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