By Msgr. Owen F. Campion
''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,'' wrote Victorian author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as the beginning of his classic A Tale of Two Cities, the romantic, tragic drama set amid the turmoil of the French Revolution.
The same sentence might be used to begin this reflection on the historical unfolding of the Roman Catholic priesthood in what today is the United States.
Each age has had its triumphs, the best of times. Each age has had its troubles, the worst of times. Every age has occurred in the midst of cultural movements and the clash of events, some to the point of turmoil, and in each generation priests have stood in the wake of these movements, and at times in the center of these events, and the overall result has been that they as a group magnificently responded to their calling and in the process created a community of Catholics that, despite admitted shortcomings and disappointments, now constitutes the most robust collection of practicing Roman Catholics in the world.
Noting Pope Benedict XVI's Year of The Priest, the history of priests in the life of North America, and the Church, is magnificent to recall.
It all began with the Age of Exploration. Priests accompanied Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) on his voyages. However, he never reached the territory that is now the United States, nor were the communities founded by Columbus himself, or immediately after his expeditions, in areas now under American jurisdiction.
Arguably the first and most sustained presence of priests on North American soil was provided by the 11 chaplains in the expedition of the Spanish adventurer, Hernando de Soto (1496?-1542), across what today is the Southeastern section of the United States.
Entering the continent in present-day Florida, De Soto and his companions, 500 in all, no small number, moved across the Southeast, through modern Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and maybe North Carolina, their path eventually ending at the great river that De Soto named, ''El Rio del Espiritu Santo -- The River of the Holy Spirit.''
De Soto died on the banks of this river, in legend, maybe in fact, on a spot now in the environs of Memphis. His expedition for all practical purposes then ended. The survivors eventually returned to Spain.
His chaplains, most of them priests of religious communities, were not part of the company as missionaries. They came to serve the spiritual needs of the men of the expedition.
(Their ability in this regard was greatly reduced when a mishap resulted in the loss of the hosts that they had brought along for the Eucharist. At the time, no wheat was to be found in the territory being explored. Without wheat, no flour could be made, and therefore no new bread could be baked. Corn was plentiful, but for the devout chaplains, bread made from anything other than wheat would not be valid matter. So, the chaplains no longer could celebrate Mass. Consequently, none of the explorers could receive communion.)
Nevertheless, the chaplains were there. That their purpose was not to evangelize the native population does not altogether diminish the value of their place in the expedition.
They were there to serve the Spaniards, but it must be stressed that they were there at enormous personal risk, let alone discomfort. None knew if any would ever see Spain again. Being overwhelmed by hostile natives was a very real possibility. And they moved and lived, generally, in the open air. Winter in the Southeast is not the same as winter in the Northwest, but it was no holiday.
Still, they were there, putting their own lives and human needs secondary to the priestly duty of caring for souls.
The same must be said of Spanish priests who assisted expeditions across the Southwest, in present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, and beyond.
In time, priests came not just to serve explorers, or colonists as settlements ultimately developed, but to evangelize.
Quickly coming to mind is Blessed Junipero Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan, the intrepid Apostle of California. He was one of many.
On the opposite side of the country were those great French Jesuits, some of whom gave their lives as martyrs, Sts. Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), St. Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), and others.
They were several of many. Other French priests were active as far west as modern Minnesota. Pere Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) became a legend. He traveled far and wide into the wilderness that is today's Midwest, seeking French explorers who had lost touch with their roots, national as well as religious, but also reaching out to natives.
In a tiny boat, pulling an oar, he went far down the modern Mississippi River, which he and other French explorers called ''Le Fleuve de l'Immaculee Conception -- The River of the Immaculate Conception.''
(Commemorating this wonderfully Catholic title of the river, the cathedral of the modern Diocese of Memphis, one of the two major cities on the river between its origin in Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico, is named in honor of the Immaculate Conception. By the way, the French established an outpost on the river on the site of today's Memphis, and they named it in honor of the Assumption.)
These French missionaries were to their contemporaries in France what the astronauts were to most Americans who are adults today.
They were heroes. Their heroism begged the question of why would they be willing to give all, even their lives, to proclaim the Gospel. What is its power? They inspired young and old alike.
Priests were part of Spanish and French colonization. In the communities that were to be in time New Orleans, San Diego, Santa Fe, and St. Louis, they brought not just the Church, and not just Catholic theology, but they also brought humaneness and beauty to life.
So has been the legacy of the American priesthood, from those times long ago to today.
The same can be said of the English priests who helped in the founding of Maryland. It was their effort that eventually led to the foundation of the American Catholic community under a bishop, to the establishment of Catholic higher education, with the founding of Georgetown College, now university, and to the beginning of Catholic seminaries, with the formation of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, although French priests, Sulpicians, started St. Mary's.
In 1789, Pope Pius VI created the Diocese of Baltimore, with Father John Carroll, a native of Maryland, being chosen as first bishop. This new diocese had jurisdiction over what then was the United States, composed of the formerly British 13 colonies, along with vast Western lands claimed by the new nation.
Establishment of the Baltimore diocese coincided with the trickle that quickly was to become a tidal wave, namely the arrival in North America of immigrants from Europe, many of them Catholics.
Priests were among the newcomers. One of these priests, a Redemptorist born in Bohemia, today's Czech Republic, later became a bishop and has been canonized, St. John Neumann (1811-1860). Their gift of self perhaps was not as fearful in its potential as were the gifts of self by the great French martyrs of North America, but the challenges therefore were neither occasional nor slight.
