On accepting the 2017 NFPC Touchstone Award

Rev. Donald Cozzens

It’s a real honor to receive this Touchstone Award from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. I am honored because, as many of you know, I haven’t always been honored for my efforts on behalf of priests and our Church. So, my sincere thanks to you, Father Tony Cutcher, and the Board and the men and women staff of the NFPC. It’s humbling to be added to the impressive list of past recipients of this award.

Bishop Arturo Cepeda, Father Cutcher, brothers and sisters, I’ve been asked to say a few words as this year’s recipient. I’m happy to do so. I know there are a number of younger priests here at this meeting of the NFPC. But most of us are past our middle years—I sometimes think of us as the Medicare Corps. With this reality in mind, I’d like to mention two images of priesthood that might inspire us at this time in our history––the priest as elder and the priest as trail guide. Our secular culture, whether it knows it or not, is in need of the wisdom of elders and the direction of tested trail guides. God has created us for more than the two-dimensional lives most people in our cities seem to be living. We have been “programmed” for transcendence…for relationship with mystery, for living in holy communion. We seem to have lost our way.

We presbyters, we elders, have something to say to our society. We elders are called to speak of the good news of God’s compassion and mercy…to be men of compassion and mercy living in the midst of God’s people. As elders, we’re meant to speak our truth without fear. Otherwise our caution chips away at our integrity.

Pope Francis speaks of priests as disciples on a journey. Trail guides, if you will. We walk with our sisters and brothers, we rest with them, we rub our tired feet with them, we eat and drink with them. “Sometimes we go quickly, sometimes our steps are uncertain. Sometimes we stop and we may also fall. But always keep on with the journey.” (Address to the Congregation for the Clergy, October 3, 2014)

And to his elders and trail guides, Pope Francis says don’t be sad. (Chrism Mass, 2015) Perhaps there is nothing sadder than a sad priest. Francis is right, of course. People should see that we are fundamentally joyful disciples. But that isn’t easy. I’ve believed for some time now that we priests have been grieving…a low level grieving that we might not even be aware of. It’s helpful to acknowledge this grieving, to name it. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. Energy always follows an honest embracing of what is.

Some causes of our grieving:

There’s a clever, creative title of a book on our postmodern world that always makes me smile: Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be. (Walter Truett Anderson, 1990). For many of us, the priesthood isn’t what it used to be…for better or for worse. We appear to be unimportant to growing numbers of Catholics except for funerals, weddings, and baptisms. We’re marginal figures to be called upon occasionally.

Many of us are aging and tired. And we are told simply to recruit and pray for vocations.

We are divided into so-called Vatican II priests and John Paul II priests.

And we are still trying to cope with the nightmare of clergy abuse of children and teens. We don’t seem to know how to heal the deep wounds some priests have inflicted. I think our rectors should require their seminarians approaching ordination to take the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath to “Do no Harm”!

I believe we are grieving…but that’s no excuse for not being joyful. It’s been said “We are not grateful because we are happy, we are happy because we are grateful.” (David Steindl-Rast). We men of Eucharist know something about gratitude. May we elders be “joyful grievers” and confident trail guides. After all, we don’t walk alone.

Finally, let me say that I think history will look kindly on us priests who keep slogging on in very difficult, very challenging times.

Thank you for honoring me with your Touchstone Award.