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A Time for Priestly Reflection

At annual gathering, Roman Catholic clerics battered by sex abuse scandal take stock as their roles and their church evolve.

May 10, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the nation's Roman Catholic priests take stock of more than a year of sexual abuse scandal, Bishop Raymond J. Boland seemed to capture the mood with a story about a gray-haired old man looking in the mirror.

"Inside every older person there's a young person wondering what happened," Boland told the priests gathered for the annual meeting of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. His audience of priests, many of them gray-haired, laughed heartily.

Then Boland took his story a step further: "Inside every elderly priest there is a younger priest wondering what happened." This time there was silence.

Anger, shock, disbelief, disappointment, shame and resentment have become familiar emotions in parish rectories in the wake of the scandal that began in Boston in January 2002.

But speaker after speaker at this week's meeting emphasized that the sexual abuse scandal, while it undeniably damaged the priesthood, did not start the crisis that so many American priests feel part of. The scandal compounded existing problems, they said. Wrenched by changes in church and society, many Catholic pastors are wondering what it means to be a priest.

"We're very tender. All the doubt, all the struggle, all the questioning is exposed and raw," Father Bob Silva, president of the federation, said in an interview. "When the scandal hit, it simply exposed all of that."

Father Jim Haley, 61, was ordained as a Paulist priest in 1968 in the midst of the sweeping changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. He became a priest when the church was emphasizing the "priesthood of all believers" and the "universal call to holiness." He has conducted himself, he said, as a servant, a priest in collaboration with the laity.

Yet some parishioners and many younger priests want to return to the days of the cultic priest, he said. Younger priests as a group are more conservative than the older, Vatican II era, priests, many priests here noted. Many of the younger priests have taken to wearing a cassock, a flowing, dress-like vestment.

Many of the older priests fear their younger counterparts are turning inward rather than reaching out to help others. "How do you do missionary work in a jungle wearing a cassock?" an older missionary priest grumbled during a discussion.

Such comments speak to tensions within the priesthood.

It wasn't surprising that a workshop on priestly identity was among the best attended. And the meeting's keynote speaker, University of Notre Dame history professor Scott Appleby, spoke at length on a topic about which he has written a book: "Weathering the Storm: Crisis, Continuity and Transformation in the U.S. Priesthood, 1962-2002."

The priesthood crisis began before Vatican II, during the years after World War II when Catholics began to be fully assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, Appleby said.

Before that time, the role of the priest centered on the parish. The priests' authority as a symbol of the institutional church and the divine Christ was absolute and unchallenged. One monsignor in Dorchester, Mass., during the 1920s and 1930s was so powerful that people would not sell their homes without his permission, Appleby said.

But after the war, ghetto Catholicism was breached by upward social and economic mobility. Many Catholic servicemen returning home from the war, like others who served, went to college on the GI Bill. Others went to Catholic schools and became competent not only in their faith, but also in parish life. The clerical aristocracy was in retreat.

From the mid-1950s, he said, some pioneer priests began rethinking their roles in light of a renewed commitment to the secular world and an emphasis on urban ministry and social justice.

Then came Vatican II, beginning in 1962, which elevated the role of the laity. The emphasis was on a universal call to holiness and an encompassing priesthood of the faithful. Though the church now celebrates that, many believe that the changes unintentionally devalued the role of the ordained priesthood.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the so-called orchestra leader model of the priest took hold: the cleric as coordinator, supervisor of an increasingly active laity. In that role, the priest was meant to empower others to serve. He affirmed the laity's callings as the people of God.

Now the sexual abuse scandal has further reduced the authority of priests in the eyes of many. At the same time, the nationwide shortage of priests has made defining the proper role harder.

"I hear people saying, 'This isn't the priesthood I was ordained in.' Something has radically changed, and we don't know what's happened," said Father Brian O'Toole, 43, a pastor in Worcester, Mass.

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