When my fellow columnist Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., stirred up a hornet’s nest with his column on clericalism a few months back, I followed the conversation with great interest. To be fair, my curiosity had little to do with Father Horan’s assertion that there is a cultivated sense of separateness among some young clergy (an observation I agree with). Nor was I particularly focused on the many comments criticizing or defending clerical wardrobe choices, issues of Catholic identity and so on.
What struck me was how disconnected I felt from the entire conversation surrounding clericalism. It felt as if an intramural discussion was taking place in an arena whose attendance numbers continue to dwindle. Who were these people with such passionate, high expectations or bitter disappointments regarding their parish priests? The sad reality for me and countless others I know who remain connected to Catholicism is that, for better or worse, our expectations of the clergy are much more modest. The bar is set pretty low.
In my experience, the issues many Catholics face at the parish level have little to do with whether the preaching is inspired or the liturgies are beautifully executed. They aren’t particularly exercised over clerical attire either. “For my family and friends who want to raise their kids Catholic,” a woman who works in church circles told me, “clericalism isn’t even on their radar. Gen-Xers and millennials don’t have the deference for clergy—or the expectations—our parents did.” She told me her own expectations were low. People feel it’s a nice bonus to have simply a reasonably healthy and balanced priest with some pastoral gifts.
It’s a sad state of affairs that I’ve heard echoed over and over even among young clergy. “It continues to surprise me,” a recently ordained Carmelite told me. “If you are real, relatable and make an effort to be relevant to parishioners’ lives, you are a rock star.” Another priest who has filled in at numerous parishes for 10 years told me, “People seem to be so hungry for something more. If you can offer them anything that connects their personal lives to the Gospel, they are incredibly appreciative.”
To be sure, this is not an ideal situation. Those of us who hope that Pope Francis’ popularity will inspire a younger generation to enter our doors or lapsed Catholics to return would do well to ask ourselves difficult questions: What are we inviting them to? Are we simply welcoming them back to a church that reminds them why they left in the first place?
Given the circumstances, it might appear to church outsiders that those of us still inside are suffering from some form of ecclesiastical Stockholm syndrome. I would argue that we are a sign of hope.
We are still here because we know, at some fundamental level, that we long for something sacred beyond ourselves and our lives. We might not entirely understand that sacredness, but we believe that approaching it in community and participating in it sacramentally is important. We are “remnant Catholics” of a different sort. When, at times, we are faced with clergy who fall short of our expectations, we are forced to be—in a twisted nod to Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood”—a Holy Church in Spite of the Church.
Of course, we need good priests as leaders and pastors. Make no mistake; there are still plenty of priests who are real, relatable and relevant, and our love for them is familial and fierce. In fact, a growing number of us are part of a nascent “pilgrim church” that journeys far outside our local parish boundaries to attend Mass and find spiritual nourishment with them and the communities they lead.
As the pope said regarding clericalism, we need more “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” For those who are waiting for these shepherds to arrive, it will be important to remind ourselves that the sheep, ultimately, don’t exist for the sake of the shepherd.
It also helps to remember that this challenge isn’t new. Back in 1959, Flannery O’Connor described an exchange with a relative’s non-Catholic husband, who entered the church after years of attending Mass with his wife. When asked what finally changed his mind, he said, “The sermons were so horrible, [I] knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”
Hi Tom. 50 miles round trip is a long haul. It's a testament to your commitment to getting nourished spiritually that you do that. I can't help but think that there are countless others who fall between the cracks.
Good points, Mike. But to be fair regarding seminary training, my sense is that the disposition of the men they are attracting also has something to do with it. I spoke to a sociologist friend a few years back who does a lot of work on issues of Catholicism in America and she made a comment that has stuck with me. Essentially she said that we are living through a unique moment in the US where--unlike in the past--the men in priestly formation are fundamentally different in terms of attitudes, experiences, values etc than the people in the pews. Training can help in that regard but I don't think it will solve the issue.
Thanks for your comments, Anne. Your point is well taken regarding lapsed and fallen away vs. walked away. I think it's pretty clear from the tone of my column though that my point in using the term wasn't to judge these people in a negative light at all. I think most people understand that the term includes a broad range of people who are no longer Catholic for any number of reasons.
