By Fr. Thom Hennen
There was a day in the not too distant past when we had a number of diocesan priests working in full-time high school ministry, teaching in various disciplines at our diocesan university (St. Ambrose in Davenport); when we had more priests engaged in full-time college campus ministry, working as chaplains in our hospitals and prisons, and working in a variety of other specialized ministries. As our numbers have diminished, it seems that priests have had to “fall back” to their original lines, the parishes. While I completely understand this, as most people’s experience of the Church is through their parish, I can’t help but feel like we’ve lost something.
When it comes to school ministry in particular, my own perspective on this has changed dramatically in the last few months. In August, in addition to my duties as vocations director, I started teaching part-time at Assumption High School in Davenport. I teach senior religion a few days a week and have the juniors one afternoon a week as well.
I have found this new ministry to be both very challenging and very rewarding. I understand now why many teachers call it, borrowing from the old Peace Corps slogan, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” It has also reawakened in me a sense of how important it is for there to be some priestly, diaconal and religious presence in our Catholic schools and universities. I used to be of the mind that because of the primary needs of parishes we simply couldn’t afford to have priests in our schools and universities. Now I am wondering if we can afford not to.
I understand, of course, that we won’t simply be able go back to those days and pull priests from parishes to staff these ministries. If we’re going to make this work, we will have to be creative. In my own case, it worked out that I could teach at Assumption because it happens to be right next door to where I work at the diocesan offices. I was also fortunate to be able to hire a part-time assistant in the Office of Vocations. Of course, it also didn’t hurt that the first semester senior religion curriculum covers moral theology (which is what my licentiate degree is in) and the second semester curriculum covers vocations.
I am encouraged by the solution Holy Trinity Catholic Schools in Fort Madison came up with to increase the presence of their priests at their schools. Four of the local pastors (Father David Wilkening, Father Mark Spring, Father Dennis Hoffman and Father Bruce DeRammelaere) take turns covering sections of the senior religion curriculum. Of course, there are other models as well. During my first assignment, at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton, my pastor (Father Tony Herold) and I established a regular rotation for classroom visits at the school. I know that Father Corey Close teaches on a weekly basis at Prince of Peace Catholic School. So there are ways.
Of course, the other piece of this is playing to the strengths of our priests, deacons and religious. Not everyone has the same gifts, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s what makes the Church so beautiful. But parish priests seem to be asked to do and to be more and more for their people. For the most part they respond with generous hearts, sometimes to their detriment. They are asked to be part orator, part counselor, part business manager, part human resources manager, part teacher, part youth minister, part hospital chaplain, etc. Frankly, no one priest is equally good at all of that.
I have always loved St. Paul’s statement, “I have become all things to all, to save at least some” (1 Cor 9:22b). I think I understand what he’s getting at and I try to live it but, let’s face it, even Paul wasn’t good at everything. The pressure to be good at an ever-growing list of tasks and ministries has undoubtedly led to the stress, discouragement and poor health (both mental and physical) of many priests.
To quote Bilbo Baggins, we start to feel “thin … like butter scraped over too much bread.” At the same time, there is nothing more life-giving in the ministry of priests than to do what we feel we were called to do, what we’re good at, and what we love.
I invite you to pray and work with me for a day when we will have enough priests, deacons and religious Sisters and Brothers to meet the needs of the people, while at the same time being able to call forth the particular gifts that each one brings and focus them for the greatest good.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)