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James F. GarneauOctober 22, 2001

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.

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17 years 1 month ago
For the last five years I have served with the presbyterate described by the Rev. James F. Garneau in “More Priestly Fraternity” (10/22). The priests of Raleigh are uncommonly united, centrist and admirable for their dedication in the swirl of explosive growth and ethnic challenge.

To apotheosize the present pope is to miss the point of papal leadership. For the last century or so, we have witnessed the richness of personality, thought and experience that each new pope brings. The moral force of the papacy does not come from a pope of 23 years, but from this line of strong champions of the good, including John Paul II, who have graced Peter’s chair. Their shifts of emphasis help achieve a wholeness of vision that best interprets the Gospel message.

The Raleigh presbyterate avoids the clerical subculture that has so damaged the church with its “we-they” mentality. If the bishops thirst for collegiality, so should parish priests. If pastors are collegial with their staffs, and pastors and staffs with the people, then parishioners will hear and respond to a call to collegial ministry that can release reserves of evangelical energy.

Is real collegiality not the vision of the Second Vatican Council? Or should we dig out our cassocks, French cuffs and cigars, and go off on the yellow brick road—without, of course, the people of God?

17 years 1 month ago
While I agree with the Rev. James Garneau’s basic premise in “More Priestly Fraternity” (10/22) that priests need and deserve communities of support, my own research and other studies on seminaries over the past 20 years would yield different findings on a number of other points. The statement that papal encyclicals “are no longer offered as part of most seminary curricula” is demonstrably inaccurate. Within the past five years or so, I have visited every major seminary and theologate in the United States (and many in other countries). During interviews with over 500 faculty members, almost all of them spoke of the foundations of their instruction as residing in Sacred Scripture and traditional teachings of the church, found especially but not exclusively in encyclicals of the past half century. Discussions with at least as many seminarians suggest that indeed faculty do attend to these important documents. Granted, what is taught is not always what is learned by seminarians and others who are studying theology.

As to the suggestion that seminary formation is polarized by “different liturgical rubrics, [and] contrasting teachings with regard to faith and morals,” I have found something quite different: that is, remarkable adherence to authentic expressions of both worship and doctrine as permitted by the rich tradition of the church. Though my own judgment may be flawed or incomplete in these matters, the public statements of bishops who have themselves visited and evaluated seminaries over the past two decades would concur with the positive findings of my research.

The article asserts that young priests (though many newly ordained are not particularly young) face great animosity as they seek “to fashion a new priestly culture.” Some recent extensive research (conducted by Dean Hoge and others at The Catholic University of America) on “The First Five Years of Priesthood” suggests a different dynamic. The study shows that the recently ordained feel tremendous support and encouragement from pastors and other priests, as well as from parishioners. Certainly exceptions to this generally positive environment can be found. Good relationship among longtime priests and those recently ordained is a two-way street, requiring at least some openness on both sides to learn from each other. Presbyterates are, after all, intergenerational and increasingly international, so special efforts are needed to form relationships and bonds of all kinds. The new Hoge research will enrich our understanding of the experiences of a broad sample of the newly ordained and will show how important these relationships are in the retention of priests, thus reinforcing the point of the article that emphasizes the need for priestly fraternity.

17 years 1 month ago
In his essay on priestly fraternity (10/22), the Rev. James Garneau erects a straw figure from generalizations derived from sketchy anecdotal evidence and then knocks it down, oversimplifying the complex challenges to developing fraternity among diocesan priests. He appears to identify “united presbyterate” with “common ecclesiology,” whereas in the world of the real church each can and has existed without all the elements of the other. Priestly fraternity, being a relationship of graced and yet flawed individuals, happens only when we ordained priests constantly work together at it. And that is far more a matter of heart and behavior than of head and theology.

17 years 1 month ago
The Rev. James Garneau is right in identifying isolation and loneliness as one of the primary problems diocesan priests face today (10/22). It is understandable that seminarians he knows are trying to find creative ways to deal with this problem. However, today’s seminarians are not the first in the church to notice the problem. Movements like the Iesus Caritas prayer groups for priests and other support groups have been in existence for years. I would dare say that in some dioceses they are flourishing.

I am afraid that the seminarians described in the article are creating some of their own problems. They seem to limit pretty narrowly just which diocesan priests they want priestly fraternity with. When I was newly ordained (1973), some young priests made the mistake of rejecting older priests who didn’t share in an ill-defined “spirit of Vatican II.” The article describes some of today’s seminarians rejecting us fifty-somethings who supposedly don’t share in an ill-defined “vision of Pope John Paul II.” Many of us weren’t really at peace in the priesthood until we developed respect for the priests who came out of an immigrant background and then gave spiritual leadership to parishioners during the crises of the Depression and World War II. I predict that Father Garneau’s seminarians won’t be at peace in the priesthood until they develop respect for those who came out of the stifling 1950’s and found themselves giving spiritual leadership in the lawless Age of Aquarius.

I don’t deny that priests ordained in the 1960’s or 70’s will have a lot to answer for. I don’t even deny that some of us are still causing problems for the church. I would only ask that Father Garneau’s seminarians not assume that those of us who are still guilty of the poor taste of the 1960’s are by necessity also guilty of liturgical or doctrinal abuses. I would ask them not to label us, but to take the trouble to get to know us. If we middle-aged priests return the favor, we will probably all find that we really can be one presbyterate.

The article also implies that ministering with the unordained (and presumably with permanent deacons) is a source of discomfort for some seminarians. For as many decades as I can foresee, the ministry of lay persons in parishes will continue to be a fact of life. Future priests will have to lead by collaborating with non-priest ministers, or else risk increasing isolation.

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