Priesthood is a high tower

Milena Kindziuk talks to Fr Jozef Augustyn, SJ, a known retreat-giver and spiritual director, about sins and sanctity, indulgencies for priests, crises and women.

Milena Kindziuk: – Can a priest go to hell, too?

Fr Jozef Augustyn SJ: – As anyone can. Some mediaeval artists, who were sharp-tongued towards ecclesiastical authorities, placed them in hell even during their lifetime. We, priests, experience the same temptations and threats as other people do.

– What are the common sins that priests confess? Are they like other people’s sins?

– Confessions cannot be treated as some sociological polling. But since we face the same temptations our sins are like other people’s sins. Recently the Chancellor of the Curia in Katowice Fr Grzegorz Olszowski has said that the most important problems of priests are: easily leaving priesthood, alcoholism, problems with sexuality, being burnt up, frustrations and depressions. These sins are connected with moral problems. If a priest does not pray such behaviours and attitudes come automatically.

Saint and sinner

– Fr Badeni claims that the most difficult thing in priestly life is the lack of woman. Do you also think so?

– No, I do not think so. The most difficult thing in priestly life is the lack of sense of life, the ultimate goal. Certainly, Fr Badeni assumed that every priest knew what he lived for and why he accepted his ordination. But this is not obvious. A priest can lose the sense of his life and forget why he was ordained for. You gain the sense of life every day, sometimes in the sweat of ‘bleeding’ forehead like Jesus in Gethsemane. Once I gave retreat to some religious. His bishop sent him to me… it was a problem of having a woman, etc. At first, he was reluctant to take the retreat. But a miracle happened. When he broke down, be prayed like a child and finally, he said in public, ‘For many years I was an unbelieving priest… It was not a problem of his celibacy but of his faith. ‘If you love me, we will follow my commandments’, Jesus said.

– But you must admit that the problem of woman in priestly life exists.

– Love of woman, fatherhood, besides personal freedom, is the most wonderful and important experience of man here, on earth. When we renounce it we experience painful lack. Pretending that it is not a problem is a lie. The problem of human love is then stifled and revealed in another form, usually worse form, e.g. greed for power, possessions, sensuality, etc. But woman is not the ultimate goal for man. I would appeal to journalists to show pity for priests who suffer because of their celibacy… Because it is not true… the problem concerning priest’s loneliness is much deeper and has more complex reasons. Many married men have the same problems as celibatists although they have wives…

– The Pope has made special indulgencies for priests during the Year for Priests. Do they really need them?

– I like the idea very much. The Pope reminds priests that they are like the faithful whom they minister to. All things that the faithful do in their spiritual lives should be also done by us, priests. We have the same spiritual, religious, moral needs. It would be good for our parishioners to see that we, priests, confess our sins like they do. In the celebration of confession in the Neocatechumenate priests go to confession first. This is the way it should be done. The priests who are more ecclesiastical officials than witnesses of faith seem to think that they have different problems and sins and thus they have different spiritual needs than the faithful. Then it is easier to accept double measure and double morality.

– Benedict XVI also asks us to pray for priests. Why should we pray for priests? It is them that we usually ask for prayers.

– All people intercede for others before God, including monks, nuns whose vocation is to pray for the world and the Church. They also need our prayers. Why should we pray for priests? So that they know that they are not alone in their struggles, victories and failures. This prayer is to mobilise them and revive them. Some priests could say to themselves, ‘Others pray for me but I pray neither for myself nor for others’ and they would be ashamed. I was always astonished by John Paul II’s ‘begging’ for prayers for him during his pilgrimages to Poland. He begged for prayers more frequently in Poland because he dared to do so. He was among his countrymen. He knew that he himself would not carry the burden that the Divine Providence put on him. Many people did not only pray for him but also offered their sufferings and even lives for him.

– If every priest is a sinner like each of us what does priest’s holiness mean?

