Friday, April 15, 2011

Reflecting on Fifty Years of Priesthood: Interesting for All

Today I received the following reflection from a friend of mine, a diocesan priest who is approaching his own golden jubilee.  A close friend of his, who is a priest in another country, shared his own thoughts on fifty years of service as a priest.  Now, why am I posting this here, on a blog focused on the ministry of the deacon? There are two main reasons.

First, I was a seminarian myself for eight years (high school and college).  Had I remained in the seminary I would have been ordained to the presbyterate in 1975, placing me in the population of priests being discussed by Father in his reflection, and much of what he writes has a particular resonance with much of my own experience.  In checking with other priest-friends of our generations, they too found much in common with their experiences as well.  To that end, this reflection offers a good insight into these men of God and their service.

Second, I believe that as members of the church, we have a responsibility to try to place many things in perspective so as to avoid the polarization that is afflicting our society in general and the Church in particular.  I often hear many strange claims made about the priests of this man's generation by people who did not live through this period of history, and his own reflections will undoubtedly frame certain questions in new ways.

I'm sure that this reflection will upset some people.  I do not apologize for that, because I believe this is an honest reflection of one man's opinion.  I do not ask people to agree with him on everything.  But I believe it to be insightful and valuable as we reflect on the nature of ministry in general.  We, as Church, are called to collaborate in caring for the People of God, and understanding each other is a critical component of that collaboration.  This reflection is quite lengthy, but I believe it worth the read.


We are the Gaudium et Spes priests. We went into the seminary at the highest rate in living memory. We were ordained between 1955 and 1975 – in double the numbers our parishes required. Most of us were from the Silent Generation with a few years of Baby Boomers at the end. We took Vatican II to heart.  We changed from being priests called and consecrated by God to being presbyters called and ordained by the Church – the People of God.

Ecumenism became a normal way of thinking for us. Prepared for the challenge by Cardijn’s apostolate of like-to-like, we were successful at educating a newly vital and active laity. We worked with the people rather than for them. We realized that clericalism was an evil, not a good, and discarded it with its style and culture. We ran highly successful and active parishes. Though ageing now, many of us are still on the job. Our presbyteral and pastoral lives have been a source of that unusual experience – joy.

But not without grief. We have experienced the awakening 60s, the exciting 70s, the suspicious 80s, the depressing 90s and the imploding 00s. During the 1980s we became aware that a lot was going wrong. Ordinations suddenly dropped after 1975. We started to lose parishioners – first from Mass, then from affiliation. Both of these changes had mixed social causes.

Worse! Discordant decisions were coming down from the pope. Priestly celibacy, despite being highly contentious, was reasserted by Paul VI in 1967 without discussion. In 1968 Humanae Vitae was a shocking disappointment.  Most of us never accepted it.  Paul VI began appointing bishops opposed to the council’s ethos.  This was most notable in Holland which had become a trailblazer in implementing the council.  Paul killed that initiative and we are all the worse off for that. The whole trend was demoralizing.

Then came John Paul II.  Charismatic in front of the TV camera; brilliant at languages; but – out of touch in scripture and limited in theology, a bad listener and rock solid is his self-assessment as God’s chosen man of destiny. His whole life had been spent in the persecuted church of Poland with its fortress church mentality frozen in time.

The open dialogue of the Church with the new ideas and values arising out of new knowledge in scriptural criticism, theology, psychology, sociology, anthropology stopped. New scientific discoveries in genetics were treated with suspicion and their application usually condemned. Sexual mores were promoted to the top shelf of his panorama of sin – a bit of an obsession with him.

Power corrupts. The history of the papacy shows this pre-eminently.  Unchecked potentates believe their own propaganda. Taken to the extreme, they claim infallibility.  Pius IX bullied Vatican I into institutionalizing such a claim.  Since then creeping infallibility has resulted in the pope and his theologically limited curia stealing the term “magisterium” from its real owners – the college of professional theologians. How can you conscientiously give assent of mind and heart to policies formed without theological debate, consultation, transparency or accountability?  In contemporary government and business this would be judged unethical.

John Paul’s lust for power showed very early and was taken to monumental proportions. Accountable to nobody, John Paul moved against any opinion other than his own and removed many exponents of alternative opinions from teaching and publishing. His most powerful enforcer was the Ratzinger-led Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Other Roman dicasteries joined the campaign.

The CDF is the current euphemism for the Inquisition. True to its mediaeval roots, it assumes the pope to be entitled to enforce his views. It conducts its deliberations and proceedings in secret.  In today’s secular world this is a violation of human rights.

