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Posted October 3, 2003

Dr. Scott Appleby Offers Historical Perspective
on Development of Priesthood

by Rev. Lawrence Dowling
in NFPCís magazine Touchstone

Donít forget "Priesthood Sunday October 26, 2003
Please see reference to it in our "Links"

In his keynote presentation, "Present to the People of God: Transformations in the American Priesthood 1962-2002," Dr Scott Appleby described the ongoing crises that have threatened and formed the priesthood in this time period.

According to Dr. Appleby, the recent crisis regarding sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up by some bishops is only one of many crises that have formed the church and the priesthood over these forty years.

Such developments as the post-World War II upward mobility and assimilation of the laity, the societal drive for conformity, Vatican Council II, the sexual revolution, civil rights, womenís rights and gay rights movements, the technological revolution, and, most recently, the sexual abuse crisis have impacted the church and priesthood.

Appleby highlights three phases since 1930. From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, we have the era of the priest as ombudsman. Priesthood was centered in the parish, where his presence was both symbolic and functional. The priest was alter Christus, truly set apart from the world, as was the Church itself. Seminary formation emphasized the inculcation of supernatural virtues in their students, conducted in a para-military program "characterized by the stern, other-worldly ascesis of the Irish tradition, or by the supernaturalism of Sulpician piety." Individualism or any expression of distinctiveness of personality in and through the priesthood came under severe scrutiny.

The theology undergirding this image was a-historical, sustaining "a vertical rather than a horizontal faith." Social concern was exercised within the parameters of the world-view. There was no presumption the resources of faith could be brought to bear upon the intractable situation or complex economic structures which caused poverty. There was no empowerment of the laity within the parish or to act on behalf of the parish in the world. Any sense of collaboration was among brother priests.

The priest, by virtue of an education and status much greater than most of those to whom he would be ministering, "was expected to perform a variety of functions for which he was, in the majority of cases, woefully unprepared." Training in psychology, pastoral counseling, interpersonal relationships, parish administration and political skills were lacking.

Priests were regaled in the media through the likes of Fulton Sheen, Clare Booth Luce, and even sports figures like Notre Dameís Johnny Lujack who wrote an article on priests called "Godís Quarterbacks." Priests throughout this time frame enjoyed the respect of many who assumed that they could do just about everything.

Beginning around 1952, a relatively small but influential group of priests began to emerge, initiating a series of reform movements in the United States, focused for example on social justice. Vatican II spurred the efforts of leaders like Jack Egan, George Higgins and Reynold Hllenbrand of Chicago, who drew from the earlier of Fr. John Ryan who penned in 1919 the Bishopís Program of Social Reconstruction, and William J. Kerby who founded the National Conference of Catholic Charities. Within the movements of Catholic Action, social justice, liturgical renewal and others was a tension between the priestís role in the parish and beyond the parish. The priests involved in these movements were "reformers not radicals," encouraging parishioners to bring the teachings of the church to bear on the greater society. During the time after Vatican II many bishops sent some of their seminarians to Catholic University for advanced degrees in social work, education and administration, where they were also exposed to Catholic Action. Over time this created a vital network of communication among priests involved in pioneering ministries.

Also during this time the laity began to take stronger roles in parish leadership and in filling the gaps left by a diminishing group of religious men and women.

As the laity began to increase in professional status in the secular world, the parish priest was no longer all things for all people. Accountability of the parish priest to the laity grew stronger.

Vatican II "fostered a genuine pluralism of theological methodologies and perspectives." However, the changes that came out of the Council caught many priests off guard. Those who managed the transition showed a heroic resiliency in making the transformation. However, in making the changes, little if any explanation was given to a laity eager to understand. "They (the laity) were now the People of God, but we continue to treat them like passive children." We continued to defend our actions as rooted in the authority of the church.

In the 1960's, along with Vatican II, priests were forced to respond to the massive cultural upheaval in which the emphasis fell on personhood and developing oneís potential through political activism, drugs, free love, transcendental meditation or transactional analysis. The priest was now one among many purveyors of truth.

In the midst of this upheaval, there were massive resignations; however, over two-thirds of the presbyterate remained in active ministry.

In this time frame many priests committed themselves to inner city ministry to the poor, fighting racism in themselves and in others, working for adequate housing and employment for minorities. During this time there arose the "hyphenated priest ó the priest-sociologist, priest-psychologist, priest-novelist ó in response to the renewed awareness that the business of the church was the human condition in all its manifestations." There was also a growing recognition that the priest himself was a human subject with a particular spiritual, sociological and psychological profile. Priests also began to form senates, clubs, associations and prayer groups, suggesting that the commitment to priesthood required mutual support. These affiliations extended to men and women religious, setting the stage for a greater sense of collaboration. This period also gave rise to differing degrees of acceptance of official church teaching, particularly in regards to Humanae Vitae, celibacy and the exclusivity of a male-only priesthood.

Appleby marks 1973 as the time of the emergence of the priest as "orchestra leader." With a decreasing number of clergy, a growing desire for the laity to embrace their "royal priesthood by virtue of baptism," a required diversification of skills to respond to the new wave of Latino and Asian immigrants, and the impetus from the institutional church and movements such as Cursillo and Marriage Encounter, the priest has been called on to cultivate the gifts of the laity, integrating and supervising their individual efforts, establishing a community of common purpose.

Parish councils and parish staffs became a primary avenue of participation of the laity and religious in parishes. This empowerment, however, has depended greatly on the personal character of the individual pastor, their desire to share power, and their sense of being threatened by the talented and pastorally sophisticated women religious and lay men and women with whom they worked. For many priests there was/is a tension in articulating his own distinctiveness as an ordained priest.

Within recent history has emerged a group of priests called "John Paul II priests" who have embraced a more conservative and reactionary view of priesthood. Dr. Appleby suggests that this group will continue to be presence for some time, but ultimately will have to embrace the orchestra leader model if they are going to bring the relevance of the faith to bear in any meaningful way on the secular culture.

Dr. Appleby concludes by offering that the current crisis around the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up will continue to challenge the church and the priesthood to reclaim it status as a moral voice inviting the transformation toward a more just socity.