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Priesthood: Past, Present and Future
By Father Richard Vega
Twenty-five years after his ordination, the president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils reflects on the changes he has seen and what's ahead.

Q U I C K S C A N

Dramatic Changes
Imitating Christ
Foreign Priests
Today's Challenges
Signs of Hope
New Models of Ministry
The Challenges Ahead
An Evolving Sacrament


PHOTO BY KAREN CALLAWAY, CATHOLIC NEW WORLD

ANNIVERSARIES are milestones, not only markers of the passage of time but also opportunities to reflect. We are given the opportunity to consider the past, survey the present and view the horizon for the future.

Last June, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In this article, I am taking advantage of this milestone to reflect on the changing service of priests and permanent deacons.

I’ve gone from being a parish priest to my present position as president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. I’ve witnessed many changes the Church in the United States is facing.

My early images of the priesthood were based on our parish priests. The pastor made quarterly visits to the school to distribute report cards. In addition, priests came to our classroom at the time of First Confession and Eucharist. I recall priests wearing T-shirts at pickup basketball and volleyball games during our lunch recesses. And they watched over construction projects at the parish.

While I was growing up, I remember priests addressing topics of social justice while encouraging us to boycott grapes and to get involved in the community. Priests were no longer confined to the rectory, waiting for people to come to them. Rather, they went out into the wider community.

In the midst of these activities, they celebrated daily Mass and administered the sacraments for us. They were also quite visible in life’s vulnerable moments—births, weddings, family tragedies, catastrophes and funerals.

I saw priests listening to people who were attempting to understand God’s action in their lives. These priests communicated God’s compassion, love and care for his people. All of these images helped me decide at age 12 to enter our diocesan seminary in 1971. Changes were under way from the Second Vatican Council.

Dramatic Changes

Since then, my vision and understanding of priesthood have undergone dramatic change. When I entered high school, there were 65 of us freshmen. Previous classes had numbered 150-plus. Our lower numbers were a hint of the dwindling numbers that would soon follow. By the time I graduated from the high school seminary, there were 25 in my class, and only half of them went on to the college seminary.

College was my first encounter with older classmates, including an accountant and a former member of the military. These guys had worked full-time jobs. Other seminary students transferred from various colleges and universities.

This was my first experience of age being an issue. Some of my classmates were old enough to drink and had been living on their own for a while. Suddenly, they were being treated like teenagers.

Twenty-five percent of my classmates were second-career seminarians. Some of us wanted to explore new freedoms while others were interested in taking a nap. Flexibility and adjustments were the key words in my college years.

During graduate theology studies, I was among the youngest students. The seminary community was quite different from the one I experienced back in 1971. There were clear age differences in every class section. Labels identifying one as liberal or conservative were in vogue.

The demographics of the seminary were changing. While the majority of us were born in this country, a nod was being given to different languages, feast days, traditions and foods. The few seminarians who had not been born in this country struggled to learn theology in English, understand American culture and master slang.

In 1980, all of this appeared novel. Who would have thought that it was a foreshadowing of what seminary life and the priesthood would be like today?

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Individuals who respond to the call to priesthood today still seek to embody the person of Jesus Christ, as did the priests of the past. They seek to manifest and reveal Christ in their words and actions.

These men continue to be present at life’s vulnerable and significant moments. They continue to aid others in hearing the whispering voice of God in the midst of chaotic and harried lives. In addition, they continue to proclaim the good news of a Father’s care for his chosen ones. They bring the healing balm of mercy from God, and aid us in calling upon our God with confidence, reminding us that we are God’s children.

The overarching elements that I detected in the parish priests I knew as a child are still present in the priests of today. In my perception, the most significant change to the priesthood of the past 25 years is in the individuals who respond to the invitation to “come and follow.” What I perceived as new and novel while I was in my seminary formation has become normative among today’s candidates who answer the call to serve the Church as priests.

In the past, the average age of newly ordained priests was 26. Today, it is 35. Beginning in the 20th century, most of the candidates for priesthood were born in the United States. Today, many seminarians come from Mexico, various countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and even Eastern Europe.

Ordinations to the priesthood during the 20th century were annual events celebrated in every diocese. That is not always the case now. When an ordination occurs, it is often one or two candidates, rather than the large numbers of the past.

The burgeoning number of Catholics in our country, as well as the swelling of the Catholic immigrant population, places new demands on priests today. As a result, many U.S. bishops have sought priests from other countries to minister to local churches.

At this time, approximately 20 percent of the priests in the United States are from Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, India and Asia. These men come here as ordained priests and are met with high expectations.

While people want priests in their parishes, sometimes they experience mixed feelings when a foreign-born priest appears at the altar. Some of these priests have problems with pronunciation and diction, in addition to understanding American culture, imagery and idioms. For example, there might be cultural differences between where they were raised and where they now live regarding the roles of men and women in the Church, use of money, exercise of leadership and shared responsibility. These differences can cause disappointment and tension for both the foreign-born priest and the parish he seeks to serve.

Today, a foreign-born priest might arrive at a parish on Friday and by Sunday be preaching and presiding, even though neither he nor the parish has been prepared for cultural differences.

Several centers are cropping up throughout the country to assist these priests and the parishes where they will serve to deal with the issues of acculturation. These centers are taking small steps, but they are leaps in helping these priests serve in the United States, allowing their gifts and talents to be used wisely. At the same time, the gifts and talents of local communities can be honored.

Vatican II calls for a revision of all ordination ceremonies and prayers. For the ordination of bishops, all bishops present are to impose hands on the new bishop, showing that bishops share a common responsibility within the Church, no matter what their episcopal responsibilities may be.

