Stir into Flame: A Response to the Survey Among Recently Ordained Priests

Saint Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy is particularly encouraging to young priests. Being a young priest, I can relate to Timothy and his vocation to shepherd the people of God in the midst of challenging circumstances. Paul writes to encourage him in his mission of both following Jesus and also shepherding the people of God. Paul tells him, “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have received through the imposition of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6). He says to “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Timothy 1:8).

Paul writes to Timothy, but also to myself and every other young priest immersed in the adventure of the priesthood. He tells us to remember the blessing of our ordination, the sacramental grace that is continually ours. He exhorts us to carry our Cross as our brother priests have throughout the ages and continue to do as the message goes out to all the earth. We all have our Ephesus, our place in the pasture of the Lord where we bring the sheep to the Good Shepherd. This is the great mission of the priest, as Columba Marmion said: “To give Jesus Christ to the world.”1

Reflecting on St. Timothy brought to mind the recent survey carried out by CARA, entitled, “Enter by the Narrow Gate: Satisfaction and Challenges Among Recently Ordained Priests.” Over one thousand priests responded to the survey who were ordained during the years 2011–2018. One of the highlights from the executive summary that stood out to me was that about 20% of priests said that they were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the priesthood.2 About one in twenty indicated that they definitely or probably would not have entered the priesthood if they had the choice again, and the same percentage (5%) express uncertainty as to whether or not they will remain priests in the future.

In his article for Crux, Charles Camosy interviewed Fr. Thomas Berg during National Vocations Awareness Week, and the CARA study was the main topic of conversation.3 Fr. Berg says that seminary formation has been vastly improved over recent decades. Men are being screened well before entering and are receiving solid formation when they enter into seminary. I believe this is true. I attended Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. I will be forever grateful for the formation I received there. I was blessed by the priests, the faculty, my brother seminarians, and the overall formation program. Nothing is perfect. We are still in the vale of tears, but I was richly blessed. I would imagine the majority of those surveyed would feel the same. What leads to the dissatisfaction? How can we combat it? Is part of it due to the “honeymoon” phase being over? Father Berg stresses the need to be attentive to the formation of newly ordained priests. I think this is very important for the Church moving forward.

Young priests are not being ordained at an easy time in the history of the United States. I’m not sure there has ever been an easy time to be a priest, regardless of the period in history or the spot on the globe. But it is undeniable that challenges await. First, we have the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It cannot really be called an aftermath, for we are still in it. Some of the priests in this survey would be sent into parishes as parochial vicar or as pastor where the previous pastor is in prison, or a previous pastor wounded someone in the community. The wounds of this betrayal go deep. The priest is on the front lines of the New Evangelization. This means he is close to the victories, able to see the hand of God work in beautiful ways. May our eyes be open to see it and to trust in it when we do not see it! This also means the bullets come at him. It cannot be assumed that when a priest comes into a parish he will be trusted. That takes time — perhaps more time now than before.

Second, priests in many parts of the country are in dioceses experiencing great institutional decline. Parishes are merged, schools are closed, and administrative tasks are heaped on someone often with little training or assistance in dealing with them. Many priests in this category have had to go into merged parishes, or close schools in their first pastorate. How could this not be challenging and drain one’s strength? There is no immediate end in sight to this either. Over the next few years, many priests will retire. There will be an even greater pastoral burden thrust on priests in the years ahead.

Third, the culture is becoming increasingly hard of hearing to the message of the Gospel, or in more cases, antagonistic to it. The culture has an impact on us whether we like it or not. When we are outside in the cold, we shiver. When we work in the summer sun, we sweat. The environment has an effect. It has an effect on our people, but it also has an effect on us. We find ourselves in the culture of immediacy. We are surrounded by seemingly endless paths to entertainment. The patience required for the mission and our perseverance in prayer and virtue can be easily lost.

