Decades as a priest and bishop have given Archbishop Emeritus Alfred Hughes a deep and unique insight into the Catholic priesthood—its challenges, its blessings, and what the people of God need from their priests.
After being ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Boston in 1957, Archbishop Hughes served in two parishes, earned a doctorate in Spiritual Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and then served as a professor and spiritual director at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. In 1981 he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Boston, and in 1993 as bishop of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was then named Archbishop of New Orleans in 2002, eventually retiring in 2009. A tireless shepherd, he has continued to work even in “retirement”, now as adjunct professor and adjunct spiritual director in residence at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
Ignatius Press recently published his book Priests in Love with God and Eager to Witness to the Gospel. It is an exploration of the difficulties and challenges Catholic priests have faced throughout history, a diagnosis of the current problems faced by priests, and Archbishop Hughes’ vision for a renewal of the priesthood. While the book is rich in theological and spiritual insights, it is an accessible work that provides tremendous food for thought for laity, priests, and formators alike.
Archbishop Hughes recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about his book, his many decades as a priest and bishop, and his hope for the future of the priesthood in the Church.
Catholic World Report: How did your book come about?
Archbishop Alfred Hughes: In the course of the last few years, a number of people have asked me, after reading my last book Spiritual Masters: when are you going to write a new book? Also, recently, some seminarians have specifically asked me about doing something about the priesthood