Kathleen Pluth has just posted below a video from the meeting of the US Association of Catholic Priests that is taking place at St Leo Abbey in Florida. The video she posted featured a song that I fondly remember a Benedictine monk friend of mine lampooning. What was funny, is that at clerical gatherings of the young and the traditionalist, he would get guffaws of laughter, because none of us could ever believe something like that was ever actually sung at Mass. I thought he was making it up, until now. Suddenly, the 1970s sacropop does not seem nearly as exotic!
I have been following the genesis of this association and meeting, and watched the vids with great interest. I mean, the priests in the room seem to be a nice group of guys, avuncular and happy. I can totally imagine sitting around a campfire at a retreat and singing along with them and drinking some good beer. In fact, I think if we actually did so, more often than we do, that there might be more good relations across the clerical generation gap.
I heard that in one Midwestern diocese, a very brave Archbishop has asked his clergy to get together and go there: talk about why there is a generation gap. Predictably, the older generation thought that the dialogue was a good idea, the middle generation has reservations but thinks that it could be worthwhile, and the younger generation wants nothing to do with it. It is an interesting thing, because I remember there coming up the same suggestion at a priests’ convocation in my own diocese some years ago, with the same predictable reactions. The younger clergy, remembering far too well the punishment that inevitably came to them as seminarians for voicing their opinions too strongly, would say nothing except to each other. I mentioned to the assembled fathers that, if we could not even agree over whether we should have a session of that type, how could we ever sit in a room and battle out these questions?
Interestingly enough, numerous religious communities actually went through just such a process in the 1970s and 1980s. And many of them ended up further divided. We did not take the bait in my diocese. Maybe it has something to do with that Southern sense of etiquette that often trumps truth itself: like my momma taught me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all, and whatever you do, don’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table.
Will such a discussion bear fruit? I am sure that there are some of my brother priests who just roll their eyes at the thought of how they think I celebrate Mass and preach and pastor my flock (although very few of them have ever seen any of it), and I would be dishonest if I didn’t state that I have done the same thing. But, the interesting thing is, that, at least in my little corner of the world, we are all civil about it, and no one lets their charity and gentlemanly deportment slide over it. Communion in charity, in the presbyterate and in the Church is more important than ridiculing what we cannot change or what we do not wish to understand. And if we were not rolling our eyes about this, then we would be about something else, which is what brothers do when they can’t have a good throw down and then hug it out.
But what I find increasingly hard to understand, is not the presence of liturgical, well, ahem, diversity, but why some of my brother priests feel the need to found yet another association of priests to make sure the legacy of Vatican II is safe and sound. There seems to be a lot of concern that Vatican II is about to be undone by evil nefarious forces in the Roman Magisterium, as if most people even read or believe anything that comes out of Rome anyway! (Note that I think they should read and believe what comes out of Rome, but let’s face it, if everybody read and did what was in Sacrosanctum concilium, Musicam sacram, Dominicae cenae, Redemptionis sacramentum, Summorum pontificum, Sacramentum caritatis, and Universae ecclesiae then we would not be having all of these liturgical battles and the world and the Church would be a better place!).
In my theological studies, one of the things I find endlessly fascinating is the reception of Councils. What does it mean for the letter and, - wait for it – the spirit, of a Council, to be received and integrated into the life of the Church? I understand that for many of the guys who are doing their thing at St Leo’s this weekend, Vatican II was the defining moment of their lives and priesthood. And from an experiential point of view, I cannot know what that means. I was born in 1977, converted to the Catholic Faith in 1991 and was ordained to the Priesthood in 2005. Vatican II is something that I study in texts as much as Trent or Nicea II. I can say that there are many ways in which Vatican II, both the letter of that council and the way in which it has been experienced in the Church, is a part of me in ways I cannot even pinpoint. But so are Trent and Nicea II (sorry, I really love that Council and no one ever talks about it…), in their own ways.
I would never dare speak for my generational cohort of priests, but I do know that among my priest friends, there is the realization that Pope Benedict XVI’s principle of the hermeneutic of continuity is something that rings true to my experience and also my intellect. Now, as a theologian, I can sit there all day and think of the various ways in which the hermeneutic of continuity is itself to a certain extent a vague concept that needs to be explored much further, and I can come up with all kinds of objections and responses to objections about it. But the principle is that the Church I chose to belong to, and that I love to serve, although it lives in time and must speak to men and women of our own time, is also a Church which transcends the boundaries of space and time. There is continuity in many ways, even where there seems to be rupture. And rupture for the sake of rupture produces nothing but division and rootlessness.
I know that some of my brother priests and laypeople think that being an “adult” in the faith means accepting that not everything is black and white, that the Church can and does change, and that attempting to deny that is just nostalgia and escapism. The irony is that I agree with them. But Our LORD calls us to be as little children, and trust in Him and in a revealed faith in which there are some principles which are black and white, and others which require an informed conscience, informed by the teaching authority of a Church which is not just one voice among many, but can claim a remarkable history of unity and ability to construct communion. In fact, the more things change (outside the Church), the more they stay the same (in the Church).
Many of our interlocutors were raised in a situation which seemed like an immutable fortress Church that changed rapidly in their experience. Often, they were sheltered from certain realities, and when the sexual and cultural revolution hit, their new found freedom seemed like a breath of fresh air.
But for our generation, all we experienced was lack of roots and constant change. There was no truth, there was no law, there was no consistency. Families were no longer united, parishes were all very different one from another, and as far as the sexual revolution is concerned, many of us under the age of 40 could easily say “been there, done that” to just about everything under the sun. Unrestrained freedom had become little more than license, and many of us wanted something that could actually fill the restless heart of the human person and make us to live and love with a sense of peace and dignity.
That is why, when I see the vids from the US Association of Catholic Priests, my question is, “For Whom Do They Speak?” If the Church is truly the Church of Christ, and if Vatican II is truly a Council of the Spirit, then what is true, good and beautiful in the Church and Vatican II cannot be lost. It is a treasure that belongs to us as a gift from God. And if there is anything in the life of the Church and the experience of the implementation of a council which is not of God, and is not true, good and beautiful, then it will pass away from this world and there is nothing we can do to stop it. And if it can pass away so easily, then good riddance.
Ideology needs protests, anger and revolution to keep it afloat. Truth has no need of any of these things, because truth is Christ. And Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life shows Himself in humility, obedience and peace. I have no need of an association to speak for me, represent my concerns to the “institutional, hierarchical” Church and lobby for a better tomorrow through keeping alive the “spirit” of a Council. As a priest, I have been configured through the Sacrament of Holy Orders to Christ the High Priest. In humility, I must shepherd the flock of Christ in communion with bishops and priests of all ages, united under and with Peter. In obedience, I must find my identity in celebrating divine worship in accord with the tradition of the Church and hand the fruits of that worship to those whom the LORD has entrusted to me. In peace, I must work out my salvation in fear and trembling, seeking holiness of life above all other concerns.