What Catholics Need Now: A Letter to Our Priests and Bishops

To Our Spiritual Fathers,

Please forgive the public nature of this letter. In a sense, it goes against my personal rule of not criticizing priests or bishops in print. But only in a sense.

You see, this letter isn’t meant as criticism, although I know some will take it that way. It’s more a cry for help, a plea or a prayer. After the Supreme Court rulings on marriage, I don’t know what else to do. Or where else to go. So I’m coming to you, here, in the only way I know how.

Let me begin by telling you a little about myself. I’m not a perfect Catholic. But I am a faithful Catholic. I love the Church. I trust her and believe in her teachings. I’m also trying my hardest to follow those teachings—every last one—regardless of the cost.

I’m also trying to be the type of witness the Church calls me to be. I strive to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. I talk about Jesus without shame or fear in coffee shops, dressing rooms, and airports. I defend the Church when people attack her or misrepresent her. And I try to do it all in a way that’s charming, engaging, relevant, and accessible. That’s not to say I always succeed. But I am doing my best to show the world the joy, love, peace, beauty, and life I’ve found in Christ and his Church.

So, why am I writing you?

Because I need your help.

Again, I’m trying so very hard to do what the Church asks me to do and call this culture back to Christ. So many of us are trying. But it’s not enough. Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions, while not a surprise, confirmed that.

I know as a Catholic layperson I’ve got to step up my game. And I’m willing to do that. Again, whatever the cost.

But you’ve got to step up your game too.

By that I mean no disrespect. As priests and bishops you bear a tremendous burden. I don’t envy you that, and I know many of you are carrying that burden heroically.

But many of you aren’t. You’ve been weak. You’ve been cowardly. You’ve made compromises and led people astray. Souls are perishing because of that. A culture is perishing because of that. And it’s got to stop. You have been ordained as priests of God Most High, Christ’s representatives on earth. You’ve got to act like it. We don’t just need our spiritual fathers standing shoulder to shoulder with us in this fight for souls. We need you leading us into the breach.

As for how you do that, it’s not complicated.

1. Preach the Faith.

On Sundays, don’t tell me to be nice; tell me to be holy. Don’t tell me to trust God; tell me who God is. Don’t even tell me to be faithful; tell me what faithful means. Explain holiness. Explain sin. Be specific. Preach on what lust, gluttony, selfishness, laziness, pride, anger, and vanity are, why they’re bad for me, and how to avoid them. Preach the Creed. Preach the saints. Preach the story of salvation history. And preach it in all its fullness.

While you’re at it, let go of this idea that homilies are a separate thing from catechesis. They can’t be separate right now. The majority of Catholics sitting in the pews on Sunday don’t know the basics of the Faith. And the only place most will learn them is from a homily. Don’t waste your precious 10 minutes in front of a semi-captive audience repeating fluff we can get from Oprah. Use the Scriptures to illuminate Tradition, not obscure it.

Outside the homily, invest in catechesis. Hire DREs who believe, know, and can teach the Faith. Pay them a family wage so they don’t leave after three years. Invest in your volunteer catechists too. Help them get the training they need. Then, get involved in catechesis yourself. Talk to the kids. Teach RCIA. The more you let people know how important you think catechesis is, the more important they will think it is.

2. Use Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law

In other words, stop playing nice with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Deny them Communion. Their sin is grave, public, and persistent. And until they have publicly repented of that grave, public, and persistent sin, allowing them to receive the Eucharist is not only a source of scandal to the faithful, it’s a source of confusion to the faithful. It communicates to us that it’s okay to support abortion rights, same-sex marriage, contraception, no fault divorce, and other serious sins. It also communicates to us that it’s okay to vote for politicians who support the same. And it’s not.

I understand, in not enforcing Canon 915, you have been trying to not burn bridges. You’ve been trying to deal with the matter privately. But it’s not working. It’s actually failing abysmally. Admit defeat. Then change course. It’s the most loving thing to do for everyone, Nancy Pelosi included.

