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