Priests of different generations called to shepherd

aymond    More than 100 priests gathered last week at Notre Dame Seminary for a workshop on cultivating unity among priests. The specific topic was the type of priestly formation priests received over the last 60 years and the changes in the church and in society over that time. Some priests were ordained before Vatican II, some during the sweeping changes of Vatican II and some in the post-Vatican II era. Why was this important to address?
    About two years ago, we held a major convocation for priests, which was facilitated by Father Stephen Fichter of the Archdiocese of Newark and by Dominic Perri, who is a consultant with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. At that time we identified a strong unity among the presbyterate, but we also saw some challenges to that unity. One of those challenges was cultural diversity – emphasizing the need to come to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for our different cultures and making sure racism never enters our dealings with one another as priests. We had a gathering last spring to talk about how important it was as a presbyterate to appreciate our diversity of culture.
    The second challenge we identified is the diversity in what we call “ecclesiology” – a priest’s understanding of “church.” We have priests who were formed before the 1960s, some during Vatican II in the early 1960s, some after Vatican II in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, and then what we call the “millennial” priests – those who were ordained from 1990 to the present. As priests, all of us are committed to Christ and to priestly formation. But the way in which we were formed and taught to carry out our ministry may vary somewhat. The great Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, once said there are many legitimate images of the church, and those vary because of one’s ecclesiology.
    I was thrilled that more than 100 priests attended the workshop. It was a significant step in forming greater solidarity as a presbyterate and helping us better understand one another in terms of our image and understanding of the church and the way in which we do pastoral care.
    Are the differences related to more than the type of seminary training priests received over the years?
    Yes. The workshop really hit home because it gave us a better understanding of what was going on not only in the church but in the United States, in the world and in society. Whether we realize it or not or whether we like it or not, those cultural influences help form our intellect and also form some of the ways we deal with situations, conflict and theology. By looking at the dominant factors in those different periods of time over the last 60 years, we can come to a better appreciation of where a particular priest may be coming from, based on his formation, the theological training he received and his personal experiences of the priesthood. Everyone was affected by what was going on in the church and the world at that time. Sometimes I hear people talk about Vatican II as if Vatican II were the “problem” with the church. Vatican II was not the problem. Vatican II was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it was a prophetic moment for the church. If there was any weakness, perhaps it was the way in which we implemented or did not implement the teachings of Vatican II in the 10 or 20 years that followed. When we talk about Vatican II, we also have to put into context the significant changes that were occurring in the world at the time. There was the sexual revolution and the breakdown of authority and significant changes in society and the family. All those things compounded what happened in the 1960s and 1970s.
    How do you think this diversity in priestly styles affects the lay person?
    I know people are affected by these differences. I hear this in informal conversation and also when people write me letters about priests, deacons and sometimes even lay ministers. Parishioners get used to the style of one person and they have a very hard time adjusting to the style of another. That’s unfortunate, because we’re not called to be alike; we’re called to be faithful. People get used to the style of one priest and they think every priest should be of the same mind and the same heart. That’s an unfair expectation. Every priest – and every bishop, I might add – has his gifts and his weaknesses. There are things I do that people will like. There are things I do that will aggravate people terribly. I would hope we could get to the point of accepting the priest or the bishop, respecting him and adjusting to him the best we can.
    Was the meeting fruitful?
    Yes. The comments I got from the priests were very positive. They were grateful we did this. This was an important step forward. It’s not the end of the conversation. We must continue to build on this, and I’m very optimistic that we can. In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, there is among our priests a great sense of respect for our diversity, and there is a great deal of unity. There’s still more we can do to build on that. We’re not called to be alike or to think alike. We’re called to be good, dedicated priests, committed to Jesus Christ. We’re called to always represent the teachings of the church and to teach those with integrity and enthusiasm. We’re called to celebrate the sacraments in a way that invites people into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. And we’re called to be good shepherds. The way in which we do that is going to vary because of our formation and because of our personality. But as we get to know one another and realize the different movements in the church and the world during those periods of time, we can become more understanding of one another.
    Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to

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