3. Clean House

There is room in the Church for everyone. We should welcome saints and sinners alike. But when it comes to our dioceses, parishes, and schools, we need people who actually believe what the Church teaches in positions of leadership. Open dissent on contraception, homosexuality, the all-male priesthood, and more is a poorly kept secret in countless schools and chanceries. It’s less common than it used to be, but it’s there. Even in “good” dioceses. Spend a year working for the Church and you’ll figure that out right quick.

Not surprisingly, that lack of fidelity is impeding both the flow of grace and the quality of catechesis in our parishes and schools. People cannot teach what they don’t believe. And until that changes, the New Evangelization will do nothing more than limp along.

Change won’t be easy. Uncomfortable discussions will have to take place. Feelings will get hurt. Jobs will be lost. Lawsuits will be filed. But that’s still better than a whole culture going to Hell and your own personal swimming match with a millstone.

4. Give Us Beauty

As Catholics, we believe that “the body expresses the person.” That’s true for each of us, and it’s true for the Body of Christ. The physical stuff of the Faith—the smells, bells, and buildings—express the soul of the Faith—her doctrines, dogmas, and disciplines.

At least, it should express the soul. The Church’s liturgy and architecture should reveal a richness of beauty and belief that robs the gruel fed to us by the culture of all its appeal. It should move us to love God and neighbor more. It should make us long for Heaven. It should make us sorry for our sins.

The music of Marty Haugen and Dan Schutte doesn’t do that. Hastily and haphazardly performed rites don’t do that. Pedestrian speech, liturgical puppets, and felt banners don’t do it either. If you want Catholics to see the beauty of the Faith, you have to show it to us. You have to make it manifest in Church on Sunday. You have to give us something extraordinary to help us realize we’re called to something extraordinary. Feed us with beauty and truth; goodness will follow.

5. Prepare for Persecution

No matter how diligently you work, no matter how faithful you are, things will likely get much worse before they get better. Hard times are ahead, and you, our fathers, have to be ready for battle. You have to be ready to give your life not just figuratively, but literally.

Communicate that to our priests in training. Get them ready. Teach them to fast and go without. Get rid of the well stocked bars in seminary lounges. Teach them also to serve. Tell the families who invite the seminarians over for dinner that it’s seminary policy for the young men to do the dishes afterwards. And teach by example. Keep your tastes simple and your expenses minimal. Look to Pope Francis to see how it’s done.

Whatever you do, in all things, help young priests and seminarians understand that the era of comfortable Catholicism has come to an end. A new era is dawning, an era where priests will be hated and reviled, mocked, and perhaps martyred. This is a time for heroes, a time for saints, a time for greatness. Make priests for our time. Be a priest for time.

Again, I know many of you already do all these things and more. There are heroes at our altars already. But we need more heroes. We need all our spiritual fathers to do what you were ordained to do. Do it and I promise you, you won’t be alone. Your children will be standing behind you, following you, helping you, dying with you.

Just lead us where Christ calls, and we will follow, right to the very end.

With love, gratitude, and prayers,
Emily Stimpson

Martyrdom

 

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151 thoughts on “What Catholics Need Now: A Letter to Our Priests and Bishops

  1. Victoria says:

    This was much needed. I wish more priests embraced the points made in this article. Thank you.

  2. Bill Russell says:

    So many good points here. Equally, , the clergy might want to ask (and according to evangelical counsels are obliged to ask) whether or not the laity who counsel austerity actually tithe?

    1. Are you asking me personally, Bill? If so, yes. And then some.

  3. Wilson Patterfield says:

    Apologies if the earlier comment was a little dyspeptic. It’s an issue that hits home, and I’m inclined to defend my brother seminarians who get the cynical eye despite living the spirit of poverty and serious prayer. I’ll reiterate that I share the intuition and reaction against clerical opulence. I too get that sick feeling if I sense clergy living high on the hog, though the perception is relatively rare. My reaction is to think they’ve done nothing to deserve their luxury–a reaction I don’t have in equal measure toward, say, business executives who dine lavishly and own three yachts, but do so with money they’ve earned through their own free enterprise. I’m particularly uncomfortable with priests who own vacation homes.

