success stories

Posted June 12, 2003

Historical Overview: Priests in America, 1930-2002
R. Scott Appleby/NFPC
In Origins June 5, 2003 Vol. 33: NO.4

“Defining the priest’s role in the society and in the church itself has been a near-constant preoccupation for 50 years,” church historian R. Scott Appleyby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said in his keynote address May 5 to the assembly of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in Kansas City, Mo.

In a historical overview of models of the priesthood in America from the 1930s to the present, Appleby focused particularly on three “moments”: the “all-purpose priesthood” from the 1930s to the 1950s; the new approaches to priestly ministry that emerged from 1962 to 1975 with the “urban priest” and “the professional specialization of the so-called ‘hyphenated priest’”; and the development in the 1970s and 1980s of a view of the parish priest as “a coordinator, supervisor or ‘orchestra leader’” who brings “cohesion and direction — harmony” to the efforts of many within the parish who serve the church and the world. The Second Vatican Council’s “emphasis on the ‘priesthood of the laity’ and the church as ‘the people of God’ . . .demanded a formal and full reconsideration of the role and identity of the priest in this new church,” Appleby said. He commented, “What is striking is not that the American priesthood was significantly transformed by these seismic shifts in church and society — no American institution was left unaffected by the 1960 — but that American priests were able throughout to preserve a real sense of continuity with the past even as they formed new alliances and cast off outdated approaches to ministry.” And Appleby said that “contrary to expectations, sociological surveys demonstrated an increase in American priests’ self-esteem, morale and satisfaction with their work during the period from 1970 to 1985. Part of the explanation for this continued vitality in the midst of change was the emergence in the 1970s of an approach to priestly ministry, a way of presence to the parish community, which consolidated the gains of the period of crisis while retaining many of the strengths of the all-purpose priesthood. The priest who follows this way of presence is given the realities of contemporary parish life, an ‘orchestra leader.’”

Excerpts from Text:

As a rule, the all-purpose priest did not empower the laity to act within the parish or in behalf of the parish out in the world. Instead, he took it upon himself to act. In the world he alone represented the parish. And in the parish he incorporated various ministries within his own. Better put: It did not occur to him that significant apostolic service might occur apart from his sacerdotal office.

In all of this the priest faced overwhelming competition for the attention and loyalty of Catholics who had, a decade earlier, accepted his ability to speak authoritatively on private faith and public morals. Now he seemed but one among many purveyors of truth.

If this was a period of crisis — a turning point, a moment of decision — then one must also conclude, from a vantage three decades removed, that the American priesthood as a whole weathered it quite well, answering the challenge to priestly existence with a firm, if not resounding yes. Although there were resignations from the priesthood in unprecedented numbers, over two-thirds of the presbyterate remained in active ministry. It is true that some of these simply ‘hung on’: it is equally true that many more deepened their commitment to the Catholic priesthood after painful self-scrutiny and soul-searching.

Yet this incorporation of the secular behavior sciences into the Catholic worldview affected Catholic anthropology at least as much as Catholic anthropology influenced the sciences. Priests who had been trained in a manual tradition which defined the human person primarily in spiritual and metaphysical terms now developed an appreciation of the complex and ambiguous nature of the human personality and motivations.

The vast majority of American Catholic priests did not leave the parish at all, of course. But in ministering to their parish communities many sought to combine the effective pastoral presence of the all-purpose priest with the newly earned sophistication about modern existence that came with professionalization.

These studies described a number of distinctive characteristics of the American priest in the period immediately following Vatican II, not the least of which was his very real need to reconceive his relationship to three groups which had shaped his identity in the preconconciliar era: the institutional church, represented by its formal teaching and authority structures; the lay men and women whom he served in the parish; and his fellow priest.

Each of these four developments in the priesthood in response to the ecclesial and cultural identity crisis of the 1960s — the emergence of the social activist ‘urban priest’; the pursuit of professional careers by religious-order and, to a lesser extent, diocesan priests; the new awareness of the priesthood as itself a unique profession worthy of study; and the building of national, diocesan and parochial networks of information, advocacy and mutual support by priests for priests — contributed significantly to the transformation of the priesthood especially to the emergence of a way of priestly presence to the parish in the 1970s and 1980s which kept him in the parish.