American priesthood faces a crisis in basic spirituality

Father John A. Kiley

Voice of the Faithful on-line newsletter, no doubt hoping to justify its own critical assessment of U.S. Catholicism, recommends its constituents read a recent article from Commonweal magazine regarding the “high stress, poor health, and low morale” of the diocesan clergy, specifically in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Archbishop Dolan could not have been too happy about this grim appraisal of his archdiocese, especially since he is a noted author and lecturer on the priesthood as well as a former seminary rector. Closer to home, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin reviewed this same article with the younger clergy of Rhode Island, hoping to assess whether they shared the Milwaukee author’s “pain and disorientation in a floundering church.”

The Commonweal article is particularly harsh on the younger clergy: Bishops in recent years have been too quick to fill seminaries with fervent men who may or may not have genuine vocations. As a result, our seminaries now house a new breed of unsuitable candidates, men with poor relational and leadership skills. Ordained into a U.S. church that is losing its vitality, these men often seek to turn back the clock by embracing disciplines and devotional practices that flourished in the middle of the last century. These young priests are also vilified for having a “sense of their own sacred status.”

The author criticizes this attitude of “chosenness” that he sees in younger priests, as well as their embrace of the sacramental nature of the priesthood. He also disparages them for their lack of administrative preparedness, since they are likely to be thrust into pastorates after only seven or eight years of parish life.

The heightened appreciation of the sacred element in church life by younger priests and seminarians (as well as by some older priests) might be a justified reaction to the social worker mentality that many priests adopted in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Priests, and religious, became agents of change rather than ministers of the Gospel. A role proper to the laity was assumed by the clergy. The transformation of the secular world became the preoccupation of many priests, while loss of faith in the supernatural grew apace among both clergy and laity.

The Milwaukee writer correctly observes that the world, society and the church have changed over the past half century. American Catholicism has changed drastically from the “shunned, ghettoized, immigrant, minority church” into “largely a suburban population, better educated and more affluent…joining the cultural mainstream, sending their children to public schools, and abandoning Sunday Mass in favor of soccer, TV, or shopping.”

This assimilation of mainstream Catholic America into (let’s be honest) mainstream Protestant America seems to call precisely for a renewed appreciation of everything that is uniquely Catholic: the parish priest as the embodiment of mediatorship within the Catholic community; the Eucharist as Christ’s sacrifice renewed by the priest at the altar; the assurance of forgiveness offered through the priest’s formal absolution; the word of authentic revelation and tradition preached daily from Catholic pulpits; the witness of celibacy as a firm affirmation of fulfillment in the next life; and, precisely as indicated by Pope Benedict in his recent encyclical on hope, a keen spiritual focus on heaven, eternity and the world-to-come.

Priests should rightly be cautioned against what the Milwaukee author calls a “forced optimism,” naively neglecting personal and ecclesiastical failings. And the first failing to be considered is a failure in Catholic faith, a failure in that informed commitment to the plan of Christ for his church which is the true source of priestly confidence and ministerial strength. The resolution of any malaise among the Catholic clergy today will be chiefly hastened not by an examination of priestly assignments (multiple parishes, struggling schools, inadequate CCD, empty pews, family disarray) but rather from an analysis of priestly faith. The priesthood in America today is not so much facing a crisis of ministry as it is facing a crisis of basic spirituality. An appreciation of the church as sacrament, mediating eternity into time, and the priest as celebrant of the sacraments (not just presider), mediating the next world into this world, is exactly the refreshment required by a world-weary presbyterate.