Book Review: The Priests We Need to Save the Church

In the past couple of weeks I have taken some extra time for reading — something I really needed to do — and the books I chose have not disappointed. I hope to post another review in a few days. In these times of scandals, corruption, confusion, and division, we need to sink our minds into something that will give us a sense of hope and even a sense of a way forward. This book and the other I will review soon do just that.

Kevin Wells, the author of The Priests We Need to Save the Church, is a married layman who had an uncle who was a much-beloved priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, who was killed in cold blood in his rectory in the year 2000. Msgr. Thomas Wells had been a priest for 29 years when he died — and he had a great reputation for holiness.

First, a disclaimer: the title of the book may sound a bit wrong, theologically. We know that no priest or group of priests can ever save the Church. Christ is the Savior of his Church. We know this. And so does the author. His analysis of the crisis that the Church is undergoing at present leads him to believe that it will be through a radical renewal of the priesthood — with priests taking their spiritual fatherhood seriously and pursuing authentic holiness — that the Church will get through the present malaise. Of course, no radical renewal of the priesthood is possible without the priests’ themselves seeking the transformative grace of Christ, our Great High Priest.

Here is one way the author himself describes the book:

This book is a wholehearted plea meant to encourage the earnest priest who cares deeply for his flock and wants nothing more than to help lead them to everlasting life with God — but in this time of mistrust and disillusionment can’t find the proper footing to shepherd them properly. It’s an appeal for him to recognize and reclaim the mystical unfolding of the Holy Spirit on that remarkable day when he lay down before his bishop — nose and kneecaps pressed hard to the cold floor — and climbed into the skin of Christ. It’s a plea for him to give birth (or rebirth) to the supernaturality born in him that day, the same mystery that propels him to help save souls through a vocation brimmed over with an intense interior friendship with Jesus. (page 65)

Wells also has a brother who is a priest — I was in seminary with him (I believe he was a year or two behind me). I remember now-Fr. David Wells telling me about his uncle and how he had been inspired to answer God’s call also, especially through the events that surrounded his uncle’s murder – with all the love that was shown by so many people whose lives his uncle had touched.

Wells thus interpolates the question of what a holy priest is and how he can affect so many positively, by narrating a selection of vignettes from his uncle’s holy life and ministry. It is an inspiring story of fidelity. And one thing that stood out to me was how Msgr. Wells went to seminary and was ordained in a time of great confusion in the Church, and in spite of that remained faithful. He was able to do this because of the intimate friendship with Christ that he always had, which he especially kept fresh through his daily holy hour.

In the process of writing this fine book, Wells interviewed numerous good priests and lay people; he shares from those contacts also. In addition, he is honest about the fact that it would be normal to have some apprehension about a book about how to be a good priest written by a layman. I admired his honesty and also the answer he gave about why he wrote the book in spite of that.

Many good young men today hesitate to answer God’s call to the priesthood because of what they see happening in the Church. The story of Msgr. Tommy Wells, who was ordained in the early 70s and no doubt witnessed all kinds of ecclesiastical silliness throughout the years — yet remained faithful to Christ, maintained an attitude of good cheer and authentic joy, and never compromised on Church teaching — may well be the inspiration and the impetus that such young men will need to say “yes” to Christ and “do whatever he tells [them]”. If Msgr. Wells could do it and do it so well, so can we. Jesus is always faithful and we need good men now to be good priests, strong spiritual fathers.

This book will be read with profit by priests and laypeople alike. It would be a good gift for a seminarian or for a young man whom you think might have a vocation. You might have the parish secretary or someone else close to your priest make stealth inquiries about whether he has it, and consider getting it for him for Christmas. Then again, even if he does have it, it could be good for him to have extra copies to give out to the young men whose vocations he may be trying to encourage.

I am happy to recommend The Priests We Need to Save the Church. Kevin Wells is a skilled writer and an engaging storyteller. His advice is solid, and, if taken, will no doubt contribute to the renewal of the Church.

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