Is an American Catholic renaissance possible in our lifetime?
Nine years ago I started writing as the “American Papist” because I was, and remain, proud to be both Catholic and an American.
We as Christians understand that hope is a necessity of being Catholic because there is no better foundation for hope than the promises of Christ.
But what signs of hope can be gleaned for the future of the Catholic Church in America?
This year, interspersed with my other writing, I’m launching a series of essays around the theme “Signs of Hope” to share and explain what gives me inspiration and optimism about the future of the Catholic Church in America.
And I hope you actively take part in sharing with me and your fellow readers what gives you hope.
My first sign of hope is the Under-35 Priest.
When I get into debates about the future of the Catholic Church in America with Catholics who disagree with me about the importance of orthodoxy, one of the realities I keep in mind is that, because of the type of young men studying in seminaries and serving in parishes already, the papist revolution has already begun.
We tend to think about the shortage of priests in numeric terms. And we take hope when the latest reports show that there are more men studying for the priesthood now than a decade or two ago. But what fascinates me more is the quality of the men studying for the priesthood now and of priests in general under the age of 35. One of the most striking features of these young priests is their orthodoxy, especially when you contrast their theological views with the set of priests who graduated seminary in the 1970’s. Just as we talk about the shared characteristics among generations of Americans (i.e. the baby boomers, the “greatest generation” etc.) we can talk about shared characteristics among generations of priests. So many of the men who became priests in the 1970’s sought to change the world through the Church. Men under 35 become priests to serve the church.
Think about what a young man choosing the priesthood knows he is getting himself into: overwork, due to the shortage of priests, and ridicule from most anyone outside the church. It takes dedication and determination to choose such a path.
Here’s a dynamic I’ve seen in parish after parish. The liberal monsignor is the pastor. He is in his 60s. His homilies and pastoral priorities are cryogenically frozen and preserved from the 1970’s. He never preaches against sin. The assistant priest (i.e. parochial vicar) is probably in his 30s, maybe late 20s. This under-35 priest loves St. John Paul II. He loves Latin in the Mass. He may have fallen away from the church in college, but he had a powerful conversion. He talks about sin and the beauty of confession in his homilies. He quietly tries to introduce Eucharistic adoration.
Does this sound like a parish you know of, maybe even your own?
It’s happening all across America. And it’s going to change the face of the church in this country.
Over the past decade I have met hundreds of seminarians and young priests. I can only recall a handful who didn’t fit the pattern I’m trying to describe.
And, of course, I have also met and studied under scores of priests over the age of 35 who are every bit as loyal and as dedicated to the Church as the young men I’m describing. We owe these priests an incalculable debt for their perseverance and for passing on the faith in its fullness.
We must also consider how many young priests in the 1970’s began their priesthood with stars in their eyes and orthodoxy in their hearts but changed their views along the way. Who knows how the rough and tumble of vocation lived out in the real world can alter priestly attitudes and sensibilities. So the way priests view themselves and the Church obviously can change over the course of a lifetime. But at the same time, I wager that today in 2015 we’ve already reached a critical mass of young, orthodox priests who will have a significant impact on the Church in America in our lifetime, even if trends change eventually and the next crop of priests are less orthodox than the current set.
The saying goes that the church “outlives all heresies”, and the makeup of young priests in America is testament to the truth of that adage. I once heard a story about several seminarians complaining among themselves that their professor (an older priest) was misrepresenting scripture and trying to turn parts of the New Testament into proto-feminist propaganda. Most of the secondary sources they were assigned were published in the 1970’s. It was the beginning of the semester and the course was required. They were trying to figure out what could be done — they didn’t want to miss this opportunity to understand the scriptures more fully. Finally one of them suggested that the solution was that some day they would be teaching the course and when that happened they would teach it differently. The answer was not to overthrow the heterodoxy, the solution was to outlive it. I have never forgotten that perspective.
I think it’s impossible not to trace this quiet revolution to St. John Paul II, and in particular the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver. So many young priests trace part of their vocational discernment either to St. John Paul II or a World Youth Day (Denver in particular). This positive trend also appears to be more pronounced in America than in other parts of the world.
I think it’s also particularly revealing to note which bishops and religious orders are attracting the most vocations — orthodox ones. That’s why the Dominicans on the east coast are flourishing while the Paulist Fathers are having a harder time. Or why Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz can have over two dozen men in formation in a diocese that numbers less than 100,000 and another diocese did not ordain a single priest in ten years because the bishop refused to ordain another man until he could also ordain women.
One simple way of looking at all this is to say: if you are willing to put up with all of the challenging and difficult things that come with being a Catholic priest, you might as well be really Catholic.
The under-35 priest is not running the show right now. He is waiting in the wings, serving the church he loves. The vast majority of these young priests will not be old enough to be appointed bishops for another decade or two. But when they do, one of the pillars of an American Catholic renaissance will be in place.
What do you think? In your experience, are younger priests more likely to be orthodox than older priests? What are the dynamics in your parish and your diocese? What gives you hope for the future of the Catholic Church in America?