Clergy Convocation

USA Today photo of a 2006 priests' gathering in Philadelphia

I spent the better part of Friday at a Clergy Convocation at the Quincy Marriott Hotel. Some 435 priests of the archdiocese gathered, the first time such a gathering has been called since December 2003 (at which Cardinal O'Malley announced the plans for reconfiguration). In the process of planning a day of prayer for priests to be held this coming November, it was thought that something needed to happen before then, that the priests of Boston should meet with their archbishop and name some of the problems, issues and concerns of the presbyterate from the experience of the years encompassing the sex abuse crisis and reconfiguration.

Much planning went into the day and a genuine and sincere effort was made to give priests the chance to speak and be heard. The day began with a talk by Bishop Bob Hennessey in which hethe enersaid he'd been charged to "name the elephant in the middle of the room." Well, the bishop named a herd of elephants! Unfortunately, those elephants were sighted by priests some several years ago and in the meantime all priests, to some degree, have suffered the stampede of that herd. Most have survived, though scars are still visible and some wounds still open and painful.

I appreciated the day, the work that went into it and the participation of so many priests. Still, in some ways it not "too little, too late" then, a little too late. This meeting would have been much more helpful and the conversation more energized had it been called 2-3 years ago. On the other hand, it's never too late to try to do the right thing - and I hope that today's experience will set a precedent for the future.

In addition to table discussions, we heard from Fr. James Burns, PhD, a priest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese who has worked for some years at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University. The Danielsen conducts research projects at the intersection of religious and spiritual life with psychological inquiry, always aiming to relieve human suffering and promote human growth. The center of gravity of this research involves collaboration of psychological investigators with leaders in a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

Last year, Jim Burns and the Danielsen surveyed priests of the archdiocese in the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis and reconfiguration. This was an independent study which the archdiocese cooperated with but did not initiate or sponsor. The second half of the afternoon included Jim Burns' reporting the outcome of the study. I hope to obtain a copy of that so that I might give my readers a better sense of the study's conclusions. The notes I took on the material presented fail to do justice to what we heard. In a sense, there were few surprises in the report. Priests have emotionally born the heat of the day and the impact of that has not been insignificant. There are indicators that as many as 85 priests show some symptoms of post traumatic stress. On the other hand, the study reports that many priests have positively relied on their faith and the support of others to help them make their way through very troubled times.

Facilitators at each of the tables gave short reports to the coordinating team which reported back to the large group the concerns that were raised in small group discussions. Those present report being overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon them by the archdiocese, the people - and themselves! They indicate a serious lack of support from the administration of the archdiocese. They find themselves already overworked and very much aware that in the next decade the number of priests available to do the work will drop dramatically. The worry about how to restore trust in the church.

The afternoon ended with remarks from the Cardinal. As always, he revealed himself to be a master story teller, a good speaker and a man of great trust in and hope for the Church. The response to his talk was loud and long. I joined in the applause but did so wondering, still, where will all of this take us? We were told by the Cardinal that the rebuilding of the church rests in the deepening conversion of priests. God knows that at least the priest who writes this blog is in need of deeper conversion, but I'm not convinced that such clergy transformation, even on a broad scale, is the energy needed for restoring trust and confidence in the Church. Nor am I sure just what energy (in addition to that
of the Holy Spirit) will support the hoped-for renaissance.

I was struck by simply looking around the hotel ballroom at the hundreds of other priests there and so aware of what a curious and, in so many ways, weak group of men has been entrusted with such a critical ministry in ecclesial life. And, once again, I was mindful that such a gathering is one of the last few in our own times to be restricted to males. The few women who were part of this day were the secretaries of several chancery adminstratiors and their task was to greet and hand out the name tags to priests as they arrived...

Today's program and the one scheduled for November are meant to give priests hope and point them towards the future, to move on from where we have been. I do not doubt that in some significant ways it is time to move on but I'm not terribly clear on where we're heading, who will come with us or how we will get there. Finding a repeat of what used to be, somewhere down the road, is a fool's journey. Discerning where God calls us now and how the Spirit will lead us there is much more difficult work and I wonder if we, the Church, are courageous enough to walk that path.

I'd be particularly grateful if some of my priest readers who were also present at the convocation might comment here on their experience - whether similar to or different from my own.

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