How can the Church respond to this? What type of conversion might be called upon by the institutional Church? Many suggestions have been put forward. Parishes may have to merge or Mass times shrink to accommodate the declining number of priests. Special care should be taken when priests are first assigned. A better question to ask than “What parish should I send this priest to?” is “What pastor should accompany this priest in his first years?” The recent Ratio Fundamentalis called for a Vocational Synthesis stage, and this will be brought into the forthcoming sixth edition for the Program for Priestly Formation. This involves a period of at least six months after leaving seminary before the man is ordained a priest. He lives in the parish and gradually becomes accustomed to the clerical life. A greater responsibility is given to the pastor here to help the man integrate and transition into the life of a priest.

I see this as a blessing that will guide priest assignments in the future. Sometimes a bad experience with a pastor can damage a priest’s experience of the priesthood and his reputation for a long time. Undoubtedly, responsibility is often shared, but this could be avoided in some cases by more intentional assignments. Other considerations are important as well. As priests have more pastoral responsibility given, it would be wise to see how their administrative responsibility could be lightened. Moses could not do everything, so he delegated. When it comes to questions of human resources, facilities management, and finances, it will be important to see how direct oversight for these can be lessened. What is essential to the munus regendi? What isn’t? The priest remains shepherd, but there are many things that many pastors have been accustomed to taking care of that perhaps they do not need to.

Furthermore, in the wake of declining clergy, the great temptation to loneliness and self-isolation is at risk of becoming worse. Priests who wish to live together and enjoy some common life should be encouraged to do so, and not only encouraged, but assignments made with this in mind. Sometimes something as simple as evening prayer and a meal with a fellow priest to depend on can work wonders in the life of a priest.

However, the priest is also called to conversion. Not all dissatisfaction in the priesthood comes from pastoral burnout, administrative burdens, or a perceived deafness on the part of the bishop or chancery officials. Young priests must take responsibility for their life by avoiding self-isolation and resisting discouragement. We need to hear Paul tell us, “Stir into flame the gift you have received.” Because we have received a gift. Prayer is essential, and we must always be faithful to it, even when feeling there is nothing to give or God is far. Receive the sacrament of Confession and spiritual direction. Reach out to priests for meals and be part of a priestly fraternity. There should be at least one person in your life with whom you can share graces and challenges. Vulnerability is important. Perhaps Judas would not have betrayed the Lord if he had told one of the brothers about what was going on in him. He did not go right to thirty pieces of silver. There were questions, disappointments, shattered expectations within him. The brothers were there. And no one knew what was going on. Or else they would not have said, “Is it I, Lord?”

We all deal with shattered expectations. Our bishop is not who we expected, our assignment not what we hoped for, our people not as receptive to the Gospel. The humdrum of daily life seems so irrelevant. Does any of it matter? Do not forget the shattered expectation that tends to haunt us far more than any of these, that is, our own brokenness and sin, that tends to become all too evident to us the more responsibility we are given. We are poor. This is beautiful for us to remember. For the Lord hears the cry of the poor; he is close to the brokenhearted.

Jesus bears his greatest fruit through poor priests. Peter and Paul and countless others know this is true. Yet our path to that is not always easy. We can become discouraged, defensive, and envious of those who seem to be more blessed. Within this is a call to trust, and to keep our eyes fixed on the will of God. One of the great books that has informed my life as a priest is Father Walter Ciszek’s He Leadeth Me. If I could sum up the core insight of the book, I would put it this way: “There is never a moment in my life where the will of God is something beyond me.” What else really matters? What else is our call as a priest? Let us remember that God is not elsewhere; he is here.

Many other important questions could be added. However, I believe the development of one goal would greatly increase priestly morale, holiness, and fruitfulness. That is being intentional about developing affection between the bishop and his priests. In Pope Francis’ opening remarks at the symposium organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops titled “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood,” he spoke of the need for closeness: closeness to God, closeness to the bishop, closeness to other priests, closeness to the people.4 I believe the deliberate fostering of this closeness of a bishop with his priests is paramount in fostering priestly happiness and holiness and creating a culture of vocations. The bishop/priest relationship has been severely damaged in recent decades. Some of that is due to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, but I believe much of it is also due to “practical bureaucracy” by both priests and bishops.

