The email was complex, so I will boil it down:
Dear Auntie Seraphic,
You should advise clerics on how to advise young women.
A Woosterish Cleric
Dear Woosterish Cleric,
I enjoyed your reference to P.G.Woodhouse's Bertie Wooster who, although a lifelong bachelor, was roped into speaking at a girls' school. I am also flattered to have been asked by a cleric to address clerics. I have never before seen myself in the light of a St. Catherine of Siena. Au contraire. Unbidden to my mind comes the memory of a carful of seminarians careening around the streets of a German city in the aftermath of Deutschland vs Sweden yelling "Wir fahren nach Berlin! Toll! Super! Prima!" And who was that red-haired woman wedged in the back seat chummily between beer-drinking seminarians both Polish and German? (Oh, look--badgers!)
Anyway, not all seminarians are so lucky to have been trained up in close proximity to foreign students and beer, so it is understandable that many good young priests are shy of young women. They hear many frightful stories, many of which are true, although rarely true of teenage girls, especially the cradle Catholics, who wouldn't flirt with a priest any more than they would flirt with a seven-year-old. The idea would simply disgust and horrify them. Really, the gals to watch out for are your own age, especially if unhappily married or chronically unhappy, period. That said, the 90 year old priest who told you women would chase a broom with a Roman collar on it was wrong, and my friends and I would like a word with him.
What a very North American beginning. In general, men in North America are not afraid of women, and when they are, they hide it by making aggressive and sarcastic remarks. In Britain men hide their fear of women by running away from them and taking refuge in philology and beer.
Priests don't have the option of running away, however. Take a deep breath and consider that although you had no idea what to say to girls when you were 14, you are no longer 14 but over 25. And although 14 year old girls were indeed smarter than you when you were 14, they are not smarter than you, aged 25+. Also, you are no longer just you, you are Father Somebody, with a strong accent on the Father. They don't see you (or just you), they see the collar; take some comfort from that. They also think you are OLD, old like teachers and the Pope; take some comfort from that, too.
As we were all told in "Introduction to Ministry", your job as a counsellor is not to advise but to LISTEN. And if you don't understand what you are hearing, you repeat back to the speaker what you think she has said, or ask her to clarify what she has said.
After she has said her piece, you start asking the questions that you think she should ask herself. Very often young women know in their heart of hearts the painful answer to their questions, but they want to ignore it.
Girl: And so when Maureen broke up with him, he came to my house, and we fooled around and stuff, and then the next day he was back with Maureen, and I keep calling him and he doesn't call back.
You: Maureen broke up with him, he came to your house, you fooled around and stuff, and the next day he was back with Maureen.
Girl (crying): Yeah. And I'm so mad because I keep calling and calling and he doesn't answer his phone.
You: How do you know he was back with Maureen?
Girl: Maureen told me herself.
You: Does she know he fooled around with you?
Girl: I don't know. I hope not. Maybe. Oh, maybe she does.
You: Do you think he might have told her?
You: Why do you think he would fool around with you when he was just going to end up with Maureen again?
Girl: I don't know. Because he's an arse?
You: Whatever he is, do you think he's good boyfriend material?
Girl: No! He's an ARSE. But I'm in love with him.
Girl: Oh, you wouldn't understand.
You: Well, I'd like to understand. Although the person who really has to understand is you.
Girl: Eh? What do you mean?
Et cetera. Anyway, this is the technique I learned for helping distraught people to come to their own conclusions. If young women come to you with pointed questions, then you give (or elicit from) them the straight answers you have learned from studying theology and apologetics day and night.
Girl: How come women can't be priests?
You: Er, do you wish you could be a priest?
Girl: Me? No! But I want to know how come women can't be priests.
You (secretly relieved): How come men can't be mothers?
Girl: Come on, I'm serious.
You: So am I. You tell me. How come men can't be mothers?
Girl: That's totally different. That's about biology!
You: So you're saying gender is just about biology.
You: You're saying there are no psychological differences between men and women.
Girl: Well, no, um. There are, obviously, but I don't see what that has to do with the priesthood.
You: Well, I'll tell you. But first, do you think there are spiritual differences between men and women?
Girl: Uh... No. How can there be?
You: Well, Thomas Aquinas says the soul is the form of the body, so if you have a female body, you have a female soul.
Girl: No way! I didn't know that.
Carry on, soldier.
The key, I think, is understanding when the young woman you're talking to is in the grip of emotion and when she is wrestling with an intellectual problem. In general, if she's talking about people, feelings, fooling around, she's in the grip of emotion. If she brings up a theological point, reason is her starting point.
That said, if she brings up a controversy, she may be be operating from reason, BUT do not surprised if reason crumbles and you're left with fury because she was really in the grip of emotion the whole time. That is why it is a good idea to gently check and make sure there is no intensely personal reason why she has brought up the controversy. You probably don't need me to tell you that in a classroom discussion, if a girl starts getting upset, the best thing you can do is say, "Why don't you come and see me after class?"
Another word of advice that comes to mind is to never assume anything about a young woman you don't know. She might be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, or she might have only the foggiest notion of the facts of life. I know you are trained to quell curiosity, but if you really are confused by something, ask for clarification. Ask carefully.
Girl: And then we, you know.
You (secretly dreading worst): You...
Girl: You know.
You: You... Actually, I don't know.
Girl: We kissed!
You (secretly mostly relieved): What kind of a kiss?
Girl: On the cheek.
You (secretly entirely relieved): A nice affectionate gesture.
I hope this is helpful.
Grace and peace,
P.S. Never give fashion or beauty advice beyond "it is kind to be modest". An elderly priest once told me my hair looked better one way than another, and I felt very, very creeped out.
Update: If any women have advice for priests in advising women, feel free to post it in the com box.
Update 2: A kindly cleric sent in these thoughts by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman about his adventures in Ireland:
5. And the fifth chapter will narrate his misadventure at Waterford—-how he went to the Ursuline convent there and the Acting Superior determined he should see all the young ladies of the school, to the number of seventy, all dressed in blue, with medals on,—-some blue, some green, some red—-and how he found he had to make them a speech and how he puzzled and fussed himself what on earth he should say impromptu to a parcel of school-girls; and how, in his distress, he did make what he considered his best speech; and how, when it was ended, the Mother school-mistress did not know he had made it, or even begun it, and still asked for his speech. And how he would not, because he could not, make a second speech; and how, to make it up, he asked for a holiday for the girls; and how the Mother school-mistress flatly refused him, by reason (as he verily believes) because she would not recognise and accept his speech, and wanted another, and thought she had dressed up her girls for nothing; and how he nevertheless drank her raspberry vinegar, which much resembles a nun's anger, being a sweet acid, and how he thought to himself, it being his birthday, that he was full old to be forgiven if he could not at a moment act the spiritual jack pudding to a girls' school.