Your statement "Those Catholics I know who stay, stay because of emotional ties..." is very much in harmony with the point I was trying to make. Though I think the term "emotional ties" could be construed as the church simply having some vestigal emotional pull that keeps us there despite our better judgment--which I think is far too reductive. As I said, I believe many of us who remain are sometimes in a position of being a "Holy church in Spite of the Church." We aren't there as the "loyal opposition" but because we long for the sacred mystery at the heart of the Catholic faith whether we believe the clergy we deal with are pastorally gifted or not.
I have no doubt that there are enormous numbers of Catholics who have walked away because of very real issues they have regarding the Church's position on any number of subjects. There is certainly some overlap with younger generations in those areas of disaffection as well but the fundamental issue with younger generations regarding religion is one of relevance. Why bother belonging to an institutional faith community at all? They aren't "joiners" in the same way their parents and grandparents were. This is statistically true across the board for Jews and Christians in the US and is even more dire in mainline protestant denominations--some of whom would appear to be more welcoming in terms of the issues you mentioned.
Pope Francis' enormous popularity is grounded in the tone of what he says and--most importantly--what he does. He has not altered doctrines but emphases. His simplicity is transformative for many because it appears so authentic and Christ-like. That is all to the good but it hasn't resulted in a mass return in the US among young people yet. For that to happen I think even more fundamental hurdles of "why bother joining anything" need to be overcome.
Tim, it sounds as if you'd like to bait some of the commenters ...good luck with that but I don't really think that's the tone of the conversation people are having here.
Thanks Anne, that's a very nice distillation of the revolution in information that began with the printing press and is now marching forward with the web. I especially liked your emphasis at the end on listening. In a lot of the talks I give to Catholic groups that is the message I invariably end on. The monologue paradigm that exists in all areas of human community is shifting slowly (and sometimes painfully) to dialogue (or to coin a term, omnilogue, where all voices are being heard). Of course the challenge becomes to resist cacophony. The difficult challenge in this world is to be able to listen and synthesize as well as speak. Without that we become the Tower of Babel.
Going to Mass every week and receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist are vitally important to me. No matter how uninspired the liturgy, I will not give up. On the other hand, I will continue to hope that the better experiences I have had will become more the norm rather than the exception.
Thomas I think your quote pretty well sums up what my column states. We're are sometimes here in spite of uninspired liturgy etc. But if we remain through that then we must ultimately be here for the sacaments which are central to Catholic life.
Tim , There are some things I would challenge with regarding your comment above..."It is held by many that Benedict XVI might have been the most erudite pope in history." Not sure I've come across this "many" who "might" consider him the most erudite...not to denigrate his abilities as a theologian that's just not a statement I've heard/seen many make. As to a loss of faith, it's interesting that in a discussion where people are sharing their, very real and personal experiences about church that you turn it into a conversation about losing faith wholly or partially (the sexual morality bits, or some of the dogmatic parts) and disagreeing with the Magisterium.
If we're talking about the Catholic faith, I suggest we start with the Nicene Creed (below). I wouldn't be so sure to assume that the people expressing problems with the church here couldn't still profess the creed in good conscience and agree with every word.
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Thanks Tim for the background on your comment. I had no doubt that BXVI is renowned as a theologian but I had never heard it said he was the most erudite pope in history. I was hoping a church history expert on here might be able to pick up on that and give us a better sense of the scholarly reputation of different popes down through the ages.
In terms of your comment about the creed as 'a starting point, but a minimalist one' and that 'The Catechism (CCC) would be a much better description of the fullness of Catholic faith.' I found this from the catechism on the USCCB site (all in bold):
"Our profession of faith begins with God, for God is the First and the Last, the beginning and the end of everything. The Credo begins with God the Father, for the Father is the first divine person of the Most Holy Trinity; our Creed begins with the creation of heaven and earth, for creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God's works."
---the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 198
Catholic belief is succinctly expressed in the profession of faith or credo called the Nicene Creed:
Clearly the history, tradition and practice of Catholicism is rich, but it seems to me if we are judging the nature of other people's faith commitment (which, for the record, I believe is not really what we are called to do), we could do much worse than the credo that has existed since the 4th century that we profess at mass every Sunday.