I suspect it has always been the case that the younger generation becomes convinced that it knows better than its elders, is better informed, is not going to make the same mistakes. This probably goes back to the invention of fire, when some young know-it-all shortly thereafter invented eye rolling as his parents struggled to master a piece of flint.
There is some generational eye-rolling now going on in the Church, and as is to be expected, it is coming from the young. Perhaps less expected is that it is coming from many a young priest and seminarian.
There is a bracing, world-changing, in-your-face quality to some of the young guys I’m hearing about and meeting. They may not like the comparison, but their passion reminds me a lot of my generation once upon a time: an idealism that can be both inspiring and naïve, a passion for truth, a disdain for the received wisdom of their elders that strikes the holders of received wisdom as a tad arrogant.
What is catching priests and laity of my generation a bit off guard is that while the energy is recognizable, its orientation is very different. Now many young guys are wearing cassocks… in public. They swap rumors about when the Mass will go back to being celebrated ad orientem and predict the end of Communion in the hand.
Latin and chant have the whiff of the new and exotic to them. I recently heard stories of young priests — shades of 1980s Catholic feminists! — rejecting concelebration. One young Turk even said that faithful Catholics should receive the Eucharist “only occasionally.”
All of this stuff drives older Catholics — even those who do not see themselves as particularly liberal — a little bit crazy, in part because they see it as nostalgia for something never experienced, and as rebellion against something never lived through. Indeed, Catholics born in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s remember the Second Vatican Council and the whirlwind of change that followed as essential to their experience of the Church. It was cutting edge, whether liked or not.
But for young priests and seminarians born after 1980, Vatican II is as much a part of ancient history as Vatican I. They have known only two popes. They have experienced the vigorous resurgence of the Church Militant, and they reject what they see as the Church Querulous among those who preceded them.
Layer on top of this the sexual abuse crisis. When one talks to senior clergy, one often detects a great deal of anger directed at the bishops who they feel abandoned them. When one talks to junior clergy, the anger is often directed at the senior clergy who, it is sometimes said and other times hinted at, abandoned the discipline and fidelity that should have prevented such terrible actions.
This is unfair, of course, but it reflects an idealism that often comes with vocation. I admire the passion, the intense devotion and the sense of discovery of these newest laborers in the vineyard. At the same time, my assumption is that time spent in parishes with their people — hearing their confessions, watching their struggles, standing by their deathbeds — will sand off the sharp edges, as it did many of the priests of my generation. What remains, I hope, will be a spiritual witness that will help bring Christ to his people amid all the temptations and doubt that no generation ever escapes completely.
I know that some of the young guys do give up when reality doesn’t meet their expectations, but hasn’t this always been the case? For most, idealism will bring a new energy to the vocation, and age will bring its own consolations.
When that happens, one thing is sure: Someone younger will be rolling his eyes.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.