On Saturday, June 9, it was my privilege to ordain 10 men to the priesthood for service here in the Archdiocese of Portland. It was a great day for the people of western Oregon. Before imposing hands on each one, I asked them, “Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as worthy ready fellow workers with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?”  Together they all answered, “I do.” Then in presenting to the newly ordained priests the chalice for Eucharist, I said, “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”  

Ordination rituals are inspirational moments, not only for those receiving the sacrament, but for all who gather to invoke the Holy Spirit on behalf of those to be ordained.  Ten new priests is a significant achievement for any archdiocese, especially this one. Last fall I was thinking we might very well have an abundance of priests to serve across western Oregon. I was even hoping to add a priest or two to some of the parishes who could use more priestly help. But it didn’t turn out that way. Looking to the future needs of the church, it was important to release two priests for work at Mount Angel Seminary and also to assign three priests for graduate studies in theology and canon law. I have second guessed myself about those decisions in meetings with the Priests’ Personnel Board, particularly because of the pressing needs in the parishes, but I cannot be selfish and think only of today. We need to serve the future as well.
On June 1, I met with our Seminary Admissions Board.  We accepted six men as seminarians for the Archdiocese of Portland. A couple more are completing their application process and hopefully will also be accepted for priestly formation. Eight new seminarians might have looked good a few years ago. Even with 10 ordinations this year, we are still in need of more.  But we should still have some 40 men in priestly formation next year, a very good number, one that requires on-going support, encouragement and direction.

You will also note that there are many appointments for priests of this archdiocese, beginning July 2. Father Don Buxman, our new Vicar for Clergy, has really been handling this process masterfully over the past several months, visiting parishes, interviewing priests and meeting with the Personnel Board and me. We are grateful to the Franciscans who are taking over St. John the Baptist Church in Milwaukie. That is a great assist since we are losing the Society of Pilar which had accepted that parish just a few years ago. Even the Pope stole one of our priests when he appointed Bishop Liam Cary to serve as the chief shepherd of our neighbors to the east in the Diocese of Baker City. A number of priests are being assigned to head a parish for the first time. This will require great cooperation from the pastoral staffs as well as the support and collaboration of parishioners, particularly members of the pastoral and finance councils of each parish. As I look back on my own life and ministry in the priesthood, I am grateful that I did not have to accept the burden of leadership until I was 18 years ordained. Our young priests no longer have such a luxury. But most of them don’t seem to mind taking charge. They will learn!

Last month I began reading a new book that came across my desk entitled Same Call, Different Men. The book attempts to describe the evolution of the priesthood since Vatican II. Its contents are essentially based on a 2009 study of the priesthood, including changes, satisfaction and challenges in priestly life and ministry. It also discussed the way priests collaborate with other pastoral ministers, the multicultural reality of priestly ministry today, the effects of the sexual abuse scandal on priests and a look to the future about what may very well be encouraging the next generation of priests. This was not the first professional study undertaken about the American Catholic priesthood. The first one goes back to the year 1970 when the number of priests in the United States was greater.

The study reports that there is general satisfaction among ordained priests here in our country in their priestly life and ministry.  Even with a lot of challenges, struggles and scandals, priests are by and large a happy lot. When asked if they had a choice again about entering the priesthood, 76 percent responded that they definitely would and 19 percent said probably they would. The chief sources of satisfaction are joy in administering the sacraments and presiding over the liturgy, preaching the word of God and being part of a community of Christians working together to share the Good News of the gospel.  

The study also highlighted some of the challenges priests find in their life and ministry.  Three in 10 priests say that “the way authority is exercised in the church” is a “great” problem for them in their daily lives. Nearly two-thirds say it’s at least “somewhat” of a problem. But priests aren’t much different from the people in the pews.  Two other common problems cited by more than half of the priests are the shortage of available priests and the difficulty of really reaching people today. Fifty-nine percent of the priests say they receive “little or no” support from their bishop and 68 percent say they have “very little” confidence in the diocesan bishop. Those are bad marks and they hurt, but they cannot be ignored.  

One of the tragic effects of the sexual abuse scandal is the formidable wall of mistrust between priests and their bishop which impedes the fraternal support and mutual cooperation so essential in ministry today.  Lay Catholics are outraged about the harm that clergy sexual abuse has caused victims and about the failure of the hierarchy in responding to the problem. Priests feel much the same way.

Another challenge is experienced through the many unrealistic demands and expectations of parishioners.  Priests cited the fact that so many people seem to want them to be available for one-on-one ministry when their numbers are not what they used to be. In addition, when a priest must serve more than one parish, making decisions about how the priest’s time will be shared and how the Masses will be scheduled often becomes a cause for discontent on the part of the people. Some of our priests have experienced that kind of anguish and frustration.   

In other words, my friends, priesthood is a multifaceted reality in the life of the church today.  It clearly brings much satisfaction and joy to the lives of the men who are graced with the sacrament of Holy Orders. It also brings multiple challenges. Yes, the call to priesthood is much the same but the men are different because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Priests tend to be older, come from a greater diversity of national, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and those of the Vatican II generation are burdened with painful memories of struggles that the millennials consider ancient history.  

With the help of God’s grace and the support of our people, I assure you that the priests of this archdiocese are intent upon being faithful to their call to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who came not to be served but to serve, to seek out and save what was lost.  Now, more than ever, I ask you to pray for our priests.