Paul J. PHILIBERT, Stewards of God's Mysteries: Priestly Spirituality in a Changing Church. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2004. pp. 87. $9.95 pb. ISBN 0-8146-2976-8.
Reviewed by Georgie Ann WEATHERBY, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258-0065

A self-professed "study document" about the spirituality of the American priest, Stewards of God's Mysteries is a helpful guide for priests in today's modern society. The work opens with a discussion of the far-reaching impact of abuse on all sides of the priesthood (from lay persons to the innocent majority of priests, and every segment in between). Conflict and suffering in one's role is key, and remains an ongoing theme throughout the book. Such challenges remind us of Christ's paschal mystery. We are always attempting to live out the resurrection. Life as a priest today affords one a way.

Ecclesial diversity must be seen not only in the context of the struggle for respect and tolerance, but also in the gift it brings the church in the form of richness in ministry. The tension of change is highlighted between personal priestly struggles with faith and moral issues (including the "ambiguity" of unreconciled Catholics, those divorced and remarried, single parents, gays, lesbians, and bi-sexual persons, etc. -- pg. 12) along with the priest's image as the "Good Shepherd" for others. This tension brings to light one of the "big questions" in the Catholic Church, and deserves more than cursory attention.

The marginalization of religion is touched upon, as we become more and more a culture of consumerism. The appeal of sound bite fundamentalism follows. There are also problems in a fast-paced life with community building. People often do not have the time or interest in developing social capital. This leads into a brief discussion of the pain (for all) associated with the priest shortage. The tensions created by the celibacy requirement and refusal to ordain women are not addressed as predictors of this problem, however.

The six roles exercised by the ordained are afforded an in-depth discussion, as 1.) vicar of the bishop; 2.) bearer of the mystery; 3.) spiritual personality; 4.) pastoral leader; 5.) model of human authenticity (to "protect" oneself in celibate chastity denotes a traditional, Pre-Vatican II language and approach -- but other sections later negate this suspicious tone see especially pg. 52 on friendship); 6.) prophet. Without stating it directly, this further accentuates the conflict of a role expectation as being all things to all people all of the time. When dealing with human authenticity, for instance, instead of citing the "safeguards of prayer" and the possibility of "losing perspective" (pg. 42), more current language would encourage the priest to, without personal involvement, empathize with those in marriage and family relationships so that they can guide them through the rough spots when needed, rather than shying away from them. While the book is otherwise progressive for the most part, on this key issue it remains focused on an earlier time in Church history (where a person of the "spirit" cannot also be a person of the "flesh" even in the mind only).

The outward look for a priest (toward the needs and well-being of others, rather than one's own self and security pg. 49) is the focus of a special section on transformation through discipleship. The section that follows deals with the results of Dean Hoge's recent research. It yields three concerns as the principal anxieties of U.S. priests over the past few years (pp. 56-58): 1.) trust, communication, and meaningful relationships between diocesan priests and their bishops, and between religious priests and their superiors; 2.) loneliness (especially an emotional void); 3.) the need for seminaries to focus more realistically on spiritual development (priests wish to be taught better how to pray). A fourth concern (not listed as such) appears to be how thinly a priest is stretched overall, due to the shortage. One priest states " ...I'm running instead of relating" (pg. 57).

The ideal day of a priest, from start to finish, is outlined in-depth near the close of the book. One of the most important pieces of wisdom resulting from this picture was the idea of "active listening," which a psychologist taught the "example" priest. People "get everything out on the table" (pg. 68), meaning positive and negative approaches. The leader (in this case, the priest, but this advice could apply to anyone) repeats back what they have heard to assure understanding and empathy for the emotion behind the thought (pg. 69). This is life-changing not only for the priest, but for all he touches in the parish and elsewhere. The challenge comes in trying to find the time to implement this technique fully.

In conclusion, this book considers the (sometimes lacking) reflective life of the priest. While immersed at a deep level with people one-on-one and in meetings to carry out God's work, he is constantly trying to figure out how to cultivate a sense of church community. But loneliness and desperation (too much to do with too little time and virtually no "alone" time) wear away at a person. These are interruptions to the deep spirituality that feeds the soul of the priest making him the model of Christ he is truly meant to be.

TO ORDER BOOKS:

Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books