The goad that prompted the organization two years ago of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests was widespread dissatisfaction and pastoral dismay over the new translation of the Roman Missal. While the Missal remained the focal point of a recent meeting of the association in late June at Seattle University, this group of older priests is not against change. They have been through plenty of it. But according to a survey by the Godfrey Diekmann Center at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minn., 80 percent of priests contend the language of the new Missal is awkward and distracting.
Throughout the gathering, the pastoral model of Pope Francis gave encouragement to these men, the great majority of them around the same age as the pope. One board member, the Rev. Bernard Survil of the Diocese of Greensburg, Pa., observed, “This assembly was an affirmation that the Spirit of Vatican II can still be a precious asset and living legacy.”
One of the organizational goals of the A.U.S.C.P. is to triple its membership and especially to engage some of the younger priests. Members lamented the widening gap between older and younger clergy.
The association has already made links with similar associations of priests in Ireland, Australia and Austria—all of which were founded for different reasons. The Irish Association of Catholic Priests includes 30 percent of Ireland’s clergy and is in regular dialogue with the bishops who recognize the strength of this grassroots effort. The Irish clergy group was formed after the widespread disillusionment about how the church leadership had handled the sexual abuse crisis.
The Rev. Peter Maher of Sidney, Australia, who participated in the Seattle meeting, explained, “We formed because of the lack of due process for the rights of priests.” He noted a similar fracture in Australia between younger and older priests.
The Austrian priest group, founded by the charismatic Rev. Helmut Schüller, ws organized in 2006 because of the increasing priest shortage. The Austrians tend to be much more aggressive in their reform proposals. Their 2011 initiative “Call to Disobedience” calls for lay leadership and preaching in parishes without a priest, permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments and support for the ordination of women and married men.
The newly minted American association has steered a moderate path and is seeking regular dialogue with the bishops. During the three-day Seattle meeting, members voted to restore the ancient practice of ordination of women to the diaconate, to initiate a more transparent process of selecting bishops and to reinstate general absolution. They steered clear of red button items, such as promoting discussion of the ordination of women to the priesthood.
The Rev. Mike Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, summed up the meeting: “I came away with the same hope that so many of us are feeling about the election of Pope Francis. The Spirit is breathing new life into the church, and we priests are feeling that.”
Father Ryan concluded, “I was especially encouraged by how Bishop Don Trautman [who addressed the conference] took the side of the majority of the priests with regard to the new Roman Missal and the flawed process that brought it about. The liturgy is right at the heart of our life as a church. The new Missal negates the ‘full and active participation by all the people.’”