Fr. Peter Daly
May 17, 2006
This spring I celebrate my 20th year as a parish priest. In the words of the hymn, “I’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”
The anniversary made me wonder what has happened to my seminary class over the past two decades.
Our class photo shows 37 men upon our arrival at the seminary in Rome in 1982. Two more joined our class along the way, bringing our total to 39. Four years later, on the day of our ordination as deacons, there were 21 men in the class. Forty-five percent of the class left the seminary in four years.
This is no cause for lamentation. Attrition during the seminary years is to be expected. Discernment is part of the purpose of seminary formation. Some men rightly decided that being a priest was not for them.
In the 20 years since ordination another 8 have left the priesthood. More than a third of the 21 ordained in 1986 have chosen to serve God in other ways.
The experience of my class is fairly typical, not just for Catholic priests, but for many people who enter ministry. In my experience, Protestant clergy also have a high attrition rate.
Why? There are as many reasons as there are people. For many in the Catholic priesthood, celibacy is certainly an issue. For others it was loneliness. For some it is faith.
But, I wonder if there isn’t a disconnect between the life of the seminary (in all denominations) and the life of parish ministry.
I often find myself saying, “They never told me anything about this in the seminary.” Most of our time in the seminary was spent reading books and taking exams. When we were not in class, we were in prayer. You would think that we were being prepared to be scholars or monks.
No one ever trained us to do weddings, baptizing babies or celebrating funerals. . No one ever mentioned administration, social action, or counseling the mentally ill or addicts.
Of course, no program could really prepare you for everything encountered in priesthood. Certainly no one could have predicted the turbulence of the priesthood in the last few years, especially the bruising we took in the recent scandals. .
But there does seem to be a conflict between the motivation that draws people into seminary and the motivation that keeps them in ministry.
Many of the men in my class were reflective types. We wanted to study theology. We had questions about our own spiritual lives. We wanted to know more about our faith and more about God. We wanted to know how to pray. In other words we wanted a kind of extended retreat with classes.
But being a parish priest is not the life of a monk or a scholar. The parish priest is both a man of prayer and a man of action. He needs to be extroverted enough to walk into a room full of strangers and start a conversation and introverted enough to be content with solitude.
Twenty years on, I have no formula for success in priesthood. I wish all my seminary classmates much happiness no matter how they have chosen to serve God and neighbor.
For me the priesthood is both a mystery and a gift. The key is falling passionately in love. In love with the God who calls us to serve and in love with the people He puts in our paths.
Come to think of it, that is not just a key to priesthood; it is a key to life.