– Paradoxically speaking, only a big sinner can be a great saint. This is not a metaphor. The essence of experiencing sin is not the matter of sin but the experience of faith, the awareness that we are to listen to God and love him with all our heart, all our soul, mind and might. If we understand this truth even to the smallest extent the feeling of sinfulness is spontaneous… Who gives and sacrifices everything to him? Saints always felt to be great sinners because they knew how far they were from applying the commandment of love of God in their lives. The first sin is always neglecting the Lord. When a priest neglects God his life becomes terrible… And when he humbly declares every day that he wants to live only for him and tries to do that he will be a holy priest although he could be very weak. Of course, he would be a holy priest for his environment because he himself will have his sins before his eyes.

– The Polish Pope said that the contemporary world called for holy priests. How can a priest be holy?

– There is one ‘recipe’ for all. If a priest does not know how to be a holy priest let him ask one of the old women who pray all day in his church and comes to Holy Mass every day.

– The Church teaches that only chosen, ordained priests can celebrate the Eucharist and hear confessions… Does this special honour make more difficult for priests to be humble?

– The problem lies elsewhere… It happens that the heads of states behave humbly and the janitor in school having keys to lockers stresses how important he is. We speak too much about priesthood as God’s choice, anointment and too little about service, sacrifice, dedication. In small towns and villages we have too big prestige, social meaning and power and if we cannot use them well we are spoiled. We think naively that we are better and superior than others.

Why the Year for Priests

– What do we need the Year for Priests for? Does it mean that the situation of priests is so bad that the Pope must cope with it?

– The Year for Priests is not announced to prevent something but to remind us what we know and what we do not appreciate. What is Mother’s Day for? Shouldn’t we show her love all year long? But we celebrate this day. The Year for Priests will make us aware of the role of priests in community. It invites us to pray for priests, care wisely about them, support them, sometimes reprimand them. The Polish clericalism is also revealed in the fact the parishioners flatter priests but when they are disillusioned they speak ill of them, reject them and disrespect them. How many teenagers fling insults at priests, sling mud at them. Opinions in the Internet are full of contempt for priests. They are human beings, too. Even if they are weak they do not deserve such a treatment. Unfortunately, we, priests, are to be sometimes blamed for that because not realising what clericalism is we show it.

– The theme of the Year for Priests is ‘Faithfulness of Christ, faithfulness of priests’. What is that faithfulness? What does it mean to be a faithful priest?

– Considering how easily young priests leave their priesthood this theme is very accurate. We are living in the civilisation of unfaithfulness, of not keeping one’s words. Oaths taken in solemn robes, candlelight, in the presence of priests and bishops do not mean anything since all people have got used to the fact that they can break oaths. There are many deacons and priests who just after their ordinations could not say why they have been ordained for and consequently, they leave priesthood after a year or two or five. You are asking about the meaning of ‘faithful priest’. It is him that keeps faith. If I swear obedience to my bishop I do my best to be loyal. If I said that I would live in celibacy I would try to do that. A priest who experiences a crisis should do his best to save his priesthood. Faithfulness begins with the awareness of being fragile and admitting every – even the slightest – unfaithfulness.

What kind of priests today

– A good priest – what does it exactly mean? Strict? Loving? Lenient? A good companion?

– Every priest has his own sensitivity. He must get to know it and incorporate it into his priesthood. Fr Pio was tender, also towards women, but at the same time he was seen as strict and unapproachable. Sometimes, as the witnesses say, this was his way to defend himself against pilgrims’ aggression… But he had an extraordinary gift to discern what was in people’s souls. He knew what people’s matters were. Once some Mafioso came to him to satisfy his curiosity. Seeing that Fr Pio made an unpleasant remark about him, ‘A black sheep has come…’ The mystic knew who he talked to and what he talked about. It helped. Then the black sheep confessed his sins with all sincerity… A priest who focuses on God every day and works on his character will not have troubles with what he is to be like. We, priests, must work on our emotional maturity in order not to harm people… If believers feel that they are loved they are thankful for the true, although hard, priest’s words…

– In the cathedral in Warsaw Benedict XVI said that priests should be specialists first of all in spiritual life. What does it mean?

– A specialist is someone who implements things. A medical doctor can read all medical books but he will not be a specialist. A priest who struggles for good prayers every day becomes a specialist in prayer. If he struggles with temptations he becomes a specialist in spiritual battle. A priest must share his spiritual experiences with people.

