As a young Robert Barron clearly indicated in his 1997 interview in U.S. Catholic (“How to Build a Better Priest”) that the crisis in priesthood we’re facing in our time has everything to do with priestly identity. Who is the priest? What does he do? And what sort of man are we looking for in the priesthood today?
This vocal quest for a priestly identity is a fairly contemporary one. This does not mean that it was completely understood or grasped by the priest or the people. It was just commonly understood and accepted that the priest was the Alter Christus, the other Christ, and it was his role to live out the munera of teaching, of administrating, and of sanctifying.
There were very different days than today in the Catholic Church in the United States. Culturally, we live in a different world, and, to be honest, being born in the 1970s, it is a world that I never experienced personally. But even growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still a very different Catholic cultural experience than what is the lived experience of 2019.
To use my home parish in Brooklyn as an example: In 1955, the parish complex was a New York city block, which housed the church, the rectory, the convent, the Brothers’ House, the boys’ school, and the girls’ school. The pastor of the parish was an auxiliary bishop, assisted by the senior curate (who had been ordained around 25 years), two or three other curates (including one who was newly ordained). Also present in the rectory were a few other priests, assigned full-time to other ministries, but who assisted in the parish.
There were packed lines for confessions, with all of the curates on duty. On Sundays, Holy Mass was offered in the upper church, the lower church and in the school basement.
With two schools, with well over 1000 children in it, one staffed by a convent of habited sisters (who had close to 30 in it) and, for the young men, habited religious brothers. Students attending religious education numbered around 800 and the parish was not only the center of the educational, liturgical and spiritual life of the neighborhood, but also the social life.
People identified themselves not by on what street they lived, but by what parish they attended. The “Monsignor,” as any pastor was commonly called, whether he had the papal honor or not, ran the show and there was no doubt about it.
By the time I was growing up, things were slightly different, but it still was a larger, co-educational grade school, with a few religious sisters and brothers teaching in it, and a rectory which housed a pastor and three full-time priests. Today, the parish is one priest, the pastor alone, and the grade school, staffed by no religious at all, is a Catholic academy combined with a neighboring parish.
It is obvious that priests today are overburdened by the weight of parochial administration, not to mention the real fact that they suffer from a general lack of worldly esteem due to the grievous sins of some clerics, among whom were even eminent cardinals and bishops. I am told by some of my brother priests in the United States that they do not feel very comfortable any longer traveling in, and for a vocal few, even being off the parish property in clerical garb or religious habit due to the looks that they receive from some people.
And yet, I contend that there is no better time to be a Catholic priest. Priests are more necessary than ever for the sanctifying of the world. What is necessary today for the priest is a radical reconfiguration to the Person to whom they were configured at their ordination — Jesus Christ, the Lord, the one, true, high priest.
Read more at National Catholic Register.