Theological censorship justifies itself as the quest for the truth and poses as truth’s champion. In fact it is the enemy of the discovery of truth because discussion is forestalled. The contemporary secular world understands this and wisely enshrines freedom of speech and debate as a central value. The Church no less than any other enterprise is at least the poorer and at worst prone to error when it rejects this value.

All of us are abused by this process. The priest at the coal face is not consulted, yet is contemptuously expected to defend policies he and his people do not believe.  John Paul II also enforced much of his own devotional life on the church at large. Despite Vatican II he effectively stopped the third rite of Penance, reversed a burgeoning dynamic theology of Eucharist by reverting to and re-emphasising devotion to the static Real Presence, reinforced a distorted devotion to Mary based on fundamentalist theology and introduced peculiar devotions such as Sr. Faustina’s Divine Mercy Devotion which undercuts Easter – the climax of our liturgical year.

A more grievous abuse of power by John Paul II was his appointment of bishops. Appointees were to be clerical, compliant and in total agreement with his personal opinions. This has emasculated the leadership of the Church. The episcopal ranks are now low on creativity, leadership, education and even intelligence. Many are from the ranks of Opus Dei – reactionary, authoritarian and decidedly not creative. Many, often at the top of the hierarchical tree, are embarrassingly ignorant of any recent learning in scripture, theology and scientific disciplines. Many are classic company boys. Some of the more intelligent and better educated seem to have sold their souls for advancement. Can they really believe the line they channel? Ecclesiastical politics have trumped integrity. And when these men are appointed as the leaders of priests without any consultation they become a standing act of contempt.

Worse still, this happened over a period when the priesthood held its biggest proportion of intelligent, educated and competent leaders. It was those very qualities which blackballed them for appointment under the blinkered but powerful regime. Our best chance has been missed. Today the ranks of the priesthood are depleted due to low recruitment over the last forty years. The pool from which future bishops must be chosen is very shallow.

A newly critical laity questions policy but receives no answers.  Why can’t women be leaders in the Church?  Why do priests have to be celibate?  What is wrong with contraception? Why alienate remarried divorcees?  Why this salacious preoccupation with sexual mores? Why are scientific advances always suspected of being bad?  Why can’t we recognize the reality of homosexual orientation – and the social consequences of that recognition?  Have we learnt nothing from the Galileo case – or the treatment of Teilhard de Chardin? Can’t we escape the Syllabus of Errors mentality?

Benedict XVI has continued the reversal of Vatican II. He is imposing a new English translation of the Sacramentary on a resisting English speaking constituency. This may very well backfire because many priests are not going to implement it.  Benedict has received back bishops from the schismatic Society of St Pius X.  He has encouraged the Tridentine Mass in Latin.  He has reintroduced kneeling for communion on the tongue at his public Masses – all deliberate key pointers to regression from the spirit of Vatican II.  To the priests who embraced Vatican II they are iconic insults.

Then he has the nerve to decree a Year for Priests in 2009 with St John Vianney as patron. Like Fr. Donald Cozzens, many felt they were being played.  The celebration of the importance of priests in the church is belied by the contempt with which they are treated.  How can Rome call priests to repentance when it is so recalcitrant; so slow to admit any failing of its own?  How can they be serious in stressing the importance of the priest as confessor when it is clear that confession has all but vanished from the life of the Church?  How can they urge Holy Hours and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when most priests have moved on from that static theology of Eucharist to a dynamic one – with Vatican II leading the way?  How can they urge priests to more intense prayer when they show no evidence of a change of heart or attitude – the genuine indicator that prayer is working?

We took as normal the world and the church into which we were ordained.  In reality, the religious affiliation of the period was abnormally high.  Mass and sacramental participation and priestly vocations were at a high water mark.  The reversal which began in the late 60s was always going to happen.  But with Vatican II we had the tools to handle the new situation. A large group of the priests were ready to meet the challenge.  They did not get the chance. T he orders from above were to withdraw to the fortress and sing the old song.  Instead of embracing the new they lost the opportunity and left us high and dry – and disappointed.

In the western world priests still always rate highly in job satisfaction surveys. They generally enjoy their job and do it well. That is because they are happy in their own patch. But they feel betrayed by the pope and the bishops. If you ask them what they think about the powers up top and where the official show is going you get a very different answer.


