The conversation opened with a discussion about NFPC and its mission and purpose, which is, according to Fr. Tony, “to gather priests, bishops and presbyterates for communion, brotherhood and solidarity. Our purpose is to connect priests, through their Priests’ Councils, both to the bishops and to each other, and also, for the diocesan priests across the country to be able to share best practices and priestly brotherhood.”
They discussed exactly what a Priests’ Council is, with Fr. Tony elaborating, “In Vatican II, the bishops agreed that every bishop must have a council of priests who advise him in all matters, helping with the governance of the diocese.”
Bruce brought the topic around to NFPC’s 50th anniversary celebration next spring and the National Convocation of Priests, April 23-26 at the Millennium Knickerbocker, downtown Chicago. Fr. Tony explained the focus of this year’s Convocation, “…we’re looking back at what happened, how did we get here. We’re looking a little bit at today, what are the challenges for priests and the priesthood today. And then looking to the future, based on what we have seen and what we are experiencing now, what can we expect.”
Fr. Tony emphasized, any priest in the United States is welcome to come to the Convocation; it truly is a National Convocation of all priests, not just members of councils. “It’s a great time, because you get to come away and be with your brother priests for four days. We’ve got great talks, great food, and you’re in Chicago, so there’s lots to do…. I always tell people, it’s like going to a family reunion where I get to see all of my cousins that I don’t see all year.”
The discussion continued, talking about the Convocation speakers, with Fr. Tony listing the speakers and discussing the panels that will be a part of the presentations.
They spoke about how because there are fewer priests now, those who are serving have an increased workload and it gets hard for them to get away from their parishes.
The challenge of multi-parish pastoring makes it even more difficult. “But that’s the great thing about our Convocation, guys from all over the country are in the discussion, we open the discussion up to the group….and we really come away with some good insights.”
Jen continued the topic of fewer priests by asking what the laity could do to help with multi-parish pastoring, as well as vocations and priests’ ministries. Fr. Tony responded that first and foremost, prayer is essential. Then second, make sure to speak up if you know someone that you think exhibits the qualities you would like in a priest. It was why Fr. Tony began to consider the priesthood. “I have found that if three unrelated people say something to me in a short period of time, that’s usually God telling me I need to do this. And that’s what happened in my life; there was a period of time around 1988 when a number of people came up to me and they said, ‘You know you’d be a good priest’ and I began to discern very seriously about that…it always leads to prayer.”
Fr. Tony said that another important thing that helps him is “to know that my parish is being taken care of… the lay people have to say, ‘Father you can get away.’” He explained, many priests say they would love to come to the Convocation, but they just can’t get away from the parish. The Convocation is always scheduled from Monday through Thursday, so they can be back for weekend Masses. The laity needs to tell their priests “’Father, we can do this for four days. Take care of yourself, go, have fun.’ We really need that kind of respite.”
Jen reflected that with multi-parish pastoring, not only do priests have the potential to burn out, but parishioners don’t feel they have the care they need. Fr. Tony deals with that in his four parishes and their cluster process. He encourages the laity to “separate your emotional response from practicalities….you have to see yourselves as a bigger unit now, that’s a huge piece. And to accept it and actually help Father with it.”
Jen replied that she usually asks anyone upset with mergers, “Are you praying for priests? Are you praying for vocations? And are you inviting someone to go to church with you?” Father Tony agreed, that often “…it’s not just a shortage of priests…it’s a shortage of parishioners.”
Fr. Tony warned priests to make sure they take care of themselves in the short term, so they can continue to take care of everyone else long-term. “It’s part of our make up, it’s part of our vocation to be care givers. It’s just what we do. And so, we always feel selfish when we take that time for us. But unless we do, we won’t have the energy and time for them at the other end. That’s why I think things like our Convocation are so important, just to come away and talk to other priests.”
Bruce continued the conversation talking about resources to help priests, like the St. John Vianney Center, which Fr. Tony works for in their Continuing Education program. Fr. Tony discussed some of these programs, as well as in-patient programs there, and at the St. Luke Institute as well.
Jen closed by encouraging people to learn more at nfpc.org and prodded parishioners to give a gift to their priests by paying for their trip to the Convocation. Fr. Tony agreed, “It’s the best thing you can give him: the confidence that he can be away and the donation to be able to do it.”