Striking a nerve

I’ve been hearing from lots of different people about the last column I wrote, on the “generation gap” among today’s priests. Most of those who have written to me are “professional Catholics.” 

As priests, faith formation leaders or others who work in the general orbit of the Church, they live every day with the divisions and misunderstandings, and they often have stronger feelings about their implications. 

In the column, I suggested that this generational divide is cyclical. And to make it even muddier, I find the idealism of the new generation of priests similar in tone, if not content, to the idealism of the 1960s generation they are now bumping up against. 

Coincidentally, longtime Church observer John L. Allen Jr. wrote a piece for the National Catholic Reporter describing a new generation of “Evangelical Catholics,” such as those who flock to World Youth Day. 

Allen describes three defining characteristics of “Evangelical Catholicism”: 

First, “a strong defense of traditional Catholic identity, meaning attachment to classic markers of Catholic thought (doctrinal orthodoxy) and Catholic practices (liturgical tradition, devotional life, and authority).” 

Second, a “robust public proclamation of Catholic teaching, with the accent on Catholicism’s mission ad extra, transforming the culture in light of the Gospel, rather than ad intra, on internal Church reform.” 

And, third, “faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance, which among other things implies that in a highly secular culture, Catholic identity can never be taken for granted. It always has to be proven, defended and made manifest.” 

Now, it must first be noted that these views are not simply typical of the young. In fact, they define my own adult “reversion” to the faith 30 years ago. Allen is not describing all young Catholics, or even a majority, but he does describe those most likely to be tomorrow’s leaders. 

I received an email from one young priest eloquently describing the influence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on his understanding of the faith. He said that his generation of priests sees the reform of the liturgy as being a key element in the renewal of the Church that is now taking place: 

“Cardinal Ratzinger called the liturgy a ‘living catechesis.’ I like that. We’re not talking about us priests becoming interior decorators. We’re talking about a way for catechesis to come alive at the assembly in all things that encompass us … the cross, the altar, singing, art, architecture, noble simplicity. The focus is Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament — not us.” 

Benedict’s impact cannot be underestimated on the new generation. As this young priest put it, “The young are now listening to a man they consider a great witness of Christ (his official representative on earth, in fact) and many consider themselves to be a part of a movement that he has helped to begin.” 

It is Pope Benedict’s words and example as “chief liturgist” that inspires many of the goals of this new generation when it comes to liturgical reform such as ad orientem, the use of chant, and the renewed appreciation of Latin. 

All of this, as I mentioned before, can seem very much like a throwback to the days of yore, but it would be a mistake to jump to that conclusion. 

A final warning, courtesy of John Allen, is worth considering: “Among youth, Evangelical Catholicism usually becomes ideological only if the older generation paints them into a corner, demanding that they choose sides in the Church’s internal battles. That tendency, alas, seems equally pronounced on the left and the right.” 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.