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Posted June 10, 2003

Feelings of Priests on Central Priesthood Issues



These findings come from the study: Evolving Visions of the Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the New Century by Dr. Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger. For further information please e-mail Dr. Dean Hoge at hoge@cua.edu.

What is the main task of the priest today? Is it being an example or icon, providing spiritual leadership, conveying church teachings, leading a community, managing an organization, pushing for social betterment, or what? How have priests changed in their answers to this question over the past 30 years? These topics were central to all our interviews and focus groups. The viewpoints of the priests were diverse, making summarizing risky. However, they did, once again, tend to fall into a pattern divided by age. To communicate them as clearly as we can, we again present interview excerpts in two categories: older priests and younger priests.

We begin with older priests. A midwestern focus group we conducted contained a group of men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies.

Priest #1:
There has been a breakdown in the fraternity that we had, when we were very much at home with one another and would stop in and visit. And other priests would stop what they were doing to accommodate and greet their fellow priests. I've noticed a breakdown in that fraternity.

Priest #2:
One of the realities that has changed for a lot of us is using more of the collegial approach, and not seeing ourselves as that the priest has all the answers and that the people come to us. We are the facilitator and enabler of the people, allowing them to do the ministry.

Priest #3:
I didn't always think of myself as old. But what I see now about the men who are being ordained at present I wonder if we are members of the same church! I'm surprised at their liturgical conservatism. I'm surprised at their uncomfortableness in working with women. I'm surprised at their retreat to practices that were gone before I was ordained. So for me, one of the obstacles of the present time is that I'm amazed at the number of priests who are younger who are suspicious and look askance at their older brother priests, as if we are the unfaithful ones and they are ones who are the keeper of the keys.

Priest #4:
One of my fears about the new conservatism is not so much the conservatism itself, but whether some of the priests are going back to some of the older symbols. What really freed me was the Vatican Council, because of its whole image of the priesthood as servant-leader. It was "I come not to lead but to serve" and not a status thing. And my fear is that some of those symbols that are beng used and some of the things that are being done are emphasizing more the status of the priest and wanting to be sure that there is a clear distance between the priest and the poeple, and that "we're in a special kind of realm up here" rather than "We are servants."

Priest #5:
I would echo that to some extent. I was a priest in those early days, and it seemed like the term aggiornamento the updating and the renewal there was a tremendous excitement about becoming more relevant to the world and to do things to make the Church very much a part of the world situation. There was a great sense of activism. And I experienced a lot of attention to going outside the church into the community, whether it was in social justice kinds of issues or working with poverty people, and to put less emphasis on the other kinds of really "churchy" things. But I think a lot of that has changed. Now there is a lot more attention to serving the Church and being very aware of our identity as church people and as priest working for the good of the Church, and much more attention to those kinds of clerical issues. In the early days, we didn't focus a lot on clerical issues at all, but now there is much more attention on clerical issues.

Younger Priests

Younger priests tended to have different emphases. Father Bruce, a 37-year-old diocesan priest, described in an interview how the recently ordained men view the priesthood:

The newly ordained tend to be more traditional. They tend to be more ecclesiologically sound, ecclesiological traditional. By and large, they're not grinding any axes. But they also have greater instability, I would say, because of the changes in our society and because of the decay of the family in the 60s and 70s wqhen I was coming up. I think you see those personality problems come out later in the priesthood. So there is a certain instability among individuals, which unfortunately is then seen as the reason they are traditional. The fact is, the generation before mine threw everything out the window, and my generation knew nothing of it. We didn't have anything to throw. Latin was non-existent in 1972 when I was coming upon First Holy Communion. We never did any of that. There wre some traditional forms, but we didn't know the preconciliar church. And then, the further we got, the more we realized how we had been deprived. And yes, the instability of the 60s and 70s did lead my generation to seek out the stability of the more traditional forms. But it's not relly just a crutch; it's in order to embrace the entirety of the Church, instead of rejecting everything that preceded the Council. My group said, "No. We liked the church then, we like the church now, we liked the church for 2000 years."

Fr. Bruce noted several things that distinguish younger priests from older ones: Chalices, and interest in the transcendent liturgy, th cultic liturgy. Titles too. A lot of older priests will say, "Oh, just call me Bill." But that doesn't happen in this diocese much. The younger priests will tend to say, "Just call me Father." I used to think that that was important when I was younger, but now I couldn't care less, by and large, unless it's a parishioner, and then you need the distance. Our life is much more symbolic than other people's lives, in the sense that everything we do, everything we have, everything we wear, every way we present ourselves at liturgy and in the streets is symbolic of something else.

A 36-year-old diocesan priest criticized some of his elders for calling undue attention to themselves in their liturgies:

I find it difficult, in terms of liturgical style, to see priests who really feel the need to express themselves and make the liturgy kind of their own, rather than submit themselves to the liturgy of the Church. You follow the liturgy in the books and it's absolutely beautiful, and I've found that if I'm faithful to that, it comes through in my own experience and in the experience of many of my peers. They've had a lot of people come up to them and say, "You know, Father, we have no doubt we've been to Mass when you've celebrated,: which tells me that there have been times when they've gone to another Mass and wondered if anything Catholic happened. So I think it's the style whereby one humbles himself to what the Church asks him to do in terms of liturgy, rather than try to stand apart from that or put his own stamp on it.

A 42-year-old priest criticized some of the older men for not wearing the collar: Some of them are just too secular. Some are ashamed to dress like this, with a collar. My experience is, in the short time I've been here, is that it has helped me so many times to wear a collar. It has gotten me into places, like into a crashed car where a woman would not let anyone else in until she saw the collar, and I could get in and comfort her until help was given to her. There is no place I don't go here in this town without this collar unless I'm jogging or playing basketball.

In an interview another 36-year-old diocesan priest described the newly ordained: I would say, almost without a doubt, that those ordained now are probably (I hate to use the term) much more "company men." "This is what we were ordained to do, this is how they told us they want us to do it, this is what is coming out of Rome, therefore this is what we're going to do when we go out there." As opposed to my personal impression of those who were not strict, those ordained in the 70s and 60s. With them it's more, "This is what the Church has told us they want us to do and what we're ordained for, but the Church is growing and changing and we need to grow and change with it. We can be pioneers in this respect; 30 percent of the churches in Europe are doing this and I think this is the way the Church is going, so we're going to make those changes here." Yeah, and sometimes they're right. Look at altar girls. Change came and they were right, and the practice became the practice for the diocese. I think there are very few parishes that still have only altar boys; I could probably count them on one hand. With those priests with whom I hung out, if it had not been approved by Rome, we wouldn't have done it. I would have said, "I'm sorry, it's out of my hands. If you want altar girls, write to Rome, write to the bishop. It has nothing to do with me." And take the example of taking kneelers out of the church. Different bishops say different things. That's why it's a lot easier to just say, "This is what I'm told to do. This is what I'm going to do."