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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Explaining priesthood's call

A priest with Tampa Bay area roots is the author of a book on challenges facing the clergy today.
By Waveney Ann Moore

Published March 9, 2008

Acknowledging the challenges facing the contemporary church, Father David Toups, a homegrown Roman Catholic priest now based in the nation's capital, has written a book to bolster fellow priests, men studying for the vocation, and by extension, all of the faithful.

The author of Reclaiming Our Priestly Character is a graduate of Clearwater Central Catholic High School. He was ordained at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in 1997 and until recently was dean of students at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.

Now associate director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Toups, 36, is optimistic about the future of the priesthood and the Catholic Church.

This spring Toups will provide "color" commentary for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington, D.C., from April 15 to 17, on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Web site, which will be featuring a live feed of the pontiff's entire visit to the United States.

Toups' book, an expansion of his doctoral dissertation in Rome, where he studied for seven years, is dedicated to his late father, Leon Toups. His father was a well-known supporter of vocations in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. His mother, Lynn, lives in Largo. Last week, Toups spoke by telephone about his book.

Please discuss your book's timing.

The timing follows Pope John Paul II's pontificate, who certainly was a man who called priests to know who they are and to not be afraid to say that we are called to be different. That doesn't mean we are better. Certainly, following the 2002 outbreak of scandals and in a day and age of fewer priests, this book is meant to be part of the solution, giving us the tools to be renewed in our own lives and also to regenerate the priesthood by joyfully living the vocation that Jesus has called us to.

What is the Roman Catholic Church's view of the unique nature of its priests?

The unique gift of the priesthood in the Catholic Church is the fact that it is an institution which began with Christ and the 12 apostles - his first priests - and through the laying on of hands, or ordination, that unique gift has been transmitted in the Catholic Church for 2,000 years. The priest who participates in the very priesthood of Jesus Christ makes present Jesus to the holy people of God as he celebrates the sacraments for them.

In your book, you write about the different understandings of the priestly role among those ordained before Vatican II and priests ordained after the historic council. How have each of these differing perceptions affected the priesthood and is either correct on its own, or should the understanding be a combination of both?

The question is really about confusion that happened after the Second Vatican Council amongst the priests and laity. The council highlighted in a particular way the priesthood of all of the faithful, which is a beautiful doctrine for the church in which all of the baptized offer the sacrifice of their lives. However, this highlighting of the doctrine of the priesthood of the baptized in some venues obscured the ministerial priesthood which offers to the faithful the holy sacrifice of the Mass in a particular way. And especially highlighted in that era in the late '60s, early '70s, we lived in an egalitarian age in which differences were shunned and hierarchy and discipline were regarded as obsolete. What really the Second Vatican Council simply wanted to do was highlight the beauty and the dignity of the vocation of all of the laity and the vocation of our ministerial priests. Reclaiming our priestly character is about affirming the dignity of both Christian callings.

You say "priests need to be proud of who they are and who they represent." What are the challenges of being a priest today, with relation to the recent sex scandals, fewer men responding to the call and, as a consequence, expanding responsibilities?

It's a great challenge being a priest today, but challenge takes men of heroic virtue to respond to the call of our times. Our priests working in the parishes certainly find themselves very busy fulfilling the duties of their parishes. All the more it is important to foster an interior life of prayer so as not to fall into the trap of functionalism in the priesthood.

You outline coping mechanisms, or as you say, "a plan of living a happy, healthy and holy priesthood." Could you talk about this plan?

First and foremost, one's spiritual life has to be a priority, so daily Mass and Liturgy of the Hours - prayers priests say five times a day - are important. We pray because as Pope John Paul II said, "As we do the work of the Lord, we don't forget the Lord of the work.' Secondarily, one must foster healthy holy relationships with brother priests, with friends and family. ... And also, one must pay attention to one's physical life. That's part of finding balance in life - a healthy diet, good sleep, some exercise. Lastly, there's ongoing formation, which is part of the call to keep ourselves and our 'skills' sharp. Study really fosters one's soul, one's intellect."

What do you mean when you say that a seminarian "lacking a deep desire for marriage and children needs to rethink his vocation?" Couldn't such a desire lead to frustration and problems with retention?

A priest truly is a spiritual father to the people of God. And a priest truly is wedded to the church, so the deepest need of a man to be father and spouse in the deepest sense are met by faithfully fulfilling one's life as a priest. The greatest joy of the priest is what joy we find in being spiritual fathers, of being present to families in their need, of feeding them, the joys of really entering into the hearts of people in their joys and sorrows. It is such a privileged position that we are invited into. It's a grave responsibility that we have to not violate the sanctuary of people's hearts. The vast majority of our priests have been faithful. It takes a man's man to become a priest today. It's not for the faint of heart.

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