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.”