I became a priest 50 years ago. Here’s how the perception of priesthood has changed

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston ordains seminarian Mark Mleziva of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., as a transitional deacon during an ordination Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston ordains seminarian Mark Mleziva of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., as a transitional deacon during an ordination Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In 1954 Robert Collins and I, with 51 others, entered the former Jesuit seminary St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a massive E-shaped house of discipline up the river from Sing Sing and West Point. The culture there was captured neatly in the then recently made vocational film called “The Long Black Line.” It depicted young men in black cassocks marching around in single file and was directed by a Jesuit who was trained in Pyongyang.

Bob studied at Shrub Oak, the former Jesuit school of philosophy, and taught in a high school in New York; I did the same in Cebu and Davao in the Philippines. We met again at Woodstock College in the woods of Maryland. We were still a large class when most of us were ordained at Fordham University in 1967, and there are a few of us left in various stages of decrepitude.

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I think both of us find ourselves after 50 years in priestly existence in our favorite jobs as measured by the length of commitment to them: Bob as the long-time managing editor of America and experienced Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults catechist and myself as a teacher of theology. Here we appear at different extremes looking for a virtuous mean: Bob should write more about his techniques for introducing people to Catholicism, and I should probably write less.

I celebrate this development but not because the past was bad and the present good.

Both of us have had the privilege of living across the canyon of an epochal change in the image of a Catholic priest in North America. Since we are celebrating 50 years of priestly ministry I think I should risk a comment on how I, at least, have experienced changes in the perception of a Catholic priest. I will propose a thesis from my experience that others can react to on the basis of their own. I mean it as applied to Jesuit priesthood rather than diocesan.

I think that priesthood in U.S. culture has become less an ontological condition mediated by a sacrament and more of a practical and functional way of church leadership and representation. The principal reasons for this change are social and cultural; it happened to us more than appearing as an option we could choose. And it is not necessarily a bad development. I read the comparison of a “before” and an “after” as a positive.

The “before” is vivid in my imagination. The priesthood I grew up with attracted me. Everyone my age knows it; young Jesuits may only know about it. It had huge social support from Catholic culture and sacramental theology; pictures of priests in vestments, set apart and holding up the eucharistic species, dramatize it.

By contrast, Jesuit priests have been pioneers in the “after”—in the time of a functional priesthood. Most of us are hyphenated with professional responsibilities that are secular in character. We all begin work on Monday at nine. Father Collins is an editor; Father Haight is also Dr. or Professor Haight. Priestly celibacy used to bear an eschatological witness: Our true home is in heaven. Functional priesthood bears incarnational witness to the value of human existence and the sacred character of service to it.

I celebrate this development but not because the past was bad and the present good. These are matters of cultural tide and interpretation. But I revel in this functional priesthood because it allows Bob and me to be in the right place in the whole of what we have been and still are doing. Thanks be to God.

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Charles Erlinger
2 weeks 5 days ago

Father Haight, I hope some fellow Jesuit commenter can expand on this reflection in slightly less abstract terms than:

"I think that priesthood in U.S. culture has become less an ontological condition mediated by a sacrament and more of a practical and functional way of church leadership and representation."

Michael Seredick
2 weeks 5 days ago

I understand being charitable, but it is difficult to respond knowing my honest will be considered uncharitable. Fr. Haight and I may be of similar age, and as a young man I wanted to be a priest. This article caught my attention because I remain sympathetic to the good priests I've know in my life. However, after the ABUSE COVERUP, my perception of Catholic leadership, all the way up to and including the Pope has changed. In my remaining lifetime I'll never be able to accept the fact that my Church, on a world-wide scale, thought Church Reputation was far more important than the safety of children. I don't care about other denominations and professions. I care about my Catholic upbringing. Whatever negative opinions people have of the church because of the COVERUP, Church leadership is responsible for the disgrace. God Bless the good priests, but hiding your head in the sand on this issue is your problem, not the few faithful remaining in the pews.

Walter Sandell
2 weeks 4 days ago

I am a former seminarian. The 'Spiritual Director' at my first seminary attempted to remove my pajama bottoms when I was sick. The Director of Vocations for my diocese was later revealed as an abuser, as well as a number of priests in my Diocese. This is not the only type of abuse in the RCC. The exclusion of women from Holy Orders is an arrogant abuse of authority.

Michael Barberi
2 weeks 4 days ago

I consider myself a good reader and try to understand many different points of view and the motivations or goals of articles in Am. Mag. However, this article is perplexing. I have no idea what the authors were trying to accomplish other than 'things have changed by the choice of an ambiguous and extremely brief explanation that only the authors seem to understand'.

Andrew Urban
2 weeks 4 days ago

I can't say for sure but I would imagine that this is a big part of the decline in vocations. I can't imagine who would want to be a priest if the priesthood is conceived of in practical/functional, rather than supernatural, terms. There are plenty of ways to serve humanity and bear witness to the value of human existence that don't require a vow of celibacy.