These priests gave much to serve their people. It was more than preaching homilies about gritting teeth and not losing the faith. It was long, hard hours in providing care for the sick, when health care was available only to the rich if at all, and in educating the young so that they could have lives better in a material sense than what their parents had known.
Probably by necessity, as much as by intention, these priests were close to the people. They established a pattern, even though the ideal in their day was for priests to be apart, and circumstances such as education put priests in a somewhat different category than the people they served.
This pattern has served the vitality of the Church in this country enormously. Such has been the case despite the passing of time, and growth in numbers, has meant that in many cases parishes were, or are, so large that it has been, or still is, difficult for any pastor to know every parishioner by name.
Still, the closeness has meant that vocations have come from the full, broad cross section of the Catholic population. Some priests came from wealth, including Father Dmitri Gallitzin (1735-1803), the Russian prince who converted from Orthodoxy and became the great apostolic figure in central Pennsylvania. Many other priests were, or are, sons of miners, of mom-and-pop grocers, and dirt farmers. But, no class ever dominated the priestly ranks. That has been, and is yet, a great strength.
This closeness to the people helped to make priests effective in any situation, but certainly as military chaplains. Read the stories of America's now many wars, and each conflict has its silver lining in the sacrifice and ingenuity of priests who were enlisted.
Several chaplains made history with their heroism, such as Father John P. Washington (1908-1943), who died aboard a torpedoed naval ship along with two Protestant chaplains and a Jewish rabbi; and Maryknoll Father Vincent Robert Capodanno (1929-1967), for whom a U. S. Navy ship of the line was named, and Father Emil Kapaun (1916-1951), both of whom are candidates for canonization.
So far, four priests have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
For pursuits other than in war, several priests have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, still living, holds the Congressional Gold Medal.
No less dedicated was Blessed Damien de Veuster (1840-1889), the renowned leper priest of Molokai in Hawaii. (He will be canonized in October). Being close to his people meant being close to the most wretched of people, literally in a state of living decay, and absolutely spurned by society. But, as his famous life attests, he was there.
Closeness to people and their needs formed such great figures as Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948), the founder of Boys' Town in Nebraska.
And, in many places, it prompted the actions and the thoughts of priests such as Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945), Sulpician Father John F. Cronin (1909-1994), and Msgr. George G. Higgins (1916-2002), who championed the rights of workers.
Jesuit Father John LaFarge (1880-1963) was an unrelenting spokesman for racial justice. The list of priests who did not simply preach theological abstracts, but who taught the Gospel's demand for respect for the individual person, is long indeed.
No other American religious denomination can point to a list of clergy as long, as relentless in objective, and as influential in getting results, in the attainment of human rights and justice for all as can Catholic Americans. It is a source of justifiable pride.
Some American priests have seen people not of the Catholic flock, but they have cared for them nevertheless.
Among the great modern missionaries are American priests, Father Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), who founded the Paulists primarily to reach American Protestants; Father William Howard Bishop (1886-1953), founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners, and Father Thomas F. Price (1860-1919) and Father James Anthony Walsh (1867-1936), who were inspired to found the Maryknoll community of missioners.
Priests came to be educators, many of them great. The universities and seminaries that priests founded, or sustained, today are national and indeed international landmarks for learning.
Scripture scholars such as the late Sulpician Father Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) and Jesuit Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, still living, have been, and are, regarded as among the very best New Testament exegetical minds in history. Then there were Benedictine Father Godfrey Diekmann (1909-2002) and Msgr. Martin Hellriegel (1890-1981), among so many others, who so loved the Church's public worship and drew people to the liturgy.
These priestly names never stop coming, the more prominent never eclipsing the untold thousands in untold thousands of parishes who gave, and are giving, hope and insight to untold millions.
What has pertained overall in a glance back at the history of the American priesthood? It has been, despite the stumbles and falls of some here and there, a constant and unbinding commitment to the priestly mission, and this mission has been perceived in the notion of a deep faith.
Priests have made every era of the Church in the United States the ''best of times.'' More than seldom, these priests have lived through the ''worst of times.''
It would be hard, and insensitive, to insist that the Church in this country in 2009 is not experiencing a shortage of priests.
Yet, with some actually rather confined exceptions, there always has been a shortage. The saddest, and least acknowledged, fact of American Catholic history is that for every two Catholics who remained with the Church, probably one left the Church. It is happening today.
However, this is not an indictment of priests for sluggishness or inactivity. The story of the priests ends with the fact that so many people find peace and purpose in the Church, and that American Catholics have created a network of service and of worship unequaled in quantity, unequaled in spiritual vigor, and unequaled in Christian history.
A nagging, and not rare, trait of anti-Catholicism in the American culture has confounded many Catholics and more broadly has tarnished the image of the priesthood in popular drama, in the media and in the social mindset.
Just less than a decade ago, the Clergy Sex Scandal swept priests from pedestals they once had occupied, and in the process it lay dark shadows across thousands upon thousands of decent, God-fearing priests, as well as coupling with the sexual frenzy of these times to make celibacy itself, so identified with the Catholic priesthood, seen by many to be a symptom, as well as a cause, of deep-rooted and most destructive personal dysfunction.
For many priests alive in the United States today, the awful days of the Scandal were the ''worst of times.''
But even those bad times are giving way to renewed and newfound strength. Priests have looked into the strong winds of criticism and by their rededication to their vocations have steadied themselves.
And, perhaps most fortunately as it hopefully augurs the coming of future ''best of times,'' steps are being taken by Church pastors, the bishops, to uproot the causes of the sins of some and fortify the resolve of priests yet to be ordained. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest magazine and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.
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