The Priest as Minister of Unity and Fraternity
A speech by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of Atlanta Archdiocese to Vietnamese Priests
Emmaus VI Convocation in Atlanta, October 26, 2015

Eventually happens to every priestand usually it occurs rather early in our priestly ministry. I remember the first time it happened to me during one of the first Easter seasons of my Priesthood. I had worked very hard on a homily and had produced what I was personally convinced was truly a masterpiece of oratorical rapture! I had studied, and prayed, and deftly delivered the masterwork. I positioned myself outside of church, almost anticipating the accolades obviously due to my extraordinary efforts. And then I was dumbfounded when one pious soul informed me that he had been offended rather than enlightened by my homiletic efforts!

In my case, the text that formed the focus of my homily that Sunday was Saint Luke’s description in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles of the peace and unity that the ancient Church enjoyed. The passage occurs on the Second Sunday of Easter during the B-Cycle of readings: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” Acts 4:32

The point of my homily was that Saint Luke’s passage was conceivably more an idealizedrepresentation of how the Church ought to exist rather than a precise description of how the Church actually managed to live even in apostolic times – much less how the Church lives in the present moment. The beleaguered and quite disgruntled Catholic was convinced that I had formally denied the written truth of Sacred Scripture and had tried to confuse the Faithful who had attended my Mass. I was flabbergasted! How could anyone have missed the point of my homily?

Now many years later and after almost 32 years as a bishop, I am even more convinced of the astuteness of my original opinion than I was at the time when as a young priest I offered that homily to a community of believers. The apostolic Church clearly enjoyed many extraordinary gifts that perhaps have long since disappeared from our contemporary world, but such profound unity and peace as Luke described in that statement might have been just as much a wish and a prayer for him as it remains a still-to-be achieved reality for us. The stories of the squabbling that took place between Hebrew-and-Greek speaking widows, the escapades of Ananias and Sapphira are fairly conclusive evidence that the apostolic Church did not enjoy the universal and unquestioned tranquility that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles occasionally might suggest.

Obviously I have not forgotten that surprising reaction and unanticipated encounter. And now with the benefit of many more years of pastoral service augmented by the wisdom that comes from receiving thousands of letters of complaint, pastoral squabbling of all types, and misunderstandings of every stripe within the ecclesial world, I am more convinced than ever before of Luke’s longing for a Church that was truly enjoying unity and peace. In fact, after these years as a bishop, I must confess that I understand what must have been Luke’s desire all the more and I make it my own in prayer every day.

The Church has never known a single moment in our entire history when we were not facing some of the challenges that human diversity and differences of opinion bring. Some people in the Church perhaps do like to invoke times when we might have appeared to have been more united and more unified than we may now be, but in truth there has never been a moment of perfect unity and unquestioned solidarity.

After all, we are the Catholic Church and by that very title we welcome diversity, divergent opinions, as well as different approaches to spiritual development. The Catholicity of the Church always welcomes variety. Yet it is also the mission of the Catholic Church to bring diversity, variety, and differences of opinions into ultimate harmony and oneness in Christ. The Church seeks always to bring unity and peace to our diversity and to do so uniquely in Christ Jesus through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The very presence of these disparities is a sure indication that Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection have not yet achieved their full force in creation. As Saint Paul reminded the Romans:
[Rom 8:19]For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope
that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
And not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Jesus’ mission of universal Salvation includes the restoration of unity within the human family that the sin of Adam and Eve shattered and our own sinfulness continues to obscure. Fragmentation and disharmony are a consequence of sin. Disunity is one of the legacies of original sin and it impacts even the Church that Christ Himself established and will continue to love till the end of time. The rampant expressions of conflicts that touch every human community are clear indications that Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection have not yet come to perfection in creation.
We live at a moment in time when we are constantly made aware of the great differences that impact the world in which we live. Perhaps an earlier age, with fewer and less effective means of communication, could ignore or overlook the manifest diversity within the human family. Our age is made blatantly aware of our many differences and with almost universal revelation and ceaseless publicity and often-unfriendly embellishment.

