Priests are seen during a special Mass for vocations at Cure of Ars Church in Merrick, N.Y., Aug. 4, 2022, the feast of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Life Is a Classroom

Lessons from the National Study of Catholic Priests

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Bonnar (new)Life is a classroom. Regardless of age or degree of education, life affords many opportunities for continual learning. These lessons come not just through studying various disciplines, but also unfold in relationships and experiences in life. Even surveys have a way of opening our eyes to new realities.

Every three months, I look forward to receiving in my mailbox the CARA Report, which features updates on various research and surveys conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Anyone can subscribe to this report, which provides insightful trends and information relative to the faith and ministry. I always come away learning something new and interesting.

In August 2019, a PEW Research Center Survey revealed that just one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence. What we learned in that particular survey is that, in some ways, we have fallen short in passing on this core belief. In response, the U.S. bishops made an intentional decision to try to reverse this trend through the establishment of a three-year National Eucharistic Revival. The hope is that this effort will increase our devotion to and reverence for the holy Eucharist.

In October 2022, The Catholic Project released results of the National Study of Catholic Priests. (Read here for an article about this national study by the researchers themselves.) The research was initiated as a follow-up to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and revealed a lack of trust on the part of priests in their bishop.

When there exists a lack of trust in any relationship, often it is the result of a hurt or wound of some kind. The clergy sexual abuse crisis has engendered significant hurt on many levels. Having met with victims as both a vicar of clergy and now as a bishop, my heart aches for those who are victims. We must continue our commitment to healing all victims of abuse. At the same time, as priests and bishops, we must work hard to accompany all those who have faced an allegation as the process unfolds and even after it is resolved. And it is so helpful when there are clear and consistent policies and procedures.

At the same time, there is a hurt that has occurred that has not been acknowledged. This hurt is so prevalent, but there is a silence about it. This hurt is felt by the loyal and faithful priests who, in some cases, have been lost in this tragedy. These are the men who had to step into a parish when one of their brothers was suddenly removed. These are the men who had to face all the questions, as well as the fear of being accused themselves. These are the men who had to continue to minister in an overwhelmingly grief-stricken time with no formalized processes to deal with the sadness of so much disillusionment and loss.

Looking back on my priesthood, I wish there could have been moments when, during the height of this awful scandal, we could gather as brothers to share our sorrows and support one another. While this may have happened informally on the golf course, at a meal or on a break at a fraternal meeting, it did not happen formally. Nor did it happen enough. Perhaps it is because this has been a shameful moment, much like a family secret that is often buried and never discussed in a healthy way. As a Church, and as bishops and priests, we certainly need to own the commissions on many levels at this time but also the omissions. As a priest, I am sorry I did not call this matter to my own bishop’s attention. Maybe I simply did not trust my bishop enough.

Now that I am a bishop, I know that I must work hard to earn the trust of my priests. Although I cannot be their friend, I can be their caring shepherd who listens, is present to them and affirms their goodness. I try to do this by being approachable and by sending notes and making phone calls to just say hello. I am grateful to my priests who do the same for me. Trust is a two-way street. Amid all the hurt, we, bishops and priests, must keep trying, and never stop learning, for we are all in this together. 

BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.

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