  1. I was studying for the priesthood during this same period and afterwards left not just the seminary but the Church itself for much of my adult life. I think that if I had persisted, I might well be expressing the same frustrations as this priest. He gave his life to the "Church" side of The Church in the Modern World, has found the encounter disappointing, and blames the Church for the failure of constructive engagement.

    Having devoted much of my own life to the "Modern World" side of the encounter, I slowly came to recognize its many shortcomings, and I have gladly embraced the Church once again. Our generation needed to learn that the Kingdom of God is really not of this world, no matter how much we wish it to be otherwise, and that we must content ourselves with those occasional glimpses of it that we can help to bring about. And those of us who lived during Vatican II should have known this. As even the ever-optimistic Gaudium et Spes reminds us, "Christ's example in dying for us sinners reminds us that we must carry the cross which the flesh and the world inflict on any who seek after peace and justice."

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ron.

    I didn't see the idea that he (and others) wanted the Kingdom of God to be "of this world." On the other hand, I think it's fair to say that we all thought that we could move us toward the Kingdom: that whole "soul and leaven" idea from "Gaudium et Spes."

    I'm glad you didn't have trouble posting a comment; some other readers have said they were having trouble, so I'm trying to check out the system to see if there's a problem.


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  4. I love Gaudium et Spes for many reasons--among them its many reminders of the spirit of my own youth, when so many of us imagined we were "witnessing the birth of a new humanism, where people are defined before all else by their responsibility to their sisters and brothers and at the court of history." But if that is in fact what we were seeing, then clearly the baby has not yet drawn breath.

    Was it perhaps aborted? This priest suggests that he thinks so, and he blames the hierarchy from Paul VI on for doing the deed. I just don't think that's true or fair. In retrospect, the signs of the times from that era seem more ambiguous than they did back in the Sixties, and too often the efforts of post-V2 Catholics to show solidarity with the rest of humanity ended up in our jumping on worldly bandwagons rather than acting as inspiring witnesses to gospel values.

    In truth, the task of forming a new humanism is ongoing and endless, and Catholics can contribute to it only if we are clear on what it actually means to live according to gospel values. To learn that, we may sometimes need to "withdraw to the fortress" of our tradition. I prefer to believe that is why the Holy Spirit has given us this group of post-conciliar leaders.

  5. an honest reflection indeed...
    i am 64yrs old, and i feel fortunate to have have experienced the Church of Trent and the Church of Vatican II, both the same Church and yest so different...
    never a seminarian, but i am a deacon for 27yrs, i share many of the same thoughts and feelings as the anonymous priest author of the reflection...
    but i believe that Jesus remains with us and the Holy Spirit still guides us and the Gates of Hell will not prevail...

  6. Wow I don't even recognize a Church or any popes as described in this post. I do see a Church more open to reality which includes being counter-cultural like Jesus. I see popes who know that truth and charity are the Light by which Christ enlightenes the world, and I see a Church that suffered dearly from within and without thru the 1960s up through the 1980s, but which is now emerging from that Passion to preach the Gospel of a new evangelization to those who have ears to hear. Maybe its because I am of the JPII generation as he is the only pope of whom I have a vivid memory...but I have read the stories in books and articles and have heard memories of post Vatican II Church history and I for one am so glad that is behind us. Let's look forward!

  7. I'm sorry --this man should leave the priesthood. Why?? Because his unrelenting negativism certainly does great damage to the Church if this is the witness he gives in places where he serves. Half way through it I realized I was reading traditional Modernist garbage (with a big dollop of hatred and arrogance toward two of the most brilliant men to serve in the papacy because they wouldn't jump to his tune).

  8. Deacon Ditewig - Your final comment on the potential to upset others as they read the posting was an understatement.
    My wife and I are in discernment, and were in fact in you class in Charleston on May 21 (which, by the way, was brilliant and insightful.) Suffice it to say that we are not nearly as learned or experienced into the insights a priest of 50 years brings to the table, so to speak; however, if our outlook was nearly as sardonic as that of the anonymous writer, we could certainly not move forward. (Anonymity speaks more of a lack of conviction than of boldness to speak the truth.)
    The position that I have, with those who think we have destroyed the church by all that has been enacted by VC II, or by those who think that the church will be destroyed if we take any route but that of the architects of the VC II, is that the Spirit of God dwells in here somewhere, but not entirely to the one extreme or the other.
    Who knows, should we be discerned by our Bishop to move forward from aspirant to candidate, perhaps theological training from St Leo’s and all this encompasses will help to more clearly see the issues from both perspectives. God only knows and time will tell.