James Walton talks to young priests about their first months in the job, and finds that, despite the ups and downs, for most the experience more than lives up to expectations.
CARDINAL Hume once wrote that in priesthood, as in marriage. "the first five years are crucially important; they make or mar the relationship." With this in mind, I spoke to a number of priests in this very position.
We started with the first weeks after ordination, on which I found a surprising degree of consensus: almost all were simultaneously relieved to be out of seminary ("I kept thinking: this is it at last") and nervous about what lay ahead. For most, the nervousness was justified: few felt that their training had really prepared them for the job. "In seven years of seminary, for example, we spent one day on how to say Mass," said one. Despite this, "to your new parishioner, you're instantly the priest and so supposed to know everything".
Of all the tricky firsts, the debut in the confessional is the one that encapsulates all the various emotions involved. For a start, there is "the terror as you hear the door close for the first time and the footsteps approach," as one young curate put it. "When I came out after my first morning
in the box," recalled another, "the parish priest had a glass of wine ready for me. He said I'd need it. He was right."
Yet all referred to the humbling sense of authentic ministering too, caused by "people trusting you so much." Again, many felt unprepared but weren't sure any training could cover all the angles here. "We had done confession role-plays in seminary and of course knew about the basic sins from doing them.
"But after two days, I'd heard all the sins we'd been taught about. and plenty of new ones besides. Sometimes I wished I'd taken a dictionary in with me." The fact of people's excessive scrupulousness was also mentioned. "And interestingly, they don't want to know that their sins are not so terribly bad. In fact, they can get quite indignant if you tell them so, becuase they have been told differently by the Church in the past."
This last point is part of a wider problem. of course. Young priests leave seminary full of the latest thinking on theology, scripture and liturgy. It does not always find a warm welcome.
either from laity or older priests. This classic idealist-meets-thereal-world experience was, however, seen by most of the priests I spoke to as necessary as well as furstrating, and one which they thought could only make them better priests if they could avoid the cynicism of some longer-serving colleagues.
But to start with, simply being priests at all takes some getting used to. "It's definitely strange at first saying Mass after so long on the other side. It didn't feel like me for a long time. Even now, when I realise that the altar boys see me as I once saw 'Father' it seems odd."
Quite how much to be "Father" was the point at which consensus broke down. Some young priests are convinced that "people want you to keep a distance, to stay a priest", others equally so that "people prefer a priest who is not a man apart". The theoretical position taken on this has practical implications too: whether or not to wear a dog-collar; how much to encourage parishioners to call you by your Christian name; how far to confide in lay friends about personal problems.
Consensus returned on the dilemma of whether a priest should defend Church teachings that he himself did not agree with: everyone thought be should. (This is rather disappointing I think my own faith has always been strengthened rather than weakened by priests who are willing to question the Church).
The life of a young priest then is in many ways not easy. As well as the difficulties already mentioned, there are the anxieties raised by the many colleagues who leave, and , yes, by celibacy so endlessly analysed that I have assigned it only this walk-on part here.
Nonetheless, all the priests I spoke to stressed how rewarding they found their lives. Of course, for curates as for lay people, the satisfactoriness of parish life is alarmingly dependent on the parish priest.
However, in part perhaps because they have fewer to deal with, bishops do seem to be placing the newly-ordained more sensitively than in the past, and the days of the nightmare first appointment to the parish of a drunken autocrat appear to be ending. "It's a fantastic life, despite the bruises," was one man's summary. "I must say I'm very happy to be a priest."
Whether or not such happiness lasts is. I suppose, largely up to the rest of us.