Tom Poelker
2 weeks 4 days ago

In America, much of the change in the status of priests is due to assimilation and the GI Bill. The priesthood was no longer the route out of the proletariat and into the professional level of the upper class. Sons could contribute more to the status of the family by routes other than becoming members of the clerical elite. Now law and medicine and all of academia was open to American Catholics who had proven themselves patriotic Americans rather than foreigners. They shared in the GI access to the univerities for themselves and for their subsequent childrent. These educated Catholics no longer deferred to priests based on some upper class status and higher education. The laity now could see what was arbitrary rather than logical and resisted the feudal rule of lords of the parish. Now priests are often expected to carry out their functions well rather than rule benevolently.

Frank Bergen
2 weeks 4 days ago

I nodded, at least figuratively, with every sentence I read, right to the end of this too brief reflection on the priestly lives of two contemporaries I've never met. Called 'Father' as a 24 year old scholastic teaching In Baghdad in 1960, ordained in the New England province a year before Roger and Bob, I always wanted to be accepted as the "after" kind of priest at a time when too many chose to see me and them as "before" priests. And even after more than twenty years of exercising my priesthood in the Episcopal Church, I still find that many people prefer to treat me and my confreres as "before" priests. Roger, I'd urge you to write further on the topic lest today's "before" generation of aspirants to ordination result in our being viewed as a phenomenon of no lasting significance.

Barry Fitzpatrick
2 weeks 2 days ago

Thanks be to God, indeed. What a meditation on growth in one's vocation! Sorry that others can't revel in your words to understand the depth of the commitment Fr. Bob and Fr. Roger continue to live out in their ever advancing "decrepitude." Nothing decrepit about the mind that still thinks like this. God bless and thank you.

Timothy Allen
2 weeks 1 day ago

Are you suggesting that ministry is more about functioning rather than ontology? I have often thought that the poor functioning of the Church vis-a-vis wholesale abuse of the vulnerable and attendant coverup make this exact point. In other words, the Church really isn't what it says it is, but there are some folks around with good hearts and minds trying heroically to show that God is worth knowing. This insight is why so many of us take an a la carte approach: The Church itself has no ontological basis for being any more an arbiter of that truth than some other gnostic option.

Bruce Snowden
2 weeks 1 day ago

I am neither priest, nor gifted scholar and theologian as is the respected Jesuit Roger Haight, yet I venture to wonder if Father’s brief explanation of the apparent decline of the ontological nature of the priesthood, to a more functional one, is too conclusive. Using only my credentials of Faith and some exposure to theology, more accurately known as “teaology” that’s what happens discussing religion while sipping Tea (!) I dare to give utterance to my belief that the ontological nature of the Priesthood is sacramentally irreversible, indelible, everlasting, even if the pull of contemporary tides make Priesthood appear as merely functional.

This is not to say that Priesthood is not in some ways also functional. Priesthood is, of course, also functional and has always been so, designed by Christ, to be sacramentally ontologically functional, unchangeably ONE as are the Human and Divine Natures of Jesus in Whom Priestly ontological functions are rooted. The Priest functions in the Person of Christ the “ever ancient, ever new” Almighty God, doing things altogether “other” that no one else can do.

Now the interesting link. If what Sister Emanuela, one time spoke-person for the Visionaries of Medjugorje is accurate and I believe it is, even the Priestly Blessing is an intrinsic function of the Godhead, and as such an ontological function of the Priesthood, God’s Blessing and the Priestly Blessing his own, yet one and the same as God’s, fully God’s, evidenced by the following.

Some years ago on television I heard Sister Emanuela claim that, one of the Visionaries told her Blessed Mother said, the Blessing of the Priest is greater than hers! At first that remark was jarring, but as I thought about it, its impact was understood, in that, the only Blessing greater than Blessed Mary’s is the Blessing of God Himself, meaning that the Priestly Blessing is one and the same as God’s identical to it! Awesome!

Perhaps two decades ago, I’m not exactly sure, in the Archdiocese of New York a seminarian on his deathbed was ordained a Priest. The only Priestly ontological function, his only ministry he gave just hours from his death, was to raise a finger and make the Sign of the Cross, his First and only Priestly Blessing on earth. It is my belief that every Priestly Blessing past, present, to come, including the deathbed Blessing of the Priest just mentioned, rides on the beating Sacred Heart of Jesus throughout the Cosmos and within the Gates of Heaven, giving Glory to the Blessed Trinity for all eternity. The Priestly Blessing because it is one with God’s is everlasting, ontological and functional.

Concluding may I offer you, Father Haight, and other Priestly associates congratulations on your Fifty Years as Priest your ministry a Blessing on the Church. Know that the Blessed Trinity, Blessed Mary, St. Joseph and all the Saints and Angels, send you heavenly High Fives, visible through the telescope of Faith. Please pray for my wife, children, grandkids, our whole family, friends and for me. Thanks!

Henry George
1 week 6 days ago

I can remember discussing the Priesthood with some young Jesuit Priests
in the 1980's.

They were convinced, perhaps wholly convinced that the functional aspect of Priesthood was of the only importance. The Sacramental side seemed to have little importance to them, and, frankly speaking, watching them administer the sacraments made that rather clear.

I asked them if they truly believed that being a Priest was only about helping people, then why not leave and get married and be a Social Worker/Missionary ?

Some, in the years after, did.

If the Sacramental Priesthood does not matter, what distinguishes
the ministry of the Church and its ministers from Protestantism ?

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