The Priests We Need to Save the Church
By Kevin Wells
Sophia Institute Press, 2019
240 pages, $17.95
To order: sophiainstitute.com or (800) 888-9344
The Priests We Need to Save the Church by Kevin Wells could, in fact, be the book needed to save the faith of many laity and the priesthood of many priests.
It is an understatement to say that our Church is in a dismal state and that those of us who love her more than our own lives are nonetheless tempted to despair: “Can I really remain in a Church so full of corruption of various kinds and where leaders of the Church seem to be jettisoning dogmas and doctrines we have made many sacrifices to live and defend?”
Our love for the sacraments and our conviction that the Catholic Church is the one founded by our beloved Savior keeps us in the Church despite our shattered trust in our leaders.
Some of us have a hard time conceiving what could possibly be the solution to the crises vitiating the Church today: doctrinal confusion, seemingly rampant sexual misconduct, financial corruption, and the infiltration of alien ideologies. We have lost faith in the bishops as a whole and perhaps especially in the leadership in Rome to be agents of reform; with great reluctance we have come to see they are more of the problem than the solution.
Wells does not dwell on the horrors in the Church, nor does he downplay or ignore them. He does not purport to offer the cure to the life-threatening sepsis in the Church, but he does offer a vision of the priesthood that could strengthen priests and laity and enable us to survive the undoubtedly severe and unsettling purgation that is sure to come, although no one knows the time or hour or what shape it will take.
Wells tells that he was urged to write the book by Msgr. John Esseff, once a co-worker of St. Teresa of Calcutta, a renowned exorcist, now 92 years old and still giving retreats and spiritual direction to priests and laity at a ferocious rate.
Decades ago, St. Teresa strongly urged Msgr. Esseff to stop working with the poor and turn his attention to the formation of seminarians. Msgr. Esseff reports that when he began the work, he found seminaries riddled with homosexuality. Wells also records the testimony of priests who have found the priesthood likewise scourged. This problem in the presbyterate is not one that occupies Wells in the book, but it is a part of the background and part of the urgency for finding a way to “save” the Church.
Msgr. Esseff’s words seem to permeate Wells’ work: “We don’t have a priest shortage right now, nor do we have a shortage of vocations. What we have is a shortage of priests who pray. We have a severe crisis in our priesthood because priests are not praying. They are not fathers. If we are to do anything well as priests, it must come from prayer, but we’ve stopped praying. Consequently, most of our priests seem to be bachelors today.”
While this book was written within a year of the revelations concerning the predatory erstwhile cardinal Theodore McCarrick, it is clearly not a rushed project. Wells did his homework: He read the lives of saintly priests and spoke with saintly living priests to clarify what makes for holy priests.
Wells had the great blessing of being the nephew of Father Thomas Wells, whom he clearly loved and whose life manifested the characteristics Wells found mark a holy priesthood. The key characteristics are prayerfulness, asceticism, and being willing to be radically available to others and to sacrifice for them. Father Wells was known for walking his neighborhood to chat with people, a chat which regularly included an exhortation to take up one’s cross in life, softened by his loving and joyful demeanor.
This book is extremely readable. While it might seem implausible to some that a sports writer would be an excellent prose stylist and full of spiritual wisdom, Wells is. I haven’t read a great deal of sports journalism in my lifetime but have read enough to know that there are first-rate writers among sports writers: They have the skill of capturing the lure of challenges, the life-enhancing power of struggles, and especially the joy of victory.
While Wells emphasizes the self-sacrificing dimensions of the priesthood and castigates “bachelor priests,” he depicts the self-sacrificing life as one full of surprises, adventures and the inestimable reward of saving souls.
Wells possess admirable pedagogical skills; he introduces his subject brilliantly and paces his narrative in such a way that the reader eventually comes to realize that the sacrifices required of a priest are pretty much required of anyone who would be a true follower of Christ.
The book opens with the poignant story of the struggle that Kevin and his wife, Krista, were having with infertility. Krista was so determined to have a baby she was willing to undergo IVF. Kevin arranged a meeting with his uncle, who cut to the chase and explained why a Christian could not engage in a procedure that was not in accord with God’s will for sexuality and procreation.
The priest did not recite comforting platitudes that all would be well and was fully aware of the suffering involved; he simply reminded the Wellses that following our Savior means there will be crosses. Later that night, a drug-crazed man broke into Father Wells’ rectory and brutally murdered him.
Wells at one point in his life asked God for a severe suffering to advance his spiritual growth. God’s answer was an untreatable brain hemorrhage from which Wells nearly died. When he called upon “Uncle Tommy” for help, his hospital room was filled with light, and Wells was apparently miraculously healed. He attributes his cure to the priest who tended to him on his deathbed and, of course, to his beloved uncle.
Good priests today are hurting — and hurting badly. They are hurting because their flock distrusts them and they distrust their bishops. They are at a loss of how to fortify the faith of their flock when their own faith is under siege.
The laity really do love and appreciate our priests; we should all give this book to priests and seminarians we love — and to the laity we know who wonder what they can do to reform our Church.
Laity should read this book since we too should respond generously to the call that Wells makes to priests: the call to put the salvation of souls above every other good in our lives, to seek intimacy with the Lord through prayer and sacrifice, and to allow that intimacy to guide our every decision.
This book reinforces the message of another book I recently reviewed, Father Carter Griffin’s Why Priestly Celibacy: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priesthood. Both link celibacy with the demands of being a father and provide a vision of the priesthood totally incompatible with a life of comfort and timidity. Priests who embrace the need for prayer and sacrifice inherent in both priesthood and fatherhood will indeed be the priests we need to save the Church.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian,
recently retired from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.