– Bishop Skworc has said to seminarians that priesthood is not a contract for a job but a contract for life. However, many priests leave their priesthood. Why does that happen?

– Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz wrote the same words to priests. If we are to take these words literally they mean some overwhelming criticism and a painful diagnosis. It is a bad opinion about Polish priests. I believe that it concerns a minority. Many leave priestly ministry. It is true. I think that we should give the number of seminarians and newly ordained priests but also the number of those who leave priesthood. Let all people know it. Why should only one bishop worry about that?

– Archbishop Nycz asks priests to collaborate more with laity. Can we still manage to eliminate the division between ‘we’ and ‘they’ in Poland?

– Yes, we can and we must do it urgently so that our churches will not be empty and young people will not keep away from their parishes. I gave retreats in Bolivia and Argentina. There is always a fiesta after important church celebrations. These are usually modest, simple celebrations. Why don’t we celebrate together after big patron feasts? Have some cake and tea to give parishioners a chance to meet and talk. Today we cannot do it because priests do everything. If there was some collaboration a parish announcement would do and the faithful would organise everything themselves. People are much more generous than we think they are.

– What is most important in priestly formation?

– Sincerity towards God, your conscience, superiors, colleagues, women you meet. I repeat sincerity. You should begin with being sincere and all things will follow. Priesthood is a wonderful but demanding ‘plan for life.’ This is a high tower. This is going for a big war. Jesus commands us to discern whether we can manage. Seminarians’ fears whether they can manage are important experiences… Lord, I cannot do it alone but with you – yes, I can.

– For years you have given retreats in major seminaries. What are contemporary seminarians like? In what aspects are they different from those who prepared for priesthood 15-20 years ago?

– I can see a clear change in their attitude towards life and faith. The alumni are more direct and open but at the same time it is harder for them to make sacrifices and practice asceticism. Many bring a baggage of bad experiences in the sphere of love and sexuality. What should we do about it? How will it affect their faithfulness in priesthood? I must admit that I have not any ready answers. This is a great challenge for the diocese, the bishop. It is the local bishop that appoints those who work with seminarians.

– John Paul II used to say that in priestly life the most important thing was his deep relationship with Jesus. How much time should a priest pray daily?

– You cannot measure prayer by hours but by generosity of heart… During one session I was asked, ‘Can two nuns who do not talk to each other take perpetual vows?’ You can live this way, praying daily. There are many religious who spend little time on prayer – they run, settle things, organise something, preach, etc. But this does not mean that they are shallow… How much generosity towards God in what we do and how we live? How much of our contrition when we see our weaknesses? These are fundamental questions. Generosity and openness to God will relate to the time dedicated to God.

– How can priests find time for prayer when they are usually tired; when they assume many functions in the diocese, organise things, teach religious instruction and sleep very little…

– If priests have some hunger for God their tiredness will not be obstacles in prayer. We can rest in God. Sit in an empty church, chapel when you feel tired and give your tiredness to the Lord. This is rest. If someone says that he has much work to do and cannot pray because of this he simply lies, not being conscious about this. This is not true. We do not pray or we pray too little because we neglect God… and we regard our work as more important than activities for God. And this is work during night and we return home with empty nets.

– Our lifestyle favours crises and causes priests to be patients of psychologists and therapists. How can we prevent crises in priesthood?

– There are many factors that lead to psychological breakdowns of priests. But on the other hand, we should not regard these crises as tragedies. Is a temporary spiritual breakdown more human than cynically ‘saying that everything is fine’? The cynical pattern is a real problem… Crises make you change your lifestyle, change your priorities and involvements. A crisis is a cry of the soul, heart, mind, ‘care for me, do not ignore me’. A crisis is a blessing. Then Jesus tells us that without him we cannot do anything good.

– Are there any characteristic types of crisis in priestly life?

– It seems to me that priests’ crises concern the experience of the sense of life, which has its source in the crisis of faith, spiritual life, prayer. I would not stress immoral behaviour in priests’ crises. Since these are the consequences and not the reasons. Firstly, there is emptiness, lack of sense, neglecting God and then comes wrath, envy, sensuality, greed, hunger for power…

"Niedziela" 24/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: