A monk I know, who called me while on his way to give a conference to a group of diocesan priests, hoped aloud that one of the younger priests would absent himself from the gathering. “He is so certain of his own corner on the truth and his own absolute allegiance to magisterial authority as he understands it,” the monk said of a junior cleric, “that he has lost sight of his obligations as a Christian gentleman and fails to practice the manners his mother taught him.” Sighing with sadness, he added, “See how these Christians one-up each other.”
The generational rift within the clergy poses a vexing problem in the church. If we have different visions and different ideologies, must we belong to different churches? Yet Jesus says, “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). Might we hear him as addressing us priests in our divisions?
Our Mothers and Manners
In the Feb. 8 issue of The Duluth News Tribune, Garrison Keillor recalls “the beauty of democracy: You are more or less forced to sit down and break bread with people you might prefer to despise, and they with you.” The happy consequence is that “we don’t have Republicans blowing up cable cars in San Francisco or Democrats sending suicide bombers into Temple Square in Salt Lake City.” “Our mothers,” he writes, “believed that showing good manners instills respect, and they were right.” Cultivation of good manners produces fertile ground in which grace can take root and grow.
If we wish to enter a season of grace and fidelity, perhaps each among us must ask, as my friend the holy monk advises, “How many filters are between your heart and the heart of Christ?” We might also ask how we have come to the unhappy state of affairs in which those who disagree theologically or pastorally consider that disagreement as license to treat badly those who think differently. When Martin Luther and Cardinal Cajetan were in the discussions that would lead to Augsburg, they celebrated daily Mass together before their conversations. That model of civility and communion under duress challenges us today.
Sometimes we lose sight of the vision of communion to which the bread of life calls us. One priest tells of a recent visit to Rome during which he met a friend for dinner. Leaving the table to visit the men’s room, he saw another table with people from his home diocese. When he went over to say hello, one priest and the official simply nodded. The other priest said simply, “Hello.” No one stood, and no one made a move to introduce him to the other dozen people who, as it turned out, were all employees of various parishes in the diocese.
Not quite understanding the dynamic, he went off to the men’s room, where he overheard the table conversation. “Who’s that?” someone asked. “John Smith,” one of the priests replied. They did not mention that he was a priest, much less one from their own diocese, until one of the diners asked, “Isn’t he the priest from St. Cunegunda’s?”
What is troublesome here is not simply that the priest was not greeted by his brothers, but that they, who apparently presumed they thought differently from him, also seemed to find in those supposed differences reason to treat another priest as a non-person.
A senior priest in a religious community tells of chatting with a younger member of the diocesan clergy who said simply, baldly and boldly, “The best gift priests like you could give to the church is an early death.” By “priests like you,” the senior priest was not sure if the younger man meant priests over 50, or priests trained in the immediate wake of Vatican II. Yet the prayer of the church instructs us that the work of God’s “hands is manifest in your saints, / the beauty of your truth is reflected in their faith” (Alternative Opening Prayer, Feast of All Saints). We may not always like our fellow saints, but we owe respect to every person claimed by Christ in the saving waters of baptism. Like it or not, even senior members of the clergy are “God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism” (Blessing of the Water), and “a new creation…clothed…in Christ” (Clothing with a Baptismal Garment), as well as “children of the light” (Presentation of a Lighted Candle). They deserve at least a hello.
One in Mind and Heart
If in discussing liturgical translations, for example, one cleric insists that “sullied,” “unfeigned,” “ineffable,” “gibbet,” “wrought” and “thwart” are English, but another suggests that while they may be English words, they are hardly the vernacular, must conversation end there in acrimony? Must there be a villain and a victim, a winner and a loser?
St. Thomas Aquinas always wanted to be sure that he understood the mind and heart of his interlocutor before stating why he disagreed. The first word of St. Benedict’s Rule is “Listen.” In fact, Benedict suggests that the hearer listen “with the ear of your heart.”
We all run the risk of confusing our own agenda with the church’s agenda and of viewing our own understanding as revealed truth. Yet priestly life is fundamentally about communion. St. Augustine’s concern for his clergy is apt for every presbyter today: “The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart” (Rule of Augustine, No. 3).
Differences, Diversity and Communion
I sent an early draft of this article to a senior priest, a member of a religious community. He wrote in response:
For the sake of balance, you might wish to include some of the downsides of us ‘elder priests’ reared during and in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Some, I’m afraid, have never moved on from the excitement, invigoration, radicalness of the late 60’s and 70’s and cling to that time as paradigmatic. How can we listen better to the legitimate concerns of the younger clergy—one of which, I think, is that the last two generations of Catholics have never been sufficiently catechized?
When I was a member of a presbyteral council in the 90’s, the diocese conducted a survey of the level of instruction in the faith. It showed devastating ignorance, though much good will: 75 percent of the volunteer instructors in parishes had never had any further instruction than when they went through the old C.C.D. in grade school, nothing beyond sixth grade for most of them. One priest [of the Vatican II era] said, “We need to put as much energy into religious formation as we do into the annual stewardship campaign.”
Yes, the younger clergy have legitimate concerns. I attended a funeral not long ago where the presider, a retired priest, and the deacon, another man of a certain age, seemed not to have given the kind of help that a family might need in preparing to pray. The entrance procession was ragged, the communion ministers confused. The deacon chose to deliver a heartfelt eulogy rather than to preach a homily, and made no reference to any of the proclaimed Scriptures. And the sprinkling with baptismal water was done twice. Had there been a junior member of the clergy or a liturgical rigorist in attendance, one can only imagine the legitimate pique.
But one’s vision of the truth never trumps civility. If we clergy are devoted singers of psalms and true sons of the church, civility must reign. “How good it is, how pleasant,” writes the psalmist, “where the people dwell as one!/ Like precious ointment on the head, running down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, upon the collar of his robe./ Like dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion. There the Lord has lavished blessings, life for evermore!” (Ps 133).
Let us ask our seminary rectors to assemble panels where seminarians and priests of every age and ideological bent can talk; let us have Mass together and share meals; let us all open our own tables to drinks, dining and discussion with priests of other age groups and visions. If we do these things, then surely we will hear the voice of Jesus say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
“We have shared the one bread of life. Send the Spirit of your love to keep us one in faith and peace.”
—Prayer After Communion,
Rite of Confirmation