Vatican II restores the permanent diaconate where a bishops’ conference requests it. The rite for ordaining deacons now reflects the fact that some men are already married and others are affirming their commitment to celibacy.

The revised rites for the ordination of bishops, priests and deacons are introduced in 1968.

—P.M.

When it comes to age, seminary experience and culture, priests are no longer a homogenous group. Thus, various visions of priesthood exist today.

Priests often talk about differing “ecclesiologies” (understandings of the Church) in their diocese. Some identify themselves as pre- or post-Vatican II priests, liberals or conservatives.

The division into camps is most clearly evident at our presbyteral gatherings. We often divide into cultural, age or ideological groupings.

The sex-abuse scandal that gripped the U.S. Church in 2002 demoralized many priests in our country. Many of them felt betrayed and abandoned by the bishops. The unique relationship that a priest has with his bishop was greatly undermined.

Some priests retreated into their castles, raised the drawbridge and went into self-exile. Many of us limited ourselves to our individual priesthood and single parish. The vision of Church and mission became individual and congregational in nature.

Another current challenge is that priests are being named pastors at a much earlier age. In the last part of the 20th century, a priest waited almost 20 years before being assigned as a pastor. In the interim, he received several assignments that allowed him to hone pastoral skills under the tutelage of a seasoned pastor.

Today, some diocesan priests are named pastors as soon as six months after ordination. In some cases, the mentoring and guidance are not offered. Other times, they are not wanted.

Another phenomenon that faces priests today is pastoring more than one parish. For some priests, the pastoral care begins on Friday night and concludes on Sunday evening. They might complete a circuit of more than 200 miles to celebrate Eucharist for a number of parish communities.

How many parishes can a single pastor manage? How long can a priest continue to be pastor for disparate communities before he experiences burnout?

While the perception may appear that priesthood in today’s Church is bleak, I believe that there are signs of hope and life like never before. In 2008, a survey asked priests if they were happy: If given the choice again, would they still opt to be priests? Of those surveyed, 90 percent said yes: They would again choose to be priests!

This response stands in stark opposition to the dwindling numbers of priests and comments regarding why there is a shortage. Some people ask if priests in general are not happy people, who would want to join them?

Some people believe that Vatican II changed the perception of the role of priesthood. There appears to be nothing unique about the call to priesthood: It is simply one of many choices in the call to holiness.

There are voices calling for a change to the discipline of celibacy in our modern culture. Others say that a first-world nation does not create an atmosphere where a vocation to the priesthood can be seriously contemplated.

When it comes to the issues and concerns of priests in this country, some people claim there is a lack of strong leadership among the bishops. The leadership continues to ask parish priests to do more work, without the vision or infrastructure to support the growing pastoral responsibility.

Lots of reasons are given for the shortage of priests. But the challenge still remains for every member of the Church to be responsible for inviting others to serve the Church as a priest.

A book receiving much attention from priests throughout the country is The Intentional Presbyterates: Claiming Our Common Sense of Purpose as Diocesan Priests, written by Father Ron Knott of the Archdiocese of Louisville. He reminds us priests that we are not alone. Not only are we connected to our bishops in very real and extraordinary ways, but we also are connected to each other as brother priests. There is sacramental grace and strength in recognizing and realizing our fraternity as priests united around our bishop as the local presbyterate.

In April 2008, six national organizations gathered in Florida to culminate a six-year study of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership. This study recognized that priests alone couldn’t continue to offer the energy needed to maintain the vibrancy of faith communities in place today.

Priests are slowly realizing that laypeople are the new co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord. The number of individuals involved in ministry formation indicates that everyday Catholics are willing to take their baptismal call seriously.

The study also indicated that faith communities want their priests to exercise spiritual and pastoral leadership by calling forth the gifts and talents present in the community, and empowering them as they work collaboratively.

Restoring the diaconate as a permanent ministry, not simply as a stepping-stone to priesthood, has helped priests and parishes in many ways. Parishes are witnessing the social ministry of the gospel to be evident through soup kitchens, food pantries, visits to shutins and prison inmates.

Most priests in the United States were first ordained deacons. Anywhere from a month to a year later, they were ordained priests. As a result, many priests base their understanding of the diaconate on their own seminary experience, limiting the role of deacons to such functions as Baptisms, an occasional vigil, funeral or wedding when a Mass isn’t involved.

Priests and parishioners need to view the diaconate as a time-honored, collaborative ministry of liturgy and charity where new possibilities for stronger parishes can be realized.

Bishops and priests must cease viewing permanent deacons as a stopgap measure until more priests are ordained. The diaconate needs to be seen as a viable ministry that embodies the selflessness that Christ models for us in the Eucharist.

Today, the individuals who respond to the call to serve the Church as priests are more diverse in age, background, education and experience than my initial experience 25 years ago. But priests then and now are still administering the sacraments and are present in life’s key and vulnerable moments. They still continue to communicate God’s care and compassion for his people, still aid others to hear God’s voice in the midst of a chaotic world and are still building the Church.

The images that I possessed at 12 years of age have been transformed and brought into clearer focus, but the basic work of priesthood still remains the same: individuals who herald the power and presence of God’s Kingdom for our day. In my opinion, each member of the Christian community has a responsibility to ask members whom they believe to possess these characteristics if they have ever heard God calling them to serve as a priest for his people.

God’s call takes on many shapes and forms. Each of us needs to be an instrument of God and keep inviting others to “come and follow me.”

 

A priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Richard Vega is president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (www.nfpc.org). In 2008 he was president of the U.S. bishops’ National Advisory Board.


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