By this I do not mean that the priests actually believe that the Church is primarily a bureaucracy, but we can live that way practically in the bishop/priest relationship, just like many believe in God but live a “practical relativism.”5 I began by referencing Paul’s letter to Timothy. In it, he tells Timothy to “stir into flame the gift,” and he tells him to “bear your share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel.” An important question should be asked. Why does Timothy listen? Why does he stir? Why does he bear? To understand that, we must remember that Paul is a father, Timothy is a son, and they have affection for each other. Paul says “My dear child” (2 Timothy 1:2). He says, “I remember you constantly in my prayers, night and day” (2 Timothy 1:3). He says “I yearn to see you again” (2 Timothy 1:4). How many bishops would say this to a priest? Or a priest say this to the bishop? Even if it is not said, it should at least be clear in some way that this is the case. For the Church to flourish, we need affective priests, not just effective priests. This will be a beautiful witness to the world.

I have a memorable experience playing in the Little League All Star Game in my hometown. One of the players committed an error; a ground ball went by him. His dad on the sidelines shouted at him about how awful he was. This player was one of the best in the league, far better than I was. His shoulders shrunk. Even the all-stars need the encouragement of their dads. Sometimes the priests considered “all-stars” by their bishops, the other priests, or the people can fall into a downward spiral if the love they need is not being received. This delight comes first of all from God. The Mass, our daily prayer, places us in the font of life-giving water. The font will never run dry. This is true! May the Lord remind us of it every day. Praying each Mass as if it were our first and last, and being present to each holy hour as if we were meeting the Lord for the first time.

By saying that the Church often operates in an overly bureaucratic way, I do not mean to cast blame on anyone. Most bishops are good priests. There is a reason they were called to serve as bishops. They were called upon by Jesus to take on a cross that most priests and laity cannot fathom. They love Jesus. They love the Church. They love the people. They love their priests. However, too often, the interactions can be too generalized, as in saying to a group of priests at Christmas “I love you”; or it can be too focused on production: how are things going in the parish? Too often individual encounters with a bishop are either bad (there is a problem) or based on giving an assignment (I have another hole to fill and you are the plug). I remember being on the personnel board and one of the priests said in jest something like this: “We covered ourselves for another year.”

It goes without saying that the bishop should tell his priests as a group that he loves them and appreciates them. He must also give them assignments. But it would also be good for him to have coffee with an individual priest, or dinner, in which the context is not simply giving an assignment or offering a correction. What could be talked about? Why did you become a priest? What is your story? How is Jesus at work in your life? What is the Lord telling you in prayer? What inspiration have you drawn from the Scriptures or your theological reading recently? How can I pray for you? What brings joy to your life as a priest? What are your struggles? How is your family doing? These are questions that both could ask each other. Furthermore, lest a priest be tempted to say, “Yes, why doesn’t my bishop do this?” he should instead ask, “Am I open to it? Do I initiate it?” Perhaps it is not always possible with one’s bishop because of the size of the diocese (though this should only delay the frequency rather than never occur), but it could be with another priest such as the vicar general or vicar for clergy who has responsibility toward a priest.

We priests have received this treasure which we carry in earthen vessels. It remains a treasure. St. Paul wants us to take a look at the treasure and let it glimmer for us anew. May the Lord bless us with courage and fidelity in living out this precious gift we received at the imposition of hands. May he stir into flame a peaceful zeal in our hearts, so that we all can be committed to developing a closeness with God, our bishops, our brother priests, and the people entrusted to us by the Father.

