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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“To speak the language of God's beauty, we must first begin to listen. And to listen, we must have silence in our lives. I pray that God will open our eyes and ears to beauty, and help us use it in the service of the Truth.”
— Bishop James D. Conley (10/4/2013)

Pastoral Difficulties with Recently Ordained Priests
published 8 February 2015 by Fr. David Friel

HERE WAS AN IMPORTANT post made almost two weeks ago over at Pray Tell. The post is from Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, and it is entitled “Pastoral Difficulties with Recently Ordained Priests.” That term, “recently ordained priests,” usually refers to men who have been ordained for up to five, maybe even ten years. As one who fits that category, myself, the title caught my undivided attention. I read the column with great interest.

N.B. Instead of rehearsing all the points made in the original post, I encourage you to read it for yourself. Doing so will allow you to make more sense of my response, and it will also allow me to make my response more briefly.

First, I appreciate the tenor of the remarks given by the three diocesan officials. Their concerns appear quite genuine, and I am challenged in a positive way by some of their critique. It is with the same spirit of charity and respect that I wish to respond.

IOCESAN OFFICIAL #1 begins his reflections with a treatment of liturgical matters. The specific issues he raises, to be honest, seem like issues about which most of the lay faithful are not troubled. The People of God are not, in large part, very concerned by issues like liturgical vesture, rubrical accuracy, or the purification of vessels. Allowing such things to dominate a debate about “Pastoral Difficulties,” in my opinion, says more about those having the debate than it does about the recently ordained.

Official #1 transitions from the liturgical issues to matters of leadership, asking what role the community has in helping the recently ordained to develop leadership skills. Hopefully, that development began even before the seminary. Still, it is absolutely essential that a priest’s first assignment or two helps him to exercise true servant leadership. Foremost in this work is the pastor to whom he is assigned, and the faithful with whom he works also share a role. Like most professionals, men in the priesthood grow with experience. So we agree strongly on this point.

IOCESAN OFFICIAL #2 offers several encouragements, or pieces of advice. The first encouragement is for recently ordained priests to seek out a wide variety of pastoral experiences. This is good advice, but it is also something that happens almost on its own in today’s Church. The days of starting out as the 3rd or 4th assistant with few responsibilities and becoming a pastor 30 years later are gone. Newly ordained priests are almost universally required to have a hand in many things and to learn pastoral & administrative skills quickly—often much sooner than in previous generations.

His fourth encouragement is to “seek out the lost sheep.” I agree wholeheartedly with this encouragement, but it seems like preaching to the choir. Seeking out those who have drifted or disaffected, from my observations, is one of the great passions among recently ordained priests today. The desire to reach out to those on the margins is precisely what fuels our desire to preach hard truths, to reject relativism in all its forms, and to reestablish a sense of corporate Catholic identity. Again, I agree with this encouragement, but I would rank this among the strengths of most young priests, rather than their weaknesses.

IOCESAN OFFICIAL #3 starts by referencing the perceived liturgical “rigidity” of young priests. I appreciate his perspective, which acknowledges that this perception is quickened by the “laxity” of preceding generations. Following rubrics is not “rigidity”; it is doing what the Church asks of us. Ignoring rubrics is not “creativity”; it is disregard for what the Church asks of us. (Yes, I appreciate the irony that such a black-and-white appraisal appears “rigid,” but I stick to what I’ve written.)

Official #3 wisely addresses maturity, which can certainly be an issue among young priests, especially those, like me, who were ordained as young as 25-years-old. In the last half-century, society has nearly doubled the period of adolescence. Decades ago, a young person was expected to act like an adult by the time they were 18, at least. At this age, many young men & women were out of the house, getting married, and off to work. On account of many different factors, this is no longer the case, and society no longer expects people to mature until closer to 30. This is a problem, and it is a problem that affects not only society at large, but also the young priests who have been raised in this society. Formation programs need to be aware of this, and they need to be robust in their efforts to help candidates for the priesthood achieve the affective maturity described in Pastores Dabo Vobis.

The third official also references clericalism in the context of various liturgical issues. I have addressed this matter thoroughly in a previous post, explaining why I don’t believe obedience to liturgical law is in any fashion a symptom of clericalism. As for pastoral formation, there is probably not a seminary to be found that doesn’t offer a better pastoral formation program now than they did decades ago, so this cannot be the culprit of whatever issues might be observed among the recently ordained.

My most significant criticism of the post over at Pray Tell concerns none of the points that are made therein. It actually concerns a few points that are not raised. The two major issues that go unaddressed in the article are these: the impact of the sexual abuse crisis on the recently ordained and the era of Summorum Pontificum.

First, let me speak about the impact of the sexual abuse crisis on us. I entered the seminary in 2003, one year after the Church in America was forever changed by unrelenting reports in The Boston Globe of deviant crimes by priests & shameful cover-up by bishops. I had classmates who were studying for the Archdiocese of Boston, so the crushing news never seemed distant. Then, in 2005, the first of two scathing grand jury reports was published, detailing the horrors of priestly abuse in my own Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The second was published in February 2011, three months before I was ordained a priest. On top of that, a massive number of my priest role models were among those accused or removed for having gone astray.

My story is not unique. Initiating a discussion about “Pastoral Difficulties with Recently Ordained Priests” without so much as mentioning these issues is a clear demonstration of how much remains to be learned & understood about my generation of priests. The abuse crisis is as much a part of our DNA as the 9/11 attacks are upon the consciousness of New Yorkers.

Second, I think it is difficult for earlier generations of priests to appreciate what it was like to be in the seminary at the time Summorum Pontificum was released. The most senior priests alive today remember celebrating Mass before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The vast majority of our priests, however, have no lived experience of celebrating that Order of Mass. Many don’t even have memories of attending it. For most priests in ministry today, what we now called the “Extraordinary Form” is still basically regarded as the “indult Mass,” the weird penchant of an isolated few conservative wackjobs. But the recently ordained and those in formation now were mostly raised without the same hang-ups that former generations have about the “Tridentine Mass.” Thus, there is often a greater openness to the gift Pope Benedict has given us through Summorum Pontificum.

When I entered the seminary in 2003, seminarians would have been fearful to mention the word “fiddleback,” and to attend an “indult Mass” would have been to take a perilous risk. These things would have been considered major “formation issues.” By the time I was ordained, however, we had celebrated Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the high altar in the seminary chapel. These were strange times.

Going through seminary formation at a time when there are two legitimate forms of the Roman Rite is a very new thing. Why wouldn’t a seminarian today want to be able to celebrate both forms, if not out of personal interest, at least out of professional competency? In today’s Church, a seminarian who doesn’t have an interest in learning both forms of the Mass is a bit like a fellow who dreams of becoming a parking valet but who refuses to learn to drive a standard transmission.

As Diocesan Official #1 rightly points out, every generation of priests has its issues. No formation program is ever perfect, nor is any priest. To some extent, the history of the Church can be charted along the path of a pendulum. It would seem to me grossly premature to suggest that my generation of priests (those presently considered “recently ordained”) are the ones farthest from the center of that swing.

Young priests are a gift to the Church. So are old priests and middle-aged priests. So are the lay faithful. But it is our fidelity to the Church—totally aside from the details of our age or ideas or station in life—that is the greatest gift.

Editor’s Note: Fr. David Friel has given us an amazing reflection and we are in his debt once again. It is regrettable that the Liturgical Press Blog he mentions (PrayTell) uses statements from anonymous sources. Those offering unsolicited criticism should have the courage to use their own names. —JMO