The mobility of people has forever shattered the quiet security of neighborhoods that were once the exclusive home communities of people who all shared a common racial and cultural heritage, language, and even Faith. Great metropolitan regions like the Archdiocese of Atlanta are microcosms of the very world itself. The United States, which likes to boast of its legendary welcome to the immigrant peoples who came in great numbers for many generations, must now extend that same welcome mat to our newest citizens who have heard of our celebrated hospitality and legendary welcome. Even though they might not be aware of our many obvious failures at true hospitality. We find ourselves living closer than ever to one another. With the explosion of technology and communications, we assume that we know more about one another. We routinely enter each other’s lives in ways that our ancestors could never have even imagined nor ever thought desirable. Our diversity is a daily experience, inescapable even for those who would prefer to live in isolation and clannish security. It is part of Her Divine mission that the Church welcomes every one.

The Church herself, no stranger to cultural, linguistic, racial, and ethnic diversity, is also often confounded by the task of maintaining our Catholicity and our Unity simultaneously. It is the mission of the Church to welcome all that come to this family of Faith. We are obliged to follow Christ’s own pattern of seeking out the stranger, the lost and the neglected. We welcome them not simply as outsiders or intruders but as those who have gifts to bring that will enrich the entire Church of Jesus Christ and who in turn need to be made holy by the message and person of the Lord mediated through His Church. This is no easy task and indeed it grows more complicated each day. When the People of God gather around the Lord’s altar for Eucharist in places like Atlanta, we are often amazed at the faces, voices, accents, costumes, and customs of those that share and fill this sacred space. For it is in the Eucharist that the Church comes to terms with Her cherished identity as a Family of Faith centered in Christ and “.. . gather[ing] people of every race, language, and way of life. . . ”Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation II

When we stand at the altar as Christ’s priests, we are challenged to become living signs of hope for a world seeking unity and peace. Our Eucharistic activity must be a beacon of hope for people who long for a sense of unity and peace that often the world can neither provide nor even recognize. Sadly, we must confess that often the unity and the peace that ought to be witnessed in a local presbyterate are often as illusive and hard to achieve as the unity and peace that Luke both cites and desires for the apostolic community of Faith.

One of the requests that we often hear, simply because we are priests, because we wear a collar, because we are public ministers is the supplication: “please pray for me, Father.” Instinctively, people suppose or assume that our prayers are more efficacious than theirs. People believe that when we pray for them or for their needs, that God hears and will ultimately answer those prayers. It is a sign of the great confidence and trust that people have in us – and the even greater Faith that they have in God.

Priests regularly remember the people that we serve. You can’t forget that 10-year-old facing cancer surgery. The young single mother who is struggling to balance a job and a family captures your heart. You return often to the faces of the elderly that you visit with the Eucharist. Our hearts are filled with the faces and the needs of the people that we are privileged to serve. Priests also need to pray for one another. In fact, the Church includes a public prayer for the clergy at each Eucharist. You pray for your Bishop by name – and please don’t ever cease that intercession! However, you are also reminded in Eucharist to pray for one another.

Priests ought to pray for one another as more than simply a class or group, but as brothers – with faces and needs as real as those of the people in your parish. Pray for one another with very specific images in your hearts. Pray that each priest discovers what God would have him do – and not so much that God begins to see things your way. Be united in your prayer for one another since no unity will be possible without a complete surrender to God’s Will rather than merely ecclesial détente.

Even as I broach this sensitive yet critical topic, I can hear my own priests that I am privileged to serve in the Archdiocese of Atlanta chide me with another whispered aspiration also taken from Luke the Gospel writer: “Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” [Luke 4:23]

The simple truth is that every presbyterate falls short of the unity and harmony that must be the desire and a goal for each local Church. The only differences are the individual circumstances that exist within each Church. For this very reason, the Bishops of the United States publicly acknowledged and cited many of the challenges that threaten and frustrate unity within the presbyterate in the 2001 document The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests. We also recognized our own personal responsibility to work to improve a spirit of unity within a presbyterate. Yet an individual local bishop – no matter how gifted he might personally be – can never bring about unity within a presbyterate – as capable and personally devoted as he might be to that task. The work of unity within a presbyterate is above all a shared responsibility. Perhaps it is just my own way of appeasing my own obvious failure to accomplish fully and to perfect a spirit of unity within my own presbyterate that I speak these words to you, dear brothers.

Priests are not always kind to one another. Let me say that even more emphatically: Priests are too often brutal toward one another! The best bishop in the Church cannot overcome the damage that vicious attitudes and despicable behavior inflicts upon a presbyterate when “the brothers do a job on one another!” The things that I have heard my brother priests say against each other have scandalized and hurt me. I have been appalled to learn of the acts of viciousness that priests have inflicted upon one another. However, equally troublesome and destructive are the unspoken and severe attitudes and the sometimes painful actions that priests occasionally inflict upon one another.

