It is odd to observe twenty-somethings trying to act like fifty-somethings. Yet such behavior is found among a small percentage of seminarians today, who gather to drink good scotch, smoke cigars and discuss liturgy (or, more often, liturgical abuses). Cassocks and French cuffs are preferred. A casual observer might wonder if these young men are older than they appear—or are simply out of touch with reality. There are also seminarians across the country who gather, somewhat clandestinely, to study papal encyclicals and other works, such as those of St. Thomas Aquinas, which are no longer offered as part of most seminary curricula. There is in all this a hunger for something finer than the best scotch—a hunger for a priestly culture.
When I was ordained 16 years ago, the oldest priests of the diocese spoke nostalgically of pastors who regularly opened their rectories on Saturday nights for priestly fraternity—usually a card game and a good meal. In the time of my priesthood, such a regular experience would be nearly inconceivable. The Saturday schedule of a typical parish priest—morning Mass, weddings, meetings, confessions and the vigil Mass, not to mention the anticipation (and homily preparation?) for Sunday—leaves all but the most robust men with little or no energy to venture far from their own rectory. There are many tired men alone in rectories on Saturday nights. Yet these same men often demonstrate great zeal for the Lord and his church. Would more priestly fraternity amplify that zeal? Are the seminarians grasping for new models of a priestly culture?
This movement draws the suspicion of many within the church. It is perceived as a sign of a “new clericalism” that must be avoided or stamped out wherever it has begun. This “clericalism” is judged by many to be elitist and one of the cardinal sins of the age, masking a fundamentally derisive view of the laity. In my diocese, the priest study days must now include the women religious who have been named pastoral administrators of parishes, because, it is claimed, “excluding” them would undermine their ministry and dignity. Notably, few of these women choose to attend diocesan ordinations.
Many young men who aspire to be priests perceive, perhaps only dimly, something that is being ignored in many ecclesiastical circles—that people are social beings who need reinforcement in their commitments, and that ordination to the priesthood is meant to make men members of a particular community, a local presbyterate. Today’s seminarians are frightened by the isolation and loneliness they see in those long ordained. So they are being creative in establishing new groups within the seminary.
They hope to fashion systems of support that include common prayer, study and recreation and will continue long after their seminary years. They are also thoroughly committed to the vision of Pope John Paul II. They simply do not see enough signs of this kind of vision and support in diocesan presbyterates, and they are therefore extremely interested in the new ecclesial movements that seek to establish a new cultural foundation for the practice of the faith.
Why don’t seminarians find existing communities of support in their respective dioceses? The answers are varied. In my own diocese, it was recently explained to the priests that the “problem” with the newly ordained is that many of them only remember one pope—the present one, and therefore have a more “limited vision” of the church. This kind of campaign to “explain” one generation to another is condescending and was resented by the younger men. It of course masks another agenda, and makes painfully obvious the lack of a common ecclesiology in that presbyterate.
Furthermore, there are fewer opportunities for friendship. As one-man rectories and hectic schedules become nearly universal, each priest has fewer contacts with other priests. And since seminary formation has been so polarized over the past 30 years, marked by different liturgical rubrics, contrasting teachings with regard to faith and morals and varying levels of tolerance for a wide variety of “lifestyles,” there is now little of the common ground that comes from a common heritage of formation.
Younger priests are interested in a heritage that could be shared among priests in order to strengthen both their vocations and the church. But many members of the clergy today have little or no experience of living and working in a united presbyterate. Those dioceses where such a common vision exists, and where activities that foster it are maintained, have a greater number of vocations. Of course, younger men must be reminded that even communities of faith can never wholly obliterate human loneliness. Most are not simply seeking to care for themselves; they desire to create and strengthen a new culture of life and the basis for a new evangelization, and they are willing to risk the disdain of the senior clergy in order to do so.
Wouldn’t the creation of an authentic priestly culture contribute to the renewal of the church and to the building up of a wider Christian culture? Broad lines for the creation of a new priestly culture include, in the first place, a common vision of Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior of the world, and of the church as his principal instrument of salvation for all humanity. Without a common faith, all attempts to “heal the divisions” (which all but the most obtuse know exist) are merely political and ultimately ineffective. Countless clergy study days, listening sessions and group processing for over a generation have surely proven that.
But culture is broader than faith statements. It includes channels of human creativity and encounter: literature and the arts, politics and economics, theology and philosophy, as well as sport and recreation. It also includes openness to the more sublime human encounter of friendship. And for the priest it must include prayer in communion with his brothers, who struggle together to live the life of an alter Christus. Cautions against exclusivity are always in order, and the merely superficial gatherings founded in clerical gossip are always spiritually destructive. But the attempt to preclude the goal of a clerical/priestly culture reduces the priesthood to a professional vocation.
Within the next several years, many parishes will be without resident or even nearby priests. The constant talk and fear of a “new clericalism” is ultimately meant to head off the remedy—a clear and consistent identification of the role of the priest and the strengthening of his spiritual and organic union with other priests. Those who fear a takeover by clericalism must be counted among those who lie awake at night speculating fearfully about which of the meteors careening through space will hit the earth. In either case, the actual numbers simply do not make the feared disaster very likely. I rejoice in the initiative of seminarians and younger clergy who struggle to articulate a new vision of life in fraternal union with other priests.
A diocesan priest is indeed called upon to be immersed in the saeculum, but he needs a lifeline to the sacred in order not to drown. As husband and wife are called upon to cling to each other in love, and in that context raise children for the sake of the kingdom, the diocesan priest must find ways to maintain communion with his brother priests, his bishop and the bishop of Rome. This communion must not remain theoretical, but be expressed in concrete signs and actions, which are precisely the foundation for the new clerical/priestly culture proposed.
The professionalized and individualistic notion of diocesan priesthood in which I was formed does not draw significant numbers of men to Christ, much less to the priesthood. A man is ordained into a diocesan presbyterate for the sake of service in a particular diocese. He is not ordained to be a kind of freelance sacramental operator or even to be merely an authorized agent of the bishop. Rather, in ontological and existential union with Jesus Christ and with his brother priests, he is to serve the church.
While attempts to fashion a new priestly culture may appear adolescent at times, they are not without merit. The great animosity with which these groups are often met is perhaps surprising to those who encounter it for the first time. There is an air of desperation among some seminary faculties and diocesan officials, who seek to eradicate what they perceive to be signs of a resurgent clericalism and a loss of their vision for the church, born of the last century. But John Paul II’s conviction that culture is the “driving force of historical change” gives hope to those who seek the formation of a renewed cultural expression of the priesthood for the sake of the kingdom. There will not be an ultimate or final formulation, a “culture for the ages”; but with great efforts and God’s grace, it might be the culture best suited for the beginnings of the new millennium and more in keeping with Catholic life and teaching than what has been experienced recently.