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Monday, March 2, 2009

"Catholic priests meld sacred duties with personal lives"

One of our own from the Diocese of Raleigh!

From the Rocky Mount Telegram

By Laura McFarland
Photo by Alan Campbell, Fr. Tim Meares on the left, Fr. Bavinger, S.J. on the right

Being a Catholic priest is not a 9-to-5 job.

It is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week vocation.

If somebody calls while a priest is eating dinner and needs to him to come to the hospital, he goes. If a problem arises the day before his vacation starts, he stays.

The primary role of a priest is clear and constant: He is a shepherd, a confidant, a teacher and a herald of the gospel, said the Rev. Tim Meares, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Rocky Mount. It is a life he chose at age 27 and now at 41 has never regretted.

“I love being priest. ... I would have never picked myself to be a priest. God chose me, and it is just amazing. It is a wonderful life to be able to celebrate the sacraments, to be able to teach, to be able to be involved in peoples’ lives and to see God work in such incredible, miraculous ways,” Meares said.

Beyond that core role though, changes within churches and the culture, combined with the decreasing number of men entering the priesthood in the last few decades, have had lasting effects on the life of a priest, said the Rev. Bruce Bavinger, assistant pastor at Our Lady.

“We have been used to smaller numbers. I have been used to hearing that there were smaller numbers in the seminaries from the time I entered. The sexual abuse scandals did not help at all either,” said Bavinger, who has been a priest for 30 years.

Despite substantial growth in the Catholic population, the number of men entering the priesthood in the United States significantly has decreased in the last three decades. The total has gone down from 58,909 in 1975 to 40,580 in 2008, says the Web site for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit research center that conducts studies on the Catholic Church.

There were 652 Catholics per priest in 1950, the site says. By 2000, that number had soared to 1,257.

That translates into more work, especially of the administrative kind. Meares is the pastor of two churches, Our Lady and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and is responsible for the school attached to the former.

“I have a couple of priest friends of mine in Virginia, and they are responsible for four different churches, the two of them. That would not have happened, especially in predominantly Catholic areas, 50 years ago,” Meares said.


The numbers aren’t as good as they used to be, but there still are men answering the call to the priesthood, said Monsignor David Brockman, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. The diocese has a steady amount of men applying.

“That has provided a good number of candidates for the priesthood in our diocese, which is a good sign of not only the family life … but also the parishes they come from. It is a testament to both, as well as their own faith,” Brockman said.

It helps that priests are reaching out to people in new ways, such as using church Web sites, downloads to iPods and e-mail, Brockman said.

People see priests as more approachable today, Meares said. They can see the human side of the man as well as the servant of God.

Meares has hobbies, like everybody else. He enjoys reading, going to the movies, snow skiing and other sports.

“It is interesting because kids always want to know if you go to Taco Bell or if you play sports or that type of thing. Sometimes they think you are different and wouldn’t do those types of things. Yeah I go to Taco Bell. I go to baseball games. I tell them, ‘When I was young, I used to love sports. I played all different sports,’” Meares said.

Things are slightly different for Bavinger. Unlike Meares, a diocesan priest, Bavinger is a Jesuit, a member of the Society of Jesus. They dedicated themselves to the church and and celibacy, but Bavinger also took a vow of poverty. Everything he has belongs to the order, and he is allowed to use it.

“I still kind of live a normal life, making purchases, but pretty much with permission as far as any big items,” Bavinger said. “I am living the same kind of life that a lot of people are, kind of a middle class life. I have access to a TV, and I have my own laptop. That was a gift to me from another parish I was in. I was allowed to keep it.”

Even in their hobbies and special interests, priests still are set apart, Meares said. As leaders, they are held to a higher standard by the public, their congregations and themselves.

“The church teaches that you should avoid all occasions of sin. That can be persons, places or things that would lead you to sin. You want to be prudent about those things. Even as a follower of Jesus Christ, you don’t want to put yourself in a place of temptation because the church teaches we are all weak, and we can all fall,” Meares said.

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