We men are often described as naturally competitive. We seem genuinely to enjoy a healthy contest. We like to engage in ritual exhibitions of our prowess and skills. All of that is natural and when controlled, even healthy for the Priesthood. We hone our skills and develop ourselves when we compete for excellence. The viciousness of which I speak is not an exhibit of male rivalry. It is the act of the massacre of a reputation, a good name, and a person within a local Church. I have heard it said that the process of considering a local candidate for the episcopacy can be a feeding frenzy of petty rivalry and character assassination. We need to know what we are doing when we are so harsh with one another. I speak not of the healthy and mutually beneficial and fraternal charity that comes when we call one another to improve and to greatness. Rather, I refer to the mean-spirited and viciously motivated conversations and actions that priests occasionally inflict upon one another. And only priests can correct that sinful display.

These harsh and uncharitable actions and attitudes make unity within a local presbyterate very difficult to achieve and to strengthen. The document, The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests,makes direct reference to some of the obstacles to priestly unity, including the responsibility of the local bishop for fostering this spirit. We bishops must call you to recognize those actions that stifle a spirit of unity. And of course, we ourselves must not engage in such behavior and admit when we have not encouraged a true spirit of unity because of some decision or action.

One of the areas of priestly life that is often a source of anxiety that can easily lead to disunity is the impact of the workload that only seems to increase for every priest. We grow tired and insecure that there are simply not enough hands to accomplish the tasks that face the typical hardworking pastor. As our numbers age and diminish, we grow intolerant of and occasionally angry with any priest who does not share in the labor that so often oppresses us. We grow impatient with any priest who does not see and value the work that sometimes overwhelms us.

There are many ministries within a given local Church. Each pastoral assignment has its own value and significance for the life of a diocese. Yet in the United States, parish life remains a fundamentally important expression of the vitality of Catholicity. Parishes are where most of our people encounter Christ and come face to face with the Church. We are fortunate to have such a vitally thriving locus for the mission of the Church in our parishes. Most priests instinctively value and stress the importance of parish life. Occasionally, the busy parish priest finds it difficult to understand or to appreciate the work of any other priest not in a parish assignment. At times, even we bishops can forget that the work of the Church obviously goes beyond parish ministry. Often we may do so when we are frustrated or stifled when attempting to satisfy the constantly expanding and demanding pastoral needs of our parish communities.

Every priest needs to believe that his ministry is valuable and that it advances the work and mission of the Church. The Church grows strong in a number of ways including through the service and pastoral devotion of priests who are engaged in Education, Chaplaincy programs, Military service, the generous role of those in mission or specialized local pastoral and social programs even those engaged in the often belittled administrative duties in the Chancery need to know and to feel that they are making a valuable contribution to the life of a local Church. It can be disheartening for any priest to sense that because he is not a full-time parish priest that somehow he does not enjoy the favor and the respect of his brothers in the ministry.

As with any asset such as the strength and importance of parish life, there are usually contingent limitations. The life of a local Church can grow strong with thriving parishes. But there is always the possibility that parishes can become islands that do not foster a sense of the universality of the Church. Diocesan life is more than a string of strong parishes. A local Church has an identity that is broader and more comprehensive than any single parish can represent. And of course, the Church Universal is more than simply the loose confederation of dioceses throughout the world.

The ministry of priests in a local Church is more than simply those who are parish priests and those who are not. The ministry of a local presbyterate should be a mission in solidarity for the life and service of the whole Church in union with the Bishop.

The challenge that a presbyterate faces is to recall and foster a sense of the Church that is always more than the local community. Yet in times of frustration and anger, a spirit of isolationism can occur, that rather than bringing priests together in a common ministerial vision, can actually cause them to take refuge and emotional solace in “my parish.” Some priests grow isolated from one another, from the bishop, and from the wider Church and take shelter in their parish. “To hell with downtown! The Bishop just doesn’t get it! Chancery Officials are out of touch! I’m out here killing myself and the religious men and women, deacons, and most especially the bishop doesn’t have a clue!” I’ve heard all of those sentiments spoken by priest friends that I deeply respect, admire, and love – and at times I may even understand where they come from! As a diocesan bishop, I admit that I cannot envision a more demanding responsibility than the ministry of being a parish priest in today’s church.

