William F. McKee, CSsR

You might ask, what is a relational priest?

By relational priest I mean a priest who relates well with people, both with heart and head.  The kind of relationship that is necessary in our fast moving and fast changing society with the almost unbelievable developments in technology and the relentless pressure of competition. In my 24 years of working with and for inactive Catholics, I have found that Catholics need a new kind of priest: a priest who is warm and friendly and relates well with people.  Only priests who work with both head and heart will keep Catholics in the Church.

Being warm and friendly with people is not easy for most of us priests.  One reason is that our seminary training was mostly in objectivity – philosophy, theology, canon law etc.   There was very, very little of the subjective or the emotions.   We were never taught that most people make more decisions with their heart than with their head.  And we never learned to “listen with our heart.”

It might also be because of clericalism that encourages priests to think of themselves as a separate caste.  Or it also might be a lack of continuing education and study that eventually leave priests feeling alienated from the “world.”

I did sessions (usually six of them) with over 10,000 inactives all over this country, and In England and Canada.  I also did seminars for priests in 28 dioceses.  My observations on the necessity of being warm and friendly were generally not well received.  Many of the priests said: “We are not in a popularity contest.”  I said that we were but they did not accept that.

When I was no longer able to travel (I’m now 86, ordained in 1948) I went to the Internet and worked with 37, 000 inactives on that medium.  The one element that absolutely floored me was the number of people in pain.  Pain from life and sometimes, pain from priests.  The psychiatrists say that 84% of any given audience is in some kind of pain. I have a suspicion that the number is larger.  

One question that so often came up was: “Why did God do this to me?   Or, why did God let this happen?” Since God wasn’t around they took their pain out on priests.

The sessions I held were not ones of folks who came to praise Caesar but to bury him.  I’ll never forget the session when a man leapt over the table and tried to choke me, or the one in which a man said: “The Pope is Satan and priests are nothing but vomit out of Satan’s mouth.”  Or the woman who said: “There’s not enough paper in this room to tell you what I think of your church.” In my first two years I met with nothing but failure or at least seemed to me to be failure.  I remember so very well a night in a Baton Rouge parish where the 28 attendees rejected everything I had to say and were very insulting.  That night I went to the house chapel determined to give up the work and do something not so demanding.  But, as I passed the altar the lectionary for the next day’s Mass was open on the altar. I took a look at it. It was open at Sirach 3 and it read: “My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trouble.”  I had to laugh and then felt better, much better.  I felt like I had just gotten word from above.

Humor, yes jokes, is important in working with the people of God.  If some one had told me this 40 years ago I would have told them to go jump in the lake.   I learned the value of humor from our Redemptorist missionaries.  They start off their mission talks with a few jokes.  So I have used humor in all my meetings with the inactives and also in all my Sunday homilies.  Self-deprecating humor is, of course, the best.  It seems to be very productive.

In my 59 years of priesthood I have found that one of the most difficult priestly virtues is that of compassion – entering into the pain of others and helping them carry it just as Jesus did.  I have selfishly said to myself: “I’ve got enough pains of my own without taking on theirs.”   Today I see how dumb I was.  I didn’t realize that by taking on as much of their pain as I could I would get rid of some of mine. 

There was never a priest who walked the face of the earth as compassionate as Jesus. It seems that He just could not pass up a person in pain. I wonder what He would do if He were walking the streets of Chicago or New York.  But then, He is “walking” our streets – through the Holy Eucharist.  Oh what comfort there is in that Holy, Holy Sacrament; comfort that nothing else can give. I have assurance of this from the many inactive Catholics who want to return to the Church simply because they want to receive Communion again.  They miss it.

The priesthood is a beautiful, loving, wonderful, grace filled vocation.   May we all use it for the honor and glory of our Most Holy Redeemer.



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