  1. Columba Marmion, Christ: The Ideal of the Priest (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 69.
  2. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “Enter by the Narrow Gate: Satisfaction and Challenges among Recently Ordained Priests,” accessed February 17, 2022, cara.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/NACTS.pdf.
  3. Charles C. Camosy, “National Vocations Week and the Problem of ‘Dissatisfied’ Priests,” November 8, 2021, accessed February 17, 2022, cruxnow.com/interviews/2021/11/national-vocations-week-and-the-problem-of-dissatisfied-priests.
  4. Pope Francis, “Faith and the Priesthood Today,” Opening Remarks for the Feb. 17–19 symposium organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops titled, “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood” February 17, 2022, accessed February 17, 2022, www.romereports.com/en/2022/02/17/full-text-pope-francis-speech-on-the-priesthood/.
  5. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Washington, D.C: USCCB, 2013), 80. The Pope says, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary enthusiasm!”
Fr. Andrew LaFramboise About Fr. Andrew LaFramboise

Father Andrew LaFramboise is a priest in the Diocese of Saginaw, MI. He is pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Reese and St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish in Vassar. He serves as the Vocation Director for the Diocese of Saginaw. He attended Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and was ordained a priest in 2014, receiving a MDIV and a STB. He received a Licentiate in Sacred Theology of Marriage and Family (STL) in 2019 from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.

Comments

  1. Avatar Kevin Walters says:

    “Stir into flame the gift you have received.” and we do this when we serve the Truth

    The Truth is a burning fire it looks not at man’s desire
    Popes cower before its denuding power
    Bishops it mocks Priests defrock
    Leaders stand in disarray it’s all relative they say
    But honest, it is not integrity is the loss
    The denial of goodness to make it dark is to lose one’s heart.
    To look into the living flame is to know one’s shame
    To bend one’s knee is to be set free
    The spark to become a flame in every mortal frame.
    We are to become as lamps
    We look within and acknowledge our own sin
    We bow our heads as by the Master we are led
    With cleansing grace, we start to see His face
    The air becomes clear as we relinquish fear
    Love and clarity of thought
    Is what our suffering will have bought
    As we stand by His side His Peace (Spirit), will reside
    We no longer struggle alone as The Holy Spirit accompanies us home
    Before the break of the new day
    Our lamps will light the way.

    So, if I were a Shepherd what would I do
    In trust, a bowl and towel I would bring to you
    A Bondsman to the one above
    To all, this must be truly understood
    In spiritual poverty, we only serve love Truth
    Water with grace to clean your heart feet and face
    As I wash your feet, the Master’s heart I will seek
    Your heart to mine will surely speak
    No one can divide if in the light of the Spirit we reside
    Our opinions are no longer truly our own
    The Word (Will) of God is all we own
    To Bishop on his throne, we will take our towel and bowl
    As we wash his feet, his heart we will seek
    ‘No one hides’ from where Christ truly resides
    Father! with tongue and flame give us unity again.

    I suppose Andrew we all take a different route home to our Father’s house in heaven, but in essence, it is the same, as we all walk in our fallen nature. Sincerity, of heart before His inviolate Word (Will) should induce humility and in doing so ensure that we arrive home safely.

    “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” ― St. Vincent de Paul

    May our given gifts and efforts, whatever they are, be fruitful.
    Sincerely
    Kevin your brother
    In Christ

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  1. […] Young Priests – Being a young priest, I can relate to Timothy and his vocation to shepherd the people of God in the midst of challenging circumstances. Stir into Flame: A Response to the Survey Among Recently Ordained Priests (Homiletic and Pastoral Re… […]

  2. […] Young Priests – Being a young priest, I can relate to Timothy and his vocation to shepherd the people of God in the midst of challenging circumstances. Stir into Flame: A Response to the Survey Among Recently Ordained Priests (Homiletic and Pastoral Re… […]

  3. […] Young Priests – “Young priests are not being ordained at an easy time in the history of the United States. I’m not sure there has ever been an easy time to be a priest, regardless of the period in history or the spot on the globe. But it is undeniable that challenges await.” Stir into Flame: A Response to the Survey Among Recently Ordained Priests (Homiletic and Pastoral Re… […]

  4. […] Young Priests – “Young priests are not being ordained at an easy time in the history of the United States. I’m not sure there has ever been an easy time to be a priest, regardless of the period in history or the spot on the globe. But it is undeniable that challenges await.” Stir into Flame: A Response to the Survey Among Recently Ordained Priests (Homiletic and Pastoral Re… […]

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