If a local Presbyterate is to achieve a spirit of unity, we must all acknowledge that too many individual priests are working hard and often without any sense that they are being valued, much less understood. I stand as guilty as any bishop and more than many for this lack of awareness of the pressures that our priests face in the day-to-day living out of your pastoral responsibilities. One of the sources of your anxiety has to do with the future and the great challenge in today’s climate of promoting more vocations to the Priesthood.

The mantra of many observers is that if the Catholic Church would simply abandon celibacy and our tradition of a male clergy, then the shortage of clergy would be solved. I was happy to read Gustav Niebuhr’s article in the June 9,2001 edition of The New York Times that acknowledged that mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations are facing severe shortages of their own. I take no satisfaction in the challenges that other religious communities are confronting, but it was refreshing to see the focus of the difficulty of clergy shortages placed within the wider context of our society.

I certainly think that our witness of celibacy needs further and more persuasive explanation in order to enjoy a more positive reception. Although celibacy will never be a popular nor has it ever been an easy way to live in the world. Celibacy, after all is a counter-cultural witness. It is today and always has been since it became the dominant discipline of the western Church. The scandalous revelations of the behavior of too many clerics during the past decades have not helped a cynical world to grasp the value of our celibacy.

The highly sexually charged environment in which we are called to live out our celibacy is not receptive to a way of living that opposes the prevailing norms of acceptable immoral behavior. Yet when is a prophetic symbol more needed than in a world where contrary values go unimpeded and unchecked? This also holds equally true – if not more so for the institution of Christian marriage. Let’s face it, commitment; life-long promises in any context are not in vogue in our society.

Before we make a panacea of the way that other religious denominations approach the ministry, need we not ask ourselves all of the questions that seem so commonly to go unspoken in a climate of anxiety generated by our current situation? If other religious communities that follow the customs that are so often proposed as a solution for our concerns, are facing the same challenges that we are, will the abandonment of a discipline or the alteration of the constant practice of our Church in limiting the ordained ministry to men resolve a problem that seems to be much deeper than these practices?

I believe that the witness of a well lived and generous celibacy may never have been more needed than it is today and that the tradition of an all-male ordained clergy belong to the very heart of our Catholic understanding of the very nature of the Office of the Sacrificial Priesthood of Jesus Christ. We Catholic priests have always attracted a lot of attention – both favorable and disparaging. We live as signs of the contradiction of the Gospel to the values and morality of the world. We cannot live as signs of contradiction in isolation. We need each other.

We need to know that we enjoy the prayerful support of other priests – even those whose pastoral tasks and ethnic and cultural heritages are different than our own. Young priests need their older brothers as mentors and guides as they shape and form their own priestly vocations. The senior priests need the enthusiasm and energy of the young as a reminder to them of the joy and excitement that our common Priesthood brings. All of these truths were carefully and more completely expressed in the Decree of the Second Vatican Council: Presbyterorun ordinis Art. 8 [7 December, 1965]. That profoundly significant document was written almost 50 years ago at a time when we were not facing the serious shortages with which so many dioceses currently grapple. These words were written long before the recent scandals so disheartened the Church and before we began implementing the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. Almost with a prophetic wisdom, the Council Fathers addressed issues and concerns that have only grown more apparent and pressing during the intervening decades.

Bishops need their brother priests in the ministry – not as drones or functionaries, but as colleagues and friends in serving the needs of the local Church. In fact the identity of a presbyterate is ideally fashioned around the local Bishop in service to the entire diocesan family. While a presbyterate needs a Bishop to be the visible link with the Church Universal and to guide the local community in holiness and with a shepherd’s care, a Bishop needs to admit that our work would never be possible or satisfying without the fellowship, the laughter, the criticism, the parody, the forgiveness and fraternity that we find and need in the midst of our priests. In short, we need one another -- more so today than perhaps in recent memory.

As I wrote these words of encouragement and challenge for you, dear brothers, they reminded me of the still unfinished task that is mine in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Even as you attempt to discover a renewed sense of fraternity and unity in and with one another during this special assembly of Vietnamese priests, please know that I shall try to do the same in an Archdiocese in North Georgia and that I shall remember you in prayer not only this week, but as long as I attempt to be a sign of harmony and unity here in the months and years ahead. I ask for your prayers in return.