    That said, there’s an important distinction between luxury and practical necessity. By that I mean practical necessities which are useful to solid formation, but which are no doubt considered luxuries by the poor–like free access to a gym, a student lounge, room/board, owning a laptop, and not paying utility bills. Could you define what you mean by “wining and dining?” If you mean that seminarians should not be groomed for the job, then yes, of course you’re right. There’s nothing more cognitively dissonant than convincing a man to give his life to Christ by enticing him with a bachelor lifestyle. But if you mean that seminarians should eat only Ramen and go without formation-relevant resources, then your critique is much more broadly applicable than just to diocesan seminarians–I’ve never run across a group of Franciscans, say, that doesn’t have good food on hand, a place to exercise, and a modern way of communicating and doing academic work. Dining out per se is not unreasonable for a priest every so often. There are many reasons a priest might do so, first among them being to meet his friends or parishioners socially. Second among them might be the lack of ability or time to cook for himself. They should take care not to spend great amounts of time or money at restaurants, but remember that prudence, not ethical absolutes, govern these kinds of decisions.

    As for the NAC, there’s a serious ethical problem with dealing in rumors. To say there is a “terrible problem” of luxury at the NAC is cavalier, and to say NAC students are used to “the best” is patently unfair, and certainly malinformed. NAC alums make up a tiny fraction of US priests, and certainly don’t fill every chancery. I’m a NAC student, and my peers continually wow me by demonstrating what it means to be Christian. With few exceptions, they care for little except serving Christ, and would gladly give up any of the consolations of being in Rome in order to do so. Many wished to remain in the US, but came at first only out of obedience; it’s naive to think that coming to Rome has an automatic worldly allure. I’ve heard negative opinions of the NAC before (everyone and their brother seems to have one!) and I most often find they come from disaffected alumni from the 80s and 90s. Things have improved in seminaries worldwide since then. The early attrition rate during those years is tragic, but has improved. Even then, it was not just one factor (living in a city as culturally rich as Rome) that led to it. It’s much more complex than that.

    If a newly ordained priest finds himself surprised or repulsed by the grind of parish life, it says something sorry about his character and expectations, not to mention the poor assessment of them by his formators. But that’s an issue of immaturity and underdeveloped character. This can, in part, be attributed to many seminarians’ lack of exposure to the world before entering seminaries. Those who hold secular careers for a few years before entering seminaries rarely, if ever, have this problem.

    To boot, many Roman seminarians live more simply than their American seminarians, in part because of the EU exchange rate, and in part in the absence of the riches we take for granted in America, which make many countries look like the third world in comparison. I find NAC guys to be rigorous about work and prayer (some starting their holy hour at 5am) and good custodians of their freedom. It’s a privilege to live in Rome, but we don’t own it. Everything is a gift, everything is temporary, and everything is ordered toward formation. There’s no budget for eating out, since that seems to be a sticking point in this discussion. Italian food is superb, but not something any seminarian can afford to have regularly outside the cafeteria. The number of NAC seminarians who own iPhones can be counted on a single hand. Many don’t have cellular phones at all. And I’ve never heard of these mysterious monetary gifts you mention from adoring lay fans. I for one would put it to use buying ever-helpful theology texts.

    There is, as you suggest, a bit of painful irony in all this. One can feel pangs of guilt when wandering into St. Peter’s on a lark, while others save up cash for years for the chance to visit it just once, and must do so while severely jet-lagged. US seminarians might feel they’re living the good life by having most meals cooked for them, and a roof provided for little or no tuition. Still more, what of my classmates from Zambia who live and study in Rome, living in relative luxury compared to their impoverished compatriots? The solution isn’t to adopt the Carthusian rule, to which God only calls a few. These problems are intractable at the practical level, and have instead a primarily interior solution: the realization that everything earthly passes away, and gratitude for the undeserved education the Church offers her priests.

  4. Judy Watson says:

    Thank you, Emily! Your letter hit every point that we in the pews would like our priests and bishops to improve upon. The reason we are where we are is largely because of what has come from the pulpit, or rather hasn’t come from the pulpit. thank you!

