success stories

Posted June 10, 2003

Three Major Differences Between Young and Older Priests

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.

[On the topic of the way young priests feel about their ecclesiology] the following three priests speak for the majority. The young-versus-old fencing match today is fought over just a few theological topics, while there is agreement on the rest. The young differ in three general ways from their predecessors.

The main difference is clearly ecclesiology. The young men hold a different view of the Church and the value of changes in the Church than the older men. They are not interested in the issues of the post-Vatican years or in any effort to realize "the spirit of Vatican II." As we have seen, they take pride in having a longer view which is open to adopting practices even from the Middle Ages. Unlike their elders, they don't see why some pre-Vatican II practices were bad and couldn't be re-introduced today. They are not pushing for changes in the Church but would rather have a breathing space of stability after the chaos of the last three decades.

Second, a specific issue felt with urgency by these priests is the theology of the priesthood. The young men hold to a sacramental and cultic theology of the priest. They reject a theology defining priesthood as merely a matter of function in church life. They insist that the priest is distinct from the laity, and that emphatically includes ontological as well as institutional distinctiveness. The priest-lay distinction of the pre-Vatican II era needs to be reconsidered and probably reinstated. The new priests are less enthusiastic than their elders about lay ministers and the possibility of working with lay ministers as equals.

The life of a priest is symbolic of spiritual things, and a priest must be mindful of this every minute of his life. A priest is an icon and even, in one person's words, "a mystical presence." This is one of the most important roles of a priest, not to be sidelined in favor of unending activity or doing good works. The priest must keep a strong prayer life to sustain him in his special role, and this requires nourishment from the breviary and from confession.

The third area of tussle is liturgy. Several voiced the desire to add beauty and transcendence to the liturgy through special vestments, Latin prayers, and chalices. They are open to re-introducing kneelers and bells, not just for the sake of innovation but to restore a sense of sacredness and mystery to the Eucharist. Now the liturgy is too plain, too Protestant. Older priests who disagree are seen by the young as unduly captive to their own specific issues from the 1960s and 1970s, issues which are no longer pressing. The young priests are not interested in the 60s or the 70s, but rather in the long sweep of Catholic spirituality. They ask: Who could object to that?