Baby Steps: What’s in a Name?
I have been slowly reading through the first write-in section of our national
survey of Catholic priests. We asked priests, “In your opinion, what is one step that should be taken to improve priests’ trust in bishops?” Not all of the 2323 diocesan respondents chose to write in, but many did, and the responses ranged from one word to the cut off of 500 characters. I have now read through all of the diocesan priests’ responses (but not started on the religious yet).
I’ll start with the positive. Some priests affirm that things are going well in their diocese with regard to trust, saying things like, “I sense no major trust issues in our diocese,” or “Our Bishop is a good man, and because of that, I trust him.” Some responses included particular things that the trusted bishop does. For example, one priest shared that his bishop, “regularly opens his residence on Fridays for individual visits with priests and deacons and then invites all to a simple lunch.” Another priest said, “We are very blessed in [diocese]. Our bishop is available, dedicated and shown vulnerability.” Another said that he is grateful for the annual four-day priest convocation, “where our bishop is present and easily approachable.” Often, a priest who answers in this way also indicates his awareness that this is not a universal experience, saying things like, “I am very fortunate to have a good, understanding Bishop.”
We were asking for steps to take, though, so it is not surprising that the vast majority of priests did have suggestions. Some of them are extremely simple. So I am starting a little series called “baby steps.” The first baby step has to do with names.
Names for a Bishop
“It would be nice if the bishop would step down from the clerical platform and relate more personally with his priests, i.e., allow his priests to know him on a first-name basis rather than always addressing him by his title of ‘Bishop’ or ‘Archbishop.’” When I read the first comment like this, I thought nothing of it, but after two, I started to keep count. It came up six times—remember, this is the one thing a priest chose as something that would help trust levels. Since the survey was anonymous, it is possible that all six priests who mentioned this were in the same diocese, and that there is only one bishop who insisting on his title, but that seems unlikely. It is also an easy adjustment to make: “Call me Joe.”
For better or worse, America is a culture of first names in social situations among adults. This even goes for members of the military when they are in social situations with civilians. From my time at the USCCB, I have observed that practically universally, bishops call one another, and priests, by their first names, but the converse is not always the case. I checked with a few priests and the practice varies. So I’m just reporting that at least six priests think this would help trust.
Names for a Father
The second name suggestion is the more obvious one, and it came up 15 times in the comments: a bishop should know the name of his priests. “I have met my bishop a number of times – he never remembers my name. 35 years ago that may have made sense – we had over 400 priests—that is not a justifiable reason or excuse for a bishop not getting to know his own priests today.” Again, “The first step is that the Bishop actually knew my name and understood my ministerial assignment. Out of 5 bishops just 1 knew my name and he knew everyone’s name. If a bishop doesn’t know you or what your abilities are I don’t think he can put you in the best situation to succeed.” I feel compelled to note that some of the comments about names are notably merciful. These are not priests who are “out to get” the bishop and they do understand that the bishop has many responsibilities. “Our bishop has been here only one year. I feel that [circumstances] have kept him from knowing my name. I have a terrible memory for names myself but I still wish I could feel that I am known.” These are men who have given their lives to the Church; they just want the bishop to know their name.
More than a Name
Of course, a name is just a beginning. Some priests told us that the bishop knows their name, but nothing else about them: “Bishops should ‘personally know’ their priests, not only the name of their priests,” one respondent said. Another said, “The bishop knows our names, but I sense he does not know us, who we are, our stories, our hopes and dreams, our pain and struggles. Nor does he know the communities we serve. When priests meet our bishop it is usually in formal settings.” Priests want to be known by their bishop, and this is more than just wanting “the boss” to know their name (although it is that, too)— I think it’s a desire to share life with someone who has been through what they are going through, and to know that they are on the same team.
When they were ordained, priests promised to follow the bishop— placed themselves into the bishop’s hands—and it is only fitting that the bishop cultivate knowledge of these men in return. There ought to be very little comparison here to a corporate “boss to employee” relationship. There is no corporation, as far as I know, that expects you to lay down your whole life, as is done in the Rite of Ordination. One priest shared: “Bishops should make a strong effort to meet one-on-one with their priests to know them on a personal level. In my experience, unfortunately, I have never met personally with my bishop except prior to my ordination in a brief meeting where I was informed of my first assignment. There has been no effort by the bishop to know me on a one-on-one basis. His knowledge of me is based on other’s input or assessments of me. I have no knowledge of how he perceives me or his overall expectations for me.” This is a man who (literally) lay face down on the floor of his cathedral, praying for the grace to persevere in the vocation Christ has called him to, and a bishop lay his hands on him to confer an indelible mark. He deserves to be supported in this vocation by that man and his successors.
I suspect the desire to be known (and thus, understood) by one’s bishop is connected to many priests’ suggestion (34 times) that bishops have significant parish experience before they are appointed. The priesthood has unique challenges that lay people cannot fully understand (although, as our study found, lay people are named by priests as their greatest support) and the bishop is a person who, ideally, knows what those struggles are and has experience in coping with them. Life is hard—I say that all the time—and we all need someone we can talk to who is further along on the journey than we are. Priests need each other for this, for sure, but they should also be able to look to their bishop.
Before the obvious complaint that bishops of a large diocese are too busy for this, I will point out that everyone, no matter their state in life or vocation, has to periodically review their priorities and draw boundaries. Catholicism has the tradition of a “rule of life.” Bishops need to consider where the well-being of their priests falls in their responsibilities and whether their calendar accurately reflects that. The fact that bishops are busy is not news to any priests—they know that. Many of the comments acknowledged it. In fact, priests who report being in large archdioceses appear quite willing to accept the closeness of an auxiliary rather than the ordinary, where that is more feasible: “It is not possible to have a meaningful relationship between strangers. I am a stranger to my bishop, and he is a stranger to me. That’s not entirely his fault, it’s too large a diocese for him to know many priests well. But there could be some way of having an auxiliary bishop get to know priests in his area well.” Someone at the “higher” level ought to know how every priest is doing.
In conclusion, the first baby step towards increasing priests’ trust in bishops is for bishops to learn the name and at least one basic thing about each priest in their diocese. If a bishop—one who does not already have a way of communicating informally with his priests—would commit to calling every priest in the diocese in the next three months, it could make a substantial difference. In that phone call, bishops could express gratitude for something concrete, something that they appreciate about that priest in particular. If they cannot think of anything, they could ask their ask staff to give an update about that priest’s parish and what has been going on there. Such knowledge is important for the bishop to know in any case. And bishops could consider giving priests their cell phone number, if they do not already have it. That is a concrete expression of both trust in the priest (“I know you will not use this idly”) and concern for their welfare (“I want to make sure you can reach me directly if you need to”).