‘Friendly Fire’ in the Presbyterate
How we hurt one another by omission and commission
In any battle among various opposing forces, there can be “friendly fire.” This, of course, happens when members on the same side inadvertently discharge their weapon and injure or cause death to a comrade. Even with the best of training, sadly, friendly fire still happens, and its effects are always devastating. Beyond injury and death, friendly fire can undermine morale and raise serious questions about trust in the team as well as the leadership or lack thereof. Friendly fire can cause a deep hurt that takes a long time to heal.
The Beauty of Fraternity
On the day of my ordination to the priesthood, I remember receiving a card from an older priest which said, “Dear Dave, welcome to the greatest fraternity in the world.” Those few words served as a prophecy to me. Not only was I called to share in a personal relationship with Jesus as alter Christus through ordination, but I was also made part of a beautiful brotherhood called the presbyterate. A presbyterate is a body of priests, young and old, who serve together in concert with the bishop.
In 32 years of service as a priest, I have witnessed firsthand the beauty of fraternity from many brothers. How humbling it was to have had so many from the presbyterate lay hands on me at my priestly ordination. Some of these priests I had never met before. Nevertheless, they came to my ordination because that is what brothers do.
This fraternal sense was also manifested to me in the pastors with whom I served. Like big brothers, they welcomed me and did everything they could to support and encourage me in my priestly life and ministry. Fraternity was also overflowing in so many of my assignments with the priests with whom I served and continue to collaborate. In some cases, I never would have chosen to live with these men, but they became not only brothers but friends for life.
One of the great manifestations of priestly fraternity happens every year at the chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. That is a day in which we priests gather together at the mother church to renew our priestly promises before the bishop and then share a meal as brothers. The shared sense of brotherhood is so apparent as we line up outside of the cathedral for the entrance procession walking into the holy Mass together. After hearing God’s Word and receiving the holy Eucharist, we walk out together as brothers only to return to our assigned portion of the Lord’s vineyard to do his work.
Perhaps, the ultimate expression of priestly fraternity occurs when one of us dies. According to the custom, typically another priest vests the deceased brother with the funeral director before the visitation begins. Brother priests travel from wherever they are assigned to the funeral home or church to pay their respects. Many of the brothers return the following day for the funeral liturgy.
In our diocese, at the conclusion of the liturgy, as the body is brought out of the church, the attending priests all pause and sing together the Salve Regina. What a blessed fraternity! Indeed, it is to my mind the greatest fraternity in the world.
But like any united body or team, priestly fraternity is not perfect or without pain. There is friendly fire. As much as we love one another, we can hurt one another by omission and commission. This fraternal hurt, which can be so painful, can reveal itself in many ways.
As priests, we are to be men of God’s Word. What a privilege it is to preach in his name and to speak words to the weary that will hopefully rouse them. But sometimes our words can be misdirected and hurtful, especially when they tear down a brother. Sometimes that brother is our predecessor or successor or the man with whom we live. In an attempt to make ourselves look good before others, we can say nasty things about them.
Some of these comments can lead to branding or labeling our brothers. It is particularly sad when one of the victims of our gossip is the bishop. My mom used to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” St. Paul says it even better when he says, “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). As priests, we are not only called to impart grace to the faithful but also to each other.
Part of being a man is being competitive. From our early days as a child, we can make life all about competition. For example, we want mom to love us more than our younger brother. We want to have the best grades in the class. We want to be the best player on the team.
At the heart of competition is ego. To have an ego is to be human, however, when it becomes our sole driving force, we go down a slippery slope. It is not uncommon for us priests to subtly compete against our brothers in the presbyterate or the neighboring parish. We love them, but there is something about us that always wants to be better and to rise above them. I suppose it is human nature. We want to have the most competent staff with the most dazzling programs. Some of us can measure all of this by who has the highest collection each week.
Ministry, as Jesus established, is never meant to be about competition but a shared commitment to collaborate for the good of the Church. When we compare our work to others, we can make it all about ourselves. I am reminded of the saying, “If you compare, you will despair.” Competition is a subtle form of comparison. Once again, St. Paul offers sound advice when he says, “Each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason to boast with regard to himself alone, and not with regard to someone else; for each will bear his own load” (Gal 6:4-5).
Perhaps we know some people who live in the same building or work together but never see each other. Sometimes this fact is understandably the result of different schedules. There are times, however, when certain individuals, for whatever reason, make themselves unavailable.
This is not necessarily the case of being introverted. There are simply some among us who choose to go it alone. Not only are we not seen in the building, but we may never attend any priestly gatherings. This “lone ranger” way hurts the entire presbyterate and can have a rippling effect on the People of God. When we choose to lead separate and isolated lives as priests, we remove ourselves from the presbyterate and diminish it.
The isolation may be a result of hurt and friendly fire that is just too painful to absorb. The thought of getting shot at again precludes us from associating with the presbyterate. We can become lost in our hurt.
The New Commandment
“Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
— 1 John 2:9-11
Another aspect of this fraternal distancing is what appears more and more as a generational divide among the brothers. In a previous article titled “There is No Division in God,” in the January 2020 issue of The Priest, Msgr. Stephen Rosetti viewed this in terms of “young vs. old, liberal vs. conservative, traditionalists vs. Vatican II priests.” Some might go as far as to characterize this as a battle between two ecclesiologies. However this divide is characterized, it is not good for the priesthood or priestly fraternity.
In the face of these often-pronounced differences, we need to find a common ground rooted in mutual respect. Perhaps the best way forward is to heed the words of St. Paul who says, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Cor 12:4-6).
In the face of these challenges of differences and distancing, we need to keep a dialogue going. We are brothers. Like any brothers, we need to seek understanding. We also desire to be understood. Through our shared fraternity, we have a responsibility to each other. Are we not our brother’s keeper? We owe it to take care of one another.
St. Paul writes, “On the subject of mutual charity you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thes 4:9).
The psalmist reminds us, “How good and how pleasant it is / when brothers dwell together as one!” (Ps 133:1). Jesus calls us to embrace this unity every day of our lives as his ministers. This unity does not always mean uniformity. Nevertheless, the wounds of friendly fire can threaten this unity causing great hurt not only to the priest but also to the presbyterate.
How does one ever heal from these painful wounds? Healing, of course, takes time. It also demands action on our parts. When struck with friendly fire, we need to turn to prayer. There are special graces that emerge when we pray for those who have wronged us, the greatest of which is forgiveness. Forgiveness is our business as priests. How privileged we are to bring reconciliation to the faithful. We are called to bring this same amazing grace to one another.
In the end, priesthood is not a perfect fraternity. Sometimes we brothers can unknowingly and even knowingly hurt one another. Nevertheless, priesthood remains for me “the greatest fraternity in the world.” The greatness of this body is strengthened every time we forgive one another and love one another as Jesus loves us.
BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is the bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.