It is popular wisdom these days to say that the Catholic Church is struggling to care for the faithful because of a shortage of priests. This thought reduces the real problem the church faces to a numbers game: If there were more priests, there would be a more vibrant church. This reasoning is false on many levels; and some events of the last month, considered in conjunction with the administrative leave of Fr. Christopher Senk, make this eminently clear. In fact, three simple anecdotes show that the church is not troubled as much by the reduced number of priests as it is by the reduced quality of many clergy who serve and their suppression of vibrant faith. This essay is not an indictment of the fine priests who serve, even as they too must battle pressures to diminish the quality of their own ministry. May they be supported and encouraged. Nevertheless, there are elements of the priesthood that are failing; and these are distressing.
On Wednesday, September 6, Fr. Joseph Gates, priest-in-residence at St. Isabel Church on Sanibel Island during Fr. Senk’s forced absence, declared that because of the the threat of Hurricane Irma on September 10, St. Isabel would be closed as of September 7 and at least through September 12. This declaration came 24 hours before the City of Sanibel mandated an evacuation and 36 hours before the time residents were asked to evacuate. Fr. Gates’ decision deprived the people of Mass on Thursday and forced cancellation of the weekly prayer service for Fr. Senk. It was a premature decision, not a proactive one. With limited information, Fr. Gates decided to run. Indeed, closure of the church over the weekend would have occurred in any event as Irma decided to brush Sanibel on Sunday, but the early departure and projected closure were unwarranted. Then, Fr. Gates decided to keep the church closed for the entire week, cancelling Mass on September 13 – 15 and, of course, the prayer service for Fr. Senk scheduled for September 14. He claimed that the church was without power, despite the fact that St. Isabel has generators for the rectory and for the church. It was only late on Saturday afternoon, September 16, that Fr. Gates admitted that power had been restored and that Mass would take place that evening. For 9 days, Fr. Gates was not present to the people he is supposed to serve. Where he was is uncertain, but he clearly decided to look after himself as a top priority. This mentality indicates the problem with the priesthood.
On Saturday, September 23, Fr. Stanley Rother, a priest from Oklahoma who was murdered in Guatemala in 1981, was beatified by the Catholic Church. Beatification is a step along the way to being declared a saint that recognizes Fr. Rother’s entrance into heaven. Should his steps to sainthood proceed, he would be the first man born in the United States to be declared a saint. Fr. Rother was an ordinary person who struggled with his studies toward priesthood. Yet as a priest he became a missionary who served the indigenous Tz’utujil people, learning their language, translating the New Testament into their language, celebrating Mass in the vernacular, and receiving their love. He worked with his people on their farms, when they were sick, as priest among them, as a shepherd with this flock. When anti-Catholic and other violence flared in Guatemala in early 1981, Fr. Rother was warned that he had been targeted for death and should leave the country immediately. He was reluctant to leave, but did so. But wanting to return to his people for the celebration of Easter and beyond, he responded to his brother who warned him that he would be killed, “Well, a shepherd cannot run from his flock.” In July, his rectory was invaded and he was shot and killed. He was most certainly a priest dedicated to his people, to those he served, and to his vocation. One might say he was a priest of a different era, a priest who saw his role as shepherd regardless of the cost. Indeed, priests of his ilk are rare, saintly, and missed.
In the afternoon of the same day Fr. Rother was beatified, Bishop Frank Dewane called Fr. Gates and told him he would be coming to St. Isabel to say Mass on Sunday. Fr. Gates did not announce this at the Saturday Mass, tell anyone, or post it on the parish web site. Apparently Bishop Dewane wanted to sneak into St. Isabel but be able to claim he had visited and spoken with parishioners. Indeed, he did pass through the building of the parish, but he made sure he did not make a visit to all who might want to meet with him. Bishop Dewane claims to be out and about in the diocese to get the pulse of the people and learn what their concerns are. Apparently, his view of that activity is far more aloof than that adopted by Fr. Rother. He denies failure of any element of his approach to being a bishop; he publicizes himself mercilessly in the diocesean paper and on the diocesean website; he hides from those he disagrees with that he cannot dispatch. He is an example of a shortage of priests of quality. Only that can explain why an individual with no pastoral experience and no detectable shepherding skills can be named a bishop.
In the meantime, Fr. Senk remains on leave, banned from exercising any public priestly ministry. He is unable to say funeral Masses when requested by his parishioners; he is unable to support those who are sick with visits and by administering the sacrament of the sick; he is unable to hear confessions; he is unable to be with the people when the power is out at church (as he did after Hurricane Charley); he is unable to be a shepherd. Yet he is continually pummeled by a visiting priest who has stated that it is inappropriate to pray for Fr. Christopher, who interferes with the operation of the parish activities, who has shown himself to be incapable of being a shepherd. Fr. Gates is the personification of the shortage of priests of quality. And so too, his bishop conspires with him to drive away people of faith and good will. Bishop Dewane seems to seek a situation in which the only people he encounters are those who are in awe of his office as bishop, those who would not dare to suggest that he is failing miserably in his role. The similarity of his actions to those of the guerillas who eliminated Fr. Rother are undeniable.
The church has made a statement about the kind of priest it needs in beatifying Fr. Rother. May all people look to Fr. Rother for inspiration that we may stand firm with those who are downtrodden, with those in need of support and consolation, with those whom we are called to serve. May we be inspired by Fr. Rother’s selflessness to forsake personal safety to stand up for what is right. May hardened hearts be softened so that the beating drum about the shortage of priests may be replaced by a beating drum proclaiming how well the flock is shepherded by selfless and humble priests and their bishops.