  5. Wilson Patterfield says:

    I’m a seminarian in my second year of theology, and while I’m not one to claim offense for polemical reasons, I took some umbrage with your examples of excess in seminarian/priestly life. I’ll grand this: The priesthood is sacrificial per se, and creature comforts should not be indulged as a way of trying to fill the void left by the sacrifice. Priests shouldn’t feel sorry for themselves for being celibate and, for instance, excuse their overeating or overusing alcohol because of the prior sacrifice. That’s not spiritually Kosher at all, and betrays a certain lack of self-knowledge and faith.

    But I’m not at all keen on the reference to “well-stocked bars in seminary lounges” and the bit about mandatory dishwashing when invited to dinner. Perhaps you meant them as token examples, but they still have an edge.

    It might be nice gesture to offer to help with dishes or some such, but it might also be an imposition, or come off as forced. A seminarian should follow the same courtesy protocols anyone else would in such cases, rather than assume a special set of rules attached to his state of life. And I’m not sure what it means for a bar to be well-stocked, but if well-stocked means having an adequate supply of beer and wine (which we pay for, of course) so seminarians can relax every so often, it should offend no one’s sensibilities. Seminarians and priests are not called to be recluses, and we need social outlets just like everyone else does, and for precisely the same reasons. Sometimes I think my fellow Catholics want seminarians to be peculiar or asocial so they can assure themselves that serious ecclesial life is just for ordinaries and religious. Others keep priesthood at arm’s length by chalking up all clerical vocations to eccentricity. I’m not terribly enthused about becoming an eccentric, so I think I’ll continue to enjoy the fraternal company of my seminarian classmates and my larger group of friends, and not try to be such a gloomy saint.

    There’s also something a bit strange about being told to make a sacrifice. I make sacrifices because I choose to and because I’m given the grace to–not because I’m told to. They’re always free choices.

    1. Wilson, Those were as you mentioned, just suggestions meant to evoke the general principle. Each seminary rector will, of course, know what’s best for his seminarians. The need for greater austerity in seminaries, however, isn’t about making seminarians odd. The fact is, the seminaries with the greatest percentage of “lost vocations” (priests leaving the priesthood within the first several years) are the ones where the seminarians are wined and dined the most. The NAC has a terrible problem with this in particular. As it’s been explained to me by seminarian/priest friends, the adjustment to the daily grind of parish life is incredibly hard for those who during their time in seminary, have been overly indulged by well meaning souls. Others who know they’re having discernment issues don’t feel free to address them head on because they feel so obliged to the people who are being so generous with gifts and money. There are lots of good seminarians and priests who aren’t affected by this problem, but the numbers of new ordinands exiting within five years is a serious problem. You also have the problem, later on, of the lifestyle led by the ordained chancery staff. In the major diocese near me, the bishop and priests in the chancery regularly eat out at restaurants the lay staff and most parishioners could never dream of affording. Again, most went through the NAC and just became accustomed to “the best.” But to diocesan employees struggling to make ends meet, it’s a serious source of discouragement and frustration. They feel as if the bishop and his priests don’t understand the financial realities of their lives or the sacrifices they make to serve the Church and (if they’re married) remain open to life. Honestly, in that section to which you’re referring, I was just repeating what many of my closest priest friends have said to me about what would have been helpful for them.

      1. I’m glad your experience at the NAC has been different than my friends, many of whom have actually been there in the past several years. But I’m not dealing in rumors. I’m repeating what I’ve been told by NAC seminarians, priests who attended there, and three separate seminary rectors (good seminaries,not bad ones). They have a problem with attrition. So do all seminaries, of course, but the NAC seems to have a particular one. I do agree with you, however, that older vocations who’ve worked in the world seem to adjust better to parish life. Please try to understand that I’m not disputing your experience. I’m glad it has been what it is. That may even be the majority of people’s experience. But there are still many having a different experience. And I don’t base this on innuendo either, but on having interviewed countless, priests, seminarians, rectors, and chancery staff over the past decade as a national Catholic journalist, not to mention hearing it in private conversations with numerous priest friends. In the end, I don’t believe you and I are in fundamental disagreement. I’m not saying priests have to live like hermits and you don’t think they should live like multi-millionaires. A bit more austerity and toughening up isn’t going to hurt anyone and it’s likely to help quite a few.

  6. Maria says:

    I’d add one more to that list – approach your parishioners, talk to us, especially those of us who are alone or you don’t recognize.

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