Information Bulletin 92

February 2010 (No. 92)

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Dear Brothers in Ministry

Over the past four years I have travelled to most parts of the nation, meeting our clergy in many different settings, whether at conferences or retreats, at significant diocesan functions, or simply at presbytery doors. It has been a privilege getting to know, understand, and appreciate so many of you in your unique local setting. We have so much to be proud of in this Year for Priests, ministering as we do lovingly and effectively in 1385 parishes and other varied ministries in a culture that has diminishing interest in the Church.

And yet, if there is one neuralgic downside that hasn't abated much over the past several years, it is our in-ternal misunderstandings or lack of trust, based in part on generational differences, though perhaps also in part on competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy, to quote John Paul II (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no 43). And surely, if we have difficulty living the communio we preach, what credibility will the priesthood itself witness to the Church and to the world at large?

In 2008 Damian Ference, a priest of the Cleveland Diocese, wrote an article in Commonweal addressing these issues. Hoping to foster intergenerational sup-port groups and/or discussion, I have included much of his article. Ference entered the Seminary in July 1994 and writes about his generation and those on either side of him. Failure in communication, he suggests, is real and endemic; further, we are running out of time to listen to the stories that will make a real difference.

With personal best wishes,
Frank Devoy, Director


{slide=Why we're different - Bridging the Priesthood's Generational Gap}

Excerpts from an article by Fr Damian J. Ference, Diocese of Cleveland.
He writes: (with headings and highlighting, mine)

Over the past few years, Commonweal has published a number of articles, editorials, and letters to the editor that comment on the new generation of priests and seminarians. Unfortunately, most of the comments have not been very encouraging.

My generation of the 1990s

My generation has been described as intellectually second-rate, theologically deficient, arrogant, blindly loyal to Rome, authoritarian, and out of touch with the laity. If these descriptions are accurate, the future of the priesthood looks bleak indeed. On the other side of the ideological fence, conservative journals and blogs praise the same generation of priests and semi-narians for their orthodoxy, courage, fidelity, zeal, and pastoral charity. These observers joyfully predict that the new generation of priests and seminarians will restore what has been lost since the Second Vatican Council and reinvigorate the church through strong and determined leadership.

So which is it? Are we part of the problem or part of the solution? That all depends on what one expects us to be.

More in common; both generations "rebelled"

I think it is discouraging to many older priests that we aren't more like them, but we have more in common with them than one might think. It is true that we often read different authors, pray in different styles, have different heroes, and emphasize different doctrines, but we celebrate the same sacraments, preach the same gospel, and share the same priesthood. It is also true that both my generation and theirs rebelled against a previous generation. Perhaps "rebelled" is too strong a word, but both generations did want to improve, by reformation and restoration, the weak-nesses we inherited in order to serve better the people of God.

Generations: effective families keep in touch

It is very easy to get defensive about this last point, but we shouldn't. To compare the generations of the priesthood to the generations of a family, it is clear that the older generation is responsible for instilling in the younger a strong sense of faith, identity, custom, and mission. The younger generation is expected to adapt these values to its own particular situation while remaining faithful to the tradition. But this practice of handing down a tradition only works when the different generations stay in touch. The older generation needs the idealism and enthusiasm of the younger generation, and the younger generation needs the wisdom, experience, and guidance of the older gen-eration. This is true for families, and it is equally true for priests. Sadly, in the past forty years, the commu-nication between older and younger priests has bro-ken down and, as a church, we are the poorer for it.

Lack of interest in mentors / guides

When I was a seminarian-intern I lived in a rectory with three priests, one of whom was a retired monsignor who was ordained in 1938. He often told me how he felt rejected by the generation of priests that came after him. It pained him that members of the younger generation had little interest in his preconciliar priesthood, which they found antiquated. He longed to be a mentor and guide for the next generation of priests, but few had taken him up on his offer.

History repeats itself: out-of-touch has-beens?

Somehow this dynamic has repeated itself. It seems to me that priests my age have attempted, knowingly or not, to distance themselves from the generation that came just before them. Paradoxically, for a gen-eration often accused of being too traditional, we seem to want to move ahead without really knowing where the church has just been.

And although most of us have a few older priests we look up to, we often assume that we have everything figured out, dismissing our elders as out-of-touch has-beens. This frustrates older priests who long to play the role of mentor and guide. Then again, when we do go to older priests for direction and guidance, we sometimes discover that they take little interest in our concerns and priorities. For many of them, we seem to be no more than a source of annoyance.

