On May 27, I will observe the fortieth anniversary of my priestly ordination. I would like to reflect on these past forty years – and the years that immediately preceded them – not so much to share a review of my priestly life and ministry but to use my experience as a kind of template to consider the Church in the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council and in its aftermath. I hope you find it helpful.
I will always be grateful to my then-non-practicing Catholic parents for committing me and my education to St. Rose of Lima School in Newark, where I received the Catholic Faith (which I subsequently shared with my parents) and my priestly vocation. Upon returning from the first day of kindergarten, I proudly informed my mother that I wanted to be a priest (actually, I said “a monsignor”!), from which desire I never wavered, thanks to supportive parents, loving and competent Sisters, and zealous priests. Interestingly, in fifth grade, Sister Regina Rose “prophesied” to my mother: “I can tell you three things about Peter’s future – he will be a priest, a teacher and a writer” – not bad for having more than sixty other kids in the class! It was also Sister Regina who had us keep a scrapbook of clippings on “the council” which was then in its preparatory stages because, she said, this would be a momentous occasion in the life of the Church and in our own personal lives. Again, a prophetess.
The Council closed during my sophomore year of high school. As a sign of the incipient confusion, we had four different religion textbook series in four years. The unraveling manifested itself powerfully at the end of my senior year as two nuns married two of the priests, and two other nuns “flew the coop,” both of them over the age of 65, who explained to me that they were leaving because “this isn’t what I signed up for.” Needless to say, this was not very affirming for a boy about to embark on his own priestly vocation, which I did three weeks after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI – another watershed event. The non-enforcement of that encyclical unleashed an unprecedented cycle of dissent and disobedience.
The college seminary experience was not too bad; indeed, the academic formation was stellar, while the overall environment in the Church was harrowing, especially as defections from the priesthood reached epidemic proportions; I often say it is surprising that the suction didn’t take the rest of us with them. The theology years were a nightmare at every level: outright heresy taught as Gospel truth; rife liturgical abuses on a daily basis; persecution of “retrograde” seminarians – with Yours Truly being told that he was “unsuited for ministry in the post-conciliar Church” and forced to find a benevolent bishop three months before diaconate. My seven years of supposed priestly formation were, bar none, the most unhappy years of my life, characterized by intense polarization and draconian imposition of aberrant viewpoints by those in authority. It must be noted that there were, to be sure, some good and faithful priests on the seminary faculty, but they were a distinct minority and largely reduced to window dressing. In short, my generation of priests had been robbed of our Catholic and priestly patrimony by a generation of angry rebels.
At any rate, by nothing short of a miracle of God’s grace, I was ordained a priest on May 27, 1977. The forty years since have been both fruitful and challenging. I have served in a variety of capacities (often wearing three and four hats at the same time): teacher and administrator in elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and seminaries for all four decades; pastor in three parishes for a total of thirteen years; author, editor and publisher; vocation director; secretary to a bishop; public relations officer; fund-raiser; host and guest of radio and television shows.
My first year as a priest coincided with Paul VI’s last year as Pope. Undoubtedly, he was a good man but constitutionally incapable of governance; it is one of the strongest evidences for the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church that Pope Paul issued Humanae Vitae, given his intense desire to avoid conflict at all costs. Ironically, that personality trait ensured constant conflict and unrelenting anxiety for us who, like him, believed and wished to teach the Catholic Faith as it had always been understood. Those who had seized control of the ecclesiastical apparatus dismissed our concerns and held us in contempt, assuring us that a new day had dawned in the Church and that we had better get on board with the program, lest we be left behind – or worse. Furthermore, we had no authoritative sources of support for our “traditional” orientation: the Council documents had been reinterpreted according to what Joseph Ratzinger would later dub a “hermeneutic of rupture”; the Code of Canon Law was being revised; there was no catechism, except for that of the Council of Trent which, we were instructed, was hopelessly out of date.
1978 became known as the “Year of the Three Popes” since Paul VI had died in August, John Paul I was elected and reigned for 33 days, and John Paul II was elected that October. From the moment of Papa Woytyla’s appearance on the loggia of St. Peter’s, I felt buoyed up with confidence that something great was on the horizon. Here was a man of deep faith (forged in the crucible of suffering under the Nazis and the Communists alike), extraordinary culture, soaring intellect, and tremendous courage. He took the bull by the horns immediately by re-asserting with conviction and kindness the immemorial tradition of the Church, bypassing an entrenched bureaucracy and taking his case to the people in his globe-trotting ventures. Like President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul effected a change in mood. It wasn’t one particular homily or encyclical or address that did it; it was the sum total of his persona, which exuded joy and confidence. That, in turn, gave confidence to many priests of my generation to push forward with the renewal of the Church inspired by the “real” Vatican II.
