DENVER — Matthew Book looks forward to being a priest, but not the part about living alone.
He prays that his new community might help alleviate some of the isolation priests experience in a world where they are fewer and farther between than at times in the past.
“In seminary life we are discovering the value of community, for accountability and encouragement,” said Book, one of about 70 seminarians studying at Denver’s St. John Vianney Seminary. “Community is a central trait of Christian life. There’s a kind of forced solitude among diocesan priests, and this is a way to address that concern.”
It’s a concern that’s shared by Father David Toups, associate director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
“With fewer priests, it’s all the more important for him to stay connected with brother priests,” Father Toups told Zenit.
Father Toups, author of the new book Reclaiming Our Priestly Character, told the Register that fraternal groups allow priests to express themselves and be “gently challenged” to greater holiness by fellow priests. Communities, he said, also help attend to the need for spiritual direction and frequent confession for priests.
“It’s a day and an age where we can begin to be creative in how we address the need some priests have for community,” Father Toups said.
The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, published by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, emphasizes the importance of “common life” for priests:
“Particularly praiseworthy are those associations that support priestly fraternity, sanctity in the exercise of the ministry, and communion with the bishop and with the entire Church” (No. 29).
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput recently allowed Book and three other seminarians to start the Denver Chapter of a community called Companions of Christ. It’s modeled after the Companions of Christ priestly community in Minneapolis, which is comprised of about 15 diocesan priests.
“The idea here came from four of our seminarians who wanted to reinforce each other’s vocational discernment by living together as a community — something like religious life, but ordered to diocesan needs,” Archbishop Chaput said.
Archbishop Chaput said one of the biggest problems of modern life, for priests and laity alike, is the pressure of isolation, fatigue and loneliness. He wants the Companions to serve as “real brothers on a daily, personal basis, helping each other in their common work.”
“The priesthood is based on fraternity, but too often that doesn’t have substance in our daily parish routines,” Archbishop Chaput said. “The companions try to change that by instilling a sense of priestly brotherhood early in a man’s journey to ordination.”
Members of the Denver Companions of Christ chapter hope to eventually accept seminarians after they’ve studied for three years. Eventually, if all goes as planned, the community will be for seminarians and priests. For now, membership is limited to the four seminarians who originated it.
“The Companions are an experiment,” Archbishop Chaput said. “If they don’t work out as a model, something else will. But I admire the courage of the young men pursuing this, because they already understand that the priesthood is not just a collection of individuals but a real brotherhood, an apostolic community of friends seeking to follow Jesus Christ and to lead others to him. Christ relied on his apostles. It makes sense that we should rely on each other.”
Father Toups said the idea of priestly communities is catching on throughout North America. Two of the more established communities are the Fraternity of Priests and the Companions of the Cross, in Ottawa, Ontario.
Father Joseph Looney belongs to the Connecticut chapter of the Fraternity of Priests, which, according to its website, aims to give priests the “vision, the ongoing formation and the support to respond with enthusiasm to the fullness of the priesthood.”
Members don’t live together, but they have been meeting for fraternal fellowship every Monday for 21 years.
“It’s a committed brotherhood,” Father Looney said.
Father Looney said to succeed, a fraternity must work closely with the local bishop. He believes it’s a movement that could take off, and he thinks that it would strengthen the prayer lives of priests.
“I think eventually there might be a priestly fraternity in every diocese,” Father Looney said. “But it’s really demanding. I wonder how many priests will go for it. If they do, they will be blessed. But they have to make a commitment to be brothers together — a band of brothers nourished from above, like the raven who brought the meat to the prophet Elijah.”
That’s a lesson Book takes to heart.
“It’s the Holy Spirit who builds community,” Book said. “We want to be open and docile to build the kind of community the Lord wants through the work of the Holy Spirit. We will see if this is what the Lord wants to build.”
One problem inherent to priestly communities is geographic. In the Archdiocese of Denver, for example, priests are spread few and far between over hundreds of square miles throughout northern Colorado. To live in community, or to even participate in occasional social activities of a community, works fine for anyone studying at either of Denver’s seminaries. But after a seminarian becomes a priest, he could find that the community is 100 miles or more away, depending on what parish he’s assigned to.
“The archbishop accepts that if this works out he would try to assign members of the community to the same general area,” Book said. “In Minneapolis, a few of the 15 priests live at the community’s main house and the rest are scattered around in twos or threes or fours.”
The Companions of the Cross began in 1984, and was comprised of a priest, a seminarian and three young men preparing to enter seminary. Father Bob Bedard, one of the founding members of the community, said in a video that the community began as part of “God’s plan for renewal of the Church.”
“God is the founder,” Father Bedard said. “For me, it was a very unexpected development in life. I met with young men interested in the priesthood to help them discern their vocations, to think it through. It was the only vision we had. We prayed. … We knew God wanted a new community of priests.”
Father Bedard said the community centers around living a common life in order that the priests and seminarians can affirm and support each other. The community focuses on the Eucharist, living simply and working, and helping the poor, the young and non-practicing Catholics.
“We have a particular loyalty to the Holy Father and the magisterium, and we maintain an obedience to local bishops,” Father Bedard said. “As companions we recognize the prophetic ministry God has given the Church at this time, as well as the role of Mary, Mother of the Church.”
During Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in April, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the difficulties facing those who say Yes to God.
“For those of us within, the light of faith can be dimmed by routine, and the splendor of the Church obscured by the sins and weaknesses of her members,” the Holy Father said. “It can be dimmed too, by the obstacles encountered in a society that sometimes seems to have forgotten God and to resent even the most elementary demands of Christian morality.”
Book and his fellow seminarians who have formed the new community believe priestly fraternity may be the best way to stand strong in a society that sometimes seems to have forgotten God.
“Priests need stronger fraternity so they can build up the people,” Book said. “St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, didn’t have companions. So it’s not an essential thing, but it’s an important thing at this time in the Church.”
Father Toups said the new chapter of Companions of Christ, and any other startup priestly communities, will likely work best in urban settings where priests from three or more parishes can live together in community without having to travel far.
Wayne Laugesen is
based in Colorado.