Little time left to hear their stories

It doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't. The different generations of priests need each other for support, wisdom, experience, enthusiasm, inspiration, accountability, and fraternity. Priests cannot expect to be bridge-builders in the church if they are divided among themselves. There is an urgent need for reconciliation, and it starts with us. My generation needs to hear the stories of priests from our parents' and grandparents' generations. We need to learn from the men who grew up during the Depression, fought in the Second World War, and were ordained before Vatican II - and we need to realize that there isn't much time left to hear their stories. We need to listen to our baby-boomer predecessors tell their stories about seminary life and priesthood at a moment when the church was in major transition. Their generation has its own hopes and joys, triumphs and sufferings, and we need to hear about them. Too often we fail to appreciate their perseverance and faith through a very turbulent period of church history.

Priesthood in weak Catholic subculture

Finally, priests of my generation need to tell their own story, and tell it well. We need to let the older genera-tions know what it's like to come of age in today's America without a strong Catholic subculture. We need to explain what attracted us to the priesthood, and why we're so cautious about "the spirit of Vatican II." Older priests should not be too quick to dismiss our concerns as fearful, ignorant, or reactionary.

{slide=Background - where Fr Ference is coming from} "Why We're Different: Bridging the Priesthood's Generation Gap," Commonweal (May 23, 2008) by Rev. Damian J. Ference.

Fr Ference begins his article:

On the first Friday of every month, I join a dozen or so other priests for vespers, drinks, dinner, and fellowship. Two things make the group unusual. The first is that five decades of ordination classes are represented at our gatherings. The second is that each of us is expected to have read an article that was assigned in advance and be ready to discuss it after dinner. At our Christmas gathering we unpacked "The Other Health Crisis" by Paul Stanosz, which appeared in the No-vember 23, 2007, Commonweal. Because of our discussion that night, it occurred to me that the way a generation of priests defines itself is often closely linked to how it suffers.

Before the abuse crisis exploded in 2001-2002, there was an earlier round of revelations about sexual abuse in the late 1980s; and even if it didn't manage to gather as much media attention as the most recent round, its impact must not be forgotten. Most Catholics of my generation find it difficult to remember a time when pedophilia wasn't widely associated with the priesthood. A dark cloud of suspicion has been hovering over priests for the past twenty years, and it has only grown more ominous with time. So, although much has been made about the distinction between the "servant-leader" model and the "cultic" model of priesthood, this is not, I think, the most important difference between generations of priests. In fact, the healthiest priests—of whatever age—seem to embody both the "servant-leader" and "cultic" models.

I decided to enter a college seminary in late July of 1994. I had earned my high-school diploma a few months earlier and chose to abandon my previous plans in order to follow what seemed to be God's plan. My parents were shocked but supportive. My older brother asked me if I was gay. An old friend made a remark about little boys. ...

Our best conversations [with his pastor, ordained in 1968] took place at the dinner table. My pastor recalled memorizing the Baltimore Catechism in grade school. I told him that I made collages about my feelings in religious-ed class. When he complained that his seminary formation had been too militaristic, I told him of my frustrations with a seminary formation that seemed too lax. When he spoke of the years he spent studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, I expressed em-barrassment at not knowing how to chant the Pater Noster as I concelebrated Mass with Benedict XVI at World Youth Day a few years ago in Cologne. When my pastor expressed gratitude that the clerical dress code had been relaxed over the years, I said I thought it was important that the priests be a visible sign of the church, to remind the world that God is not dead. But when it came to the abuse scandals, we were on the same page—or at least in the same book. The scandals hit us both hard, though in different ways. ...

... Theoretically, and even functionally, the priesthood may be the same, but the experience and perception of it is now radically different. Many members of the older generation see no reason to invest hope in the future of the priesthood unless the church undergoes major structural change. This is where generations part ways...

Fr Ference concludes his article:

Reading an article about generational differences among priests may be helpful, but for me, the real learning and reconciliation takes place when I meet with a diverse group of priests for vespers, drinks, dinner, and discussion. This kind of gathering is still too rare. For the sake of the generation of seminarians currently in formation and for the general good of the church, priests of different generations must learn to talk to one another about their differences instead of nursing mutual suspicions.

{/slides}

©2008 Commonweal Foundation, reprinted with permission.
For subscriptions: www.commonwealmagazine.org
  • Created: 28 February 2010
  • Modified: 23 February 2012