The example of John Paul II motivated me to “put out into the deep” with the many and varied apostolates of my priestly life, most especially those related to Catholic education, the sacred liturgy, vocation promotion, apologetics and “good” ecumenism (particularly with the Anglicans). I was blessed to have been welcomed into the Pope’s presence on numerous occasions and most treasure the several times I had the privilege of concelebrating Holy Mass with him in his private chapel. How palpable was his love for priests as he restored the meaning and dignity of the priesthood by his loving gestures and those oh-so-welcome Holy Thursday letters “to my beloved priests.”
With each initiative of mine, I felt support from the unspoken but real actions of the Holy Father, which emboldened me to push forward when support from other quarters was less than enthusiastic or even turned to opposition. And so, the death of John Paul came as a terrible blow, truly like losing one’s father; after all, I had exercised more than 95% of my priestly ministry with him at the helm of the Barque of Peter. Honesty compels me to admit that I was not uniformly delighted with all his decisions, especially several related to personnel, both Roman and local. As one astute cardinal confided to me half-way through the Woytyla pontificate: “The Holy Father trusts his bishops too much!” But no father is perfect.
Sorrow and trepidation at his death yielded to inexpressible joy when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as his successor. I had had the pleasure of being in the company of that man on several occasions and found him to be a consummate gentleman, indeed a gentle man (contrary to caricatures of him by his enemies). His accession to the Chair of Peter effected a seamless transition of absolute continuity. Unlike the initial unknown quantity of Karol Woytyla, we had a good idea of what to expect from Joseph Ratzinger who had stood at the side of John Paul for most of his pontificate. Pope Benedict’s love for the sacred liturgy and his indefatigable defense of the truth were hallmarks of his, which resonated so well with me. The overall atmosphere of the pontificate was that of calmness and peace – with a few notable glitches every so often. Like his sainted predecessor, however, governance was not a strong suit, eventually leading to his stunning renunciation of the Petrine office.
With the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, we have witnessed a stark contrast in style and substance from his two immediate predecessors. My own commitment to Catholic schools is consistently reinforced by his frequent reflections on his own involvement with Catholic education both as a student and high school teacher. I was pleased by his (sort of) elimination of the monsignorate which (despite my kindergarten fascination with the rank), I have always regarded as divisive and all-too-often unmerited. His eschewing of some of the pomp of office may aid in overcoming a tendency toward an ultramontanist “deification” of the pope. For the rest, I regret to say I do not find much in which to rejoice. Issues that John Paul and Benedict spent years putting to rest have re-surfaced with a vengeance, due either to Francis’ cavalier attitude toward theology and doctrine or to his laissez-faire manner. In point of fact, in many ways I think I am back in the 1970s era of confusion, except that we do have the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the heady body of the magisterium of two brilliant popes. I must confess that I, like so many priests, feel hurt and insulted by this Pope’s constant barrage of negativity toward us, which may well explain a four-year decline in seminarians worldwide. I pray daily for the Pope, hoping that he will see the negative spiral that has returned to Catholic life and that he will thus change course.
So, where does that leave me forty years on?
First, I have never regretted for a single day having become a priest and, yes, would do it all over again – even amid the lunacy of the 60s and 70s.
Second, it has been a great joy to serve as a mentor for dozens of seminarians and young priests.
Third, of the numerous apostolates in which I have engaged, I have had the most satisfaction from my promotion of Catholic schools and liturgical renewal.
Fourth, my work in explaining and defending the Faith (apologetics) has been most rewarding, most notably as it has led not a few individuals and even whole communities to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Fifth, I must admit that the lack of strong, visible episcopal support has been disappointing. However, that has taught me that one doesn’t do something because a bishop (or pope) does it but, rather, one does it because it is the right thing to do. After all, the Scriptures warn us, “put not your trust in princes” (Ps 146:3), preferring to rely on the example of the great Cardinal Newman. Our trust, ultimately, is in Christ alone.
And where does all this leave you, dear readers?
First, please continue your good prayers on my behalf – and on behalf of all the priests who are or have been in your life.
Second, be a source of affirmation for good priests and a source of charitable challenge to the less fervent.
Third, see it as your personal responsibility to encourage young men to consider this holy vocation, including your own sons or grandsons.
If you do these things, you will duc in altum.
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