up larger salaries, better working hours, and more family-friendly lifestyles.

    Many times, we simply carry out the priest’s vision for the parish. Simple thank yous and appreciation for our sacrifices go a long way.

  10. irishgirl says:

    Great post from Father Trigilio! Bravo!
    He’s another of those priests who ‘tells it like it is’!
    And so are you, Father Z!
    Thank you both for your priestly service! We love and appreciate you!

  11. Vincenzo says:

    “Excerpts from dispute between bishop, suspended priest”
    http://www.goerie.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2003106300344

  12. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Vincenzo:

    It should be noted that Fr. Trigilio, in the article you cited, was not suspended from conferring sacraments in his diocese, by his bishop. Rather, it was a bishop in a neighboring diocese (Erie) who became angry with Fr. Trigilio. And in fairness to the Bishop of Erie, he thought that Fr. Trigilio had publicly attacked his seminary, something which would enrage any bishop.

    And returning to the subject of priestly prudence, it is not rocket science that the criticizing of a bishop’s seminary, publicly, is unspeakable among the clergy. If I, as a priest, wish to enrage and get on the “suspension” list of any bishop, all I need to do is publicly attack his seminary. To be fair to Fr. Trigilio, it was not his intention to attack the seminary of the diocese of Erie. However, the bishop of Erie took it that way, unfortunately.

    If a priest feels a need to make public statements against the institution of a diocese, that is fine. But then he needs to accept the consequences. Does it make sense to you for someone to stike a sleeping dog, and then to cry out “unfair!” when the dog wakes up and bites? I myself have gotten in trouble for putting my mouth in motion before my brain was in gear before the authorities of the Church. It stings to get slapped down, but it also taught me to be careful: let sleeping dogs lie, choose your battles carefully, and always be prepared to accept the consequences.

  13. Joseph-Mary says:

    Of course we have recently read of the elderly priest chastised and removed in Canada for preaching the truth. And also the priest in El Paso who was banished hundreds of miles out in the middle of West Texas. So that junk is still happening where faithful priests are punished by bishops for being faithful.

    Fortunately I live in the Archdiocese of Denver and especially our young priests coming out of our two seminaries are very orthodox. Our last liberal bastion in town jsut received two faithful priests. Yes, there are howls because the heterodox former ex-priests who still held sway are no longer ‘teaching’ there and the liberal element that has run things for years is doing all it can to attack the new pastor even to stealing things, breaking things, and various lies. But the apostolic administrator says the new pastor is a hero to him so I don’t think the old guard will be successful this time.

    May all dioceses get HOLY, FAITHFUL, ORTHODOX shepherds to turn things around.

  14. Mark R says:

    Really, I wonder if most of the commenters really read this. The orthodoxy/heterodoxy point is moot when politicking is the m.o.

  15. dominic1955 says:

    That someone like Fr. Trigilio had the whole suspension kerfluffle for saying something that any orthodox former or present seminarian could probably say, “Ha, pretty much…” to while all sorts of rank heresy and scandal is being preached and printed pretty much proves his point.

    Its a pretty open “secret” that many (if not most!) diocesan seminaries were just awful places, and even today are far, far from perfect. Generally speaking, they are at least not as “lavender”. Any seminary that isn’t working to churn out a crack officer corps for the Restoration is failing pathetically. If a bishop has such a failing institution in his diocese, he needs to close it or completely clean house. The great Raymond Cardinal Burke tried to do just such a thing before he was unfortunately (or fortunately, depends how you look at it) moved to Rome.

  16. Gail F says:

    “When the human element of the Church is fair and just, that enables the rank and file to busy themselves with the pastoral work that has to be done. When there is cronyism, politics, skullduggery and intrigue among the clergy (upper and lower), then the zeal can be robbed from those who find it distasteful and inappropriate.”

    The good news: A diocese’s office is just like anyone else’s. The bad new: A diocese’s office is just like anyone else’s. When people run things well, all is great. When people run things poorly, everything stinks. A model or a plan or a program is only as good as the people following it; leadership and character makes all the difference.

  17. I have a feeling that a lot of stories by “survivors” like Father Trigilio are going to emerge in the next few years, emboldened by a change in ecclesiastical climate. Those bishops of the ancien regime are going to trip all over themselves throwing one procedural curve ball after another, but the truth will be known in the end, and “those who hunger for justice shall have their fill.”

    Just sit back, everybody, and let karma do the rest. (sigh!)

  18. leonugent2005 says:

    GailF has it right…The good news: A diocese’s office is just like anyone else’s. The bad new: A diocese’s office is just like anyone else’s. One difference however is that a priest never has to go home and tell his wife and 6 children that he has just been fired and they have no more income.

  19. Fr_Sotelo says:

    I have found, working in the church, that human nature is human nature. Liberal bishops, traditional bishops, those who preach the spirit of Vatican II, and those who preach the good ‘ol time religion, all have the effects of original sin. Covering up for the errors of the seminary, and priestly formation, has always been a defect of the “institution.” It did not start with the spirit of Vatican II and the liberals and hippies.

    Even a reform of the post-Vatican II era ways will not solve every problem of seminary formation. A very traditional bishop, from the standpoint of pride and protecting what is his, can also lawyer and politic his way out of questions and concerns regarding his seminary, no less so than his “liberal” confreres. I say this because I worry about the perception that “when the traditional clergy” have power, that the institutions of the Church will arrive to a golden age.

    And so we priests, who suffered in the seminaries of “Amchurch” or the “Novus Ordo religion” for being orthodox, have to be honest with people, to talk about what we went through. But at the same time, it is what it is (or it was what it was). God used those trials to challenge us to be brave, to be faithful, and to endure patient long suffering–I would say qualities that are not bad for a priest who wants to persevere in his vows, no?

    Now that I am ordained, I will tell people about the honest problems of my formation, but I will also qualify that I was still a very imperfect candidate, and still had to be molded and formed, and am still being whipped into shape by the good Lord. So, I benefitted from my formation, with all of its defects, because it prepared me very well for the many problems of the post-Vatican era parish life. I can whine and complain about past suffering as a seminarian, and dwell on that like my life is an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, or I can now help my parishioners to love Our Lord and be faithful to the Church, drawing from my past experiences.

    It is nice for the parishioners to feel sorry for us, and let us cry on their shoulders about problems in the Church, past and present. But I think it is nicer to draw on the experience of suffering for the Faith, and the wisdom of our Tradition to help the parishioners reach perfection in the midst of their problems (which are usually more serious than what seminarians and priests have to deal with).

  20. leonugent2005 says:

    Father Sotelo I love this statement:……. I say this because I worry about the perception that “when the traditional clergy” have power, that the institutions of the Church will arrive to a golden age.”
    I sit in the very back pew right next to the door of my church. When mass is over I slip out quietly so that I don’t get in the way of anyone exercising their POWER. I find it works best this way

  21. timelord says:

    First of all, I personally know MANY good, devout, and holy Monsignors and Papal Knights and applaud them being recognized for their gifts, talents and accomplishments. This is not a matter of professional jealousy. It is not a matter of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ but one of propriety. Honors are supposed to encourage good behavior, not be a political favor doled out to the crew. The MAJORITY of clergy (deacons, priests and bishops) are GOOD and are HAPPY doing what they’re doing and HAPPY being what they are, ORDAINED. So no one is seeking a pity party. Sympathy should be saved for the truly needy, like the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the sick and the dying. Don’t feel sorry for priests but PRAY FOR US more than ever before. FRATERNITY among brother priests and deacons (as we strive among the memebers of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy) is sadly not always present in every place. Many dioceses and rectories have it, others do not. When sacred ordained ministry is reduced to managerial custodialism, i.e., maintaining the parish plant rather than saving souls, that can tarnish priestly zeal. When the corporate business model is embraced as the primary paradigm instead of the the familial model, then dioceses and parishes alike become branch offices rather than communities of faith. All we priests (and deacons) want is to feel as if we are truly spiritual brothers (fraternity) and are spiritual sons of our father, the bishop. That familial model is the one that produces the most and best fruit. The business model may be practical but it does not save souls. A wise professor from minor seminary days once told me, treat others like adults, and they will act like adults; treat them like ignorant children and they will act like ignorant children. He therefore treated us not as high school boys but as young men discerning a vocation. Likewise, fatherly bishops get more out of their priests and deacons than would corporate executives and junior vice presidents. Dads KNOW their sons, LOVE their sons and SACRIFICE for them. When clergy see each other as brothers and are treated as mature sons rather than hired employees, then everyone benefits.

    (Fr. John Trigilio)