This month’s edition is honored to feature an article on priestly identity, on page 17, by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington. We are proud to say that His Eminence is no stranger to these columns. He himself notes that he has been writing for The Priest, or for other efforts of Our Sunday Visitor, for almost four decades.
In this month’s article, in his customarily rich and compelling style, the cardinal emphasizes the identity of priests. They are one with the Lord. From this bond, both the reasons for, and the power behind, priestly ministry flow. Following the Good Shepherd, priests give their lives to feed the Lord’s sheep. Cardinal Wuerl links the priesthood with the Eucharist and with the Church.
Priestly identity, oneness among priests in the Lord Jesus, very much came into my thoughts on June 11, 2011, when Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, of Our Sunday Visitor’s home diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend, ordained two brothers, Fathers Matthew and Terrence Coonan, to the diocesan priesthood in Fort Wayne’s splendid old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
(Every year The Priest presents an article by a newly-ordained priest in which he shares with more senior brothers in Orders that which led him to the priesthood. This year, in this edition, on page 10, instead of an article, we are publishing an interview with these two new priests. By the way, I thought an interesting comment in the interview was about the effect that priests in their parish had upon them. We, brother priests, always will be the first and hopefully the best of vocations recruiters.)
When we priests assembled, the two brothers, the candidates for ordination, appeared and made their way through our ranks. They greeted us. They thanked us for our being present, affirming our own responses to the priestly call.
They encountered broad smiles and warm responses.
Hardly surprising, those priests in the line, young or not so young, very eagerly were welcoming brothers, and they knew that they were welcoming brothers, reinforcements in the cause of Christ, with every hope for them, excited for them, standing with them, supporting them, and indeed with brotherly love for them, because they saw Christ in them, and in them a shared vocation.
No generation gap can veto the fact that priests are with Christ and in Christ, and so they are one, even as personalities and experiences differ. This unity, proceeding from this shared identity, is a profoundly mystical reality, an ontological reality as the Scholastic theologians would have it. It is profoundly biblical, coming directly from the Pauline notions of discipleship. It is profoundly, and essentially, ecclesial. It has human implications. Simply as human beings, we need each other. We need to respect and to honor each other — actively and deliberately.
Throughout the year, The Priest each month has printed an article on some phase of implementing the new translation of the Roman Missal. (Father Rick Hilgartner, of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, secretary of the USCCB Office for Worship, wrote the first article in the series, published in December 2010, and he has advised us throughout the year. We are most grateful for his involvement and for his counsel.)
This year of preparation is ending. We still very badly need to catechize regarding the Eucharist.
The fall has brought good news and news not so good. First, for the glad tidings, several prominent seminaries have reported significant increases in enrollment.
For instance, the Pontifical Council Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, has begun this school year with 40 more students enrolled than was the case last year. Numbers at the Pontifical North American College in Rome have not been as high in two generations.
Hopefully, these two historic houses of priestly formation reflect a trend pertaining throughout the country.
The news not so good is that in many places regular Mass attendance is declining. This is not new, but it is dramatic if the relatively recent Catholic experience in the United States is considered. Not so very long ago, the percentage of Catholic Americans regularly at Sunday Masses equaled or bettered the figures for any other place in the world.
Casting the net far and wide, as Blessed Pope John Paul II counseled, is as deeply rooted in the Gospel, and in the spirit of Christ, as it can be. Still, practicalities are real. Priests have few spare hours if any. The economic times are hard.
A distraction from the fact of diminishing numbers at Mass is the devotion of so many people and their faithful and constant involvement in the Church’s life, from the parochial school’s parents’ organization to RCIA.
A problem exists. People are slipping away from their Catholic roots. They may identify themselves as Catholics, and be honest in establishing this identification, but casual, irregular and half-hearted involvement with the Church, and especially with the Eucharist, inevitably will take a destructive toll.
Several weeks ago, USA Today published a very interesting report on the state of American religion, based on a recent book Futurecast, by George Barna (Tyndale House Publishers). It looked not just at Catholicity, but more broadly at Americans’ current regard for systematic, institutionalized religion.
Regardless of this broad perspective, it has a message for Catholics and especially for priests. In a few words, Barna notes, people say, “I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.”
Oh, this never could apply to Catholics! Think again. This observation well describes where very many American Catholics are when it comes to religion. Catholics in this country live in no ghetto. They are far less outside the mainstream than were their grandparents or even their parents when they first reached adulthood. They are enveloped in this culture. We priests must face facts and pursue two goals. The first is to recharge the batteries of the faithful in terms of ecclesiology. The Church means something, but fewer know, nor accept, what it means.
Second, we must look far and wide. We must cast those nets into the deep. Is it a matter of survival? It is. But, as Pope Paul VI so poignantly reminded the Church in Evangelii Nuntiandi, proclaiming Christ is the greatest gift that we can give the world. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.