The Priests We Need
By Kevin Wells
Years ago, as a lonely sports writer on a slow climb to become a Major League Baseball writer, I took note of something - more specifically; a sensus fidelium -- within me (although I had no idea then what the term even meant). My Tampa Tribune sports editor Paul C. Smith requested that I bounce from bureau-to-bureau to cover sports in different towns throughout the western part of Florida. In the span of eight years, I lived in seven different places. I finally did achieve my goal when I was given the Tampa Bay Rays beat job. I settled in St. Pete Beach, Fla., where I watched the sun set into the Gulf of Mexico from my small back porch. It made my start in Winter Haven worth it, where thick snakes, red fire ants, and lonesomeness marked my time.
Here’s what I noticed: If my local Catholic parish was dead in my temporary home, I saw that the Pastor lacked light in his eyes. If the parish was dynamic, I saw that its Pastor loved the Eucharist, Our Blessed Mother and homilized with cheerful boldness. Easy to connect, right?
When my uncle, Msgr. Thomas Wells, was gruesomely murdered in his Mother Seton rectory in 2000, I began to think more about the pastors from those small Florida towns. One of the most joy-filled and impactful priests in the history of Washington D.C. had that light stolen from his eyes. Satan’s work was done; it was accomplished through the large pocket knife of Robert Paul Lucas. After “Tommy’s” death, many hundreds of his former parishioners told my large extended family how he’d changed the course of their lives. He’d saved marriages, redirected suicidal folks, converted atheists, encouraged many men to enter seminaries and ignited groundswells of intentional Catholicism wherever he went for 29 years.
Something within me then - that I had identified some 20 years earlier from behind Florida ambos and on altars - urged that I write to priests for what I thirsted. I was Vice President for a successful masonry contracting company then, and didn't have the desire, faith, or financial ability to take an unpaid sabbatical to take on such a project. However, instead of the book idea dying within me, it kept rising for the period of five or so years.
I sensed Our Lady had been weeping for a very long time. If the Church was ever going to return to what it once was, I thought, it would unfold with the help of the day-to-day witness of the holy and faith-filled parish priest who wanted to be a martyr. The flock would see in him an intentionality, a solemnity, a ferocious zeal to spread the faith, and a deep desire to lead his flock to heaven. With this blazing furnace of truth, there would be sweeping conversions within his parish and world. I was blessed to have several priests as close friends. They’ve saved marriages, redirected lives and done so much other good work to re-engineer lives because they are men of God attuned to souls.
With all this in mind, finally, I finally cut the cord on "a normal working life" and in January of 2018, I started to write. I'm glad the Spirit convinced me to. After its August 2019 release, The Priests We Need to Save the Church (Sophia) quickly became one of America's best-selling Catholic books. It has been read by many hundreds of bishops, priests and seminarians from around the world. Many seminaries have purchased boxes of my book, including Tyler, Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland, who has gifted each priest in his diocese with the book.
Why has it resonated? Well, certainly it hasn't been due to the insufficient words of an old sports writer. I believe it's resonated because it encourages priests to die. For starters, I did not want to dwell on the omissions, lethargy and contraception of Truths by clergy in the Church, although I didn't want to downplay or ignore it either. I wanted to offer a vision of the priesthood that I thought could strengthen priests and laity and enable them to survive the undoubtedly severe and unsettling purgation that we need today. I knew then we were a travailed Church, and I knew the witness of the holy parish priest was the greatest way to show grace and Christ's Truth to the world.
I will say that I was greatly urged to write the book by Msgr. John Esseff, once a co-worker of St. Teresa of Calcutta, a renowned exorcist, now 92 years old and still giving retreats and spiritual direction to priests and laity. Many believe he will be a canonized saint in the Church one day.
Decades ago, St. Teresa strongly urged Msgr. Esseff to stop working with the poor and turn his attention to the formation of seminarians. Msgr. Esseff reported to me that when he began his work, he found seminaries riddled with homosexuality. This awareness became a part of the background and part of the urgency behind my writing. But it was Msgr. Esseff’s startling words about priests' prayer that permeated my book: “We don’t have a priest shortage right now, nor do we have a shortage of vocations. What we have is a shortage of priests who pray," he said. "We have a severe crisis in our priesthood because priests are not praying. They are not fathers. If we are to do anything well as priests, it must come from prayer, but we’ve stopped praying. Consequently, most of our priests seem to be bachelors today.”
Five months into my writing, his words were confirmed when the Theodore McCarrick scandal broke. The ensuing landslide of scandals seemed to prove this staggering lack of supernatural faith among the clergy - still, though, I didn't want to focus on the negatives. I wanted to write a book about the priest that God wanted. The key characteristics I proposed were Eucharistic-centered prayerfulness, asceticism, and a willingness to be radically available to others and to sacrifice for them. My uncle "Tommy" was known for walking his neighborhood to chat with people, a chat which regularly included an exhortation to take up one’s cross in life, which was softened by his loving and joyful demeanor. I emphasized the Marian self-sacrificing dimension of the priesthood and castigated “bachelor priests.” I hoped the reader would come to realize that the sacrifices required of a priest are pretty much required of anyone who would be a true follower of Christ.
My great hope was that bishops, priests and seminarians would have the desire, humility, and courage to open themselves to the great challenge I was recommending within. The book was simply a synthesis of what I’d thirsted for from priests for many years.
At its heart, I was hopeful that the laity might read it, highlight certain passages and share with their pastor. At the end of the day, the heart of my book was written for the laity — there is an eight-step process of exceptionalism to help carve us into saints within its pages. For instance, the truest measure of love is Christ nailed to the cross, so we, too, should want to dive into sacrificial living with that same idea of giving ourselves up.
As Christ and the greatest priest-saints were fervent in prayer, we, too, should have an ardent desire for a devoted and interior prayer life that leads us to true friendship with Christ. If we do these things (and the other characteristics of holy priests described in the book), we’ll find ourselves becoming sanctified.
When Catholic dogma and doctrine are held aloft as a bright and blazing light, not as a dimly-lit candle. our Church will begin to heal.
Churches can begin to feel less Catholic, and the flock and the desire for true holiness withers away when a priest contracepts the clear teachings of the Church. Saint John Vianney was a soul who deeply desired for his flock’s souls, so he spoke it, practiced it and lived it — and converted the entire countryside of France, whose faith was stolen by the French Revolution. In the priesthood today, sadly, I’ve seen what seems an anti-fatherhood. It can seem hard to sacrifice, to give a faithful homily. But all of us, including the parish priest, have to possess a desire to be willing to die; I call it a “self-amputation.” We need a death to self. It is healthy. It is only then that everything will start to come back. I know it to be true. Some priests have even told me so - because they know this is precisely what Christ did on the cross. They desire to do the same.
KEVIN WELLS is a former sportswriter for Major League Baseball and a Catholic author.
# # # # # # #
You can follow Kevin’s work at www.thepriestsweneed.com (including videos and other print interviews) and on Twitter (@kjohnw and @priestsweneed).