A Calling in Crisis
Conversations with Catholic priests
Mike Fones has his hands full. With one, he totes a slide projector. In the other, he balances a stack of plastic containers full of leftovers. He scans the building's directory for Alice Kennedy Hooten's apartment and buzzes to be let in.Skip to next paragraph
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Once the chicken and potatoes, pasta and beans are stowed in Mrs. Hooten's refrigerator, the two sit by the living-room window overlooking this river town. In the distance, steam rises from the pulp mill where the late Mr. Hooten worked for 37 years.
The Rev. Fr. Fones is younger than Alice Hooten's three sons, but to her he is "Father Mike," a Roman Catholic priest. They face each other, hands folded, as the familiar litany is performed, the sacrament administered. She is recuperating from a fall, and Fones prays aloud "for wholeness of body and heart and spirit."
Once the private service is finished, the two join Pat and Richard Armstrong upstairs for tea and scones. It's a quiet Sunday visit except for the moment when Mrs. Hooten declares herself "very upset with the hierarchy" of her church. Fones is not the target of her ire, but faraway officials whom she perceives as mishandling cases of child sexual abuse by priests. "I'd like to just shake and bake 'em," she says, her Irish dander flaring. Fones lets the moment pass.
The recent sex-abuse revelations have rocked the Roman Catholic Church hard in such places as Boston, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach, Fla., where priests have been jailed or bishops have resigned.
The impact is less pronounced in places far removed from the scandal, like this college town along the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers, but it is evident nonetheless. It's on the minds of parishioners, and it most certainly preoccupies priests, who must comfort or counsel their flock even as the scandal threatens to erode the moral authority of the priesthood itself.
In Fones's 10 years as a priest, these days rank among the church's darkest. He has been praying about how to broach the sex-abuse subject with the 800 or so members of St. Thomas More University Parish. This particular Sunday, though, won't be the day he takes on the subject.
Still, he will have plenty to occupy him: By the end of the day, he'll have donned his white and purple robes three times for mass, helped organize a slide presentation with a local author, and talked to University of Oregon students experiencing final-exam jitters. He'll have cooed over new babies in the parish, and held vespers at the house next door to the church, where he lives with two fellow Dominican priests.
For all the current troubles, he still can say, "This is a tremendously blessed life."
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It would seem these are hard times to be a priest and the scandal is only part of it.
About 20,000 men have left the priesthood in recent years a large portion of the church's "workforce" in the United States. Most left to get married.
Their empty posts outnumber the new priests coming out of seminary. And the shortage is made more acute by the fact that church membership is growing. The ratio of priests to parishioners is about half what it was in 1950, leaving hundreds of parishes without their own fulltime pastors.
Some priests, says Fones, are concerned that being spread so thin in their parish duties will leave them "simply sacrament-dispensers."
Many Catholic writers and leaders also note that the percentage of homosexuals is significantly higher among priests than it is in the general population and especially high among young seminarians about to enter the priesthood.
Discomfort with that, they say, may deter some heterosexual men from entering seminaries, and in public perception, at least it relates to the current scandal in which the majority of reported abuses have involved adolescent boys.
All this has stirred intense debate of late among the laity, but also within the priesthood about the historical or theological necessity for priestly celibacy, and whether priests should be allowed to marry.
Also under discussion is ordination of women, which is favored by a large percentage of American Catholics.
Such questions "will not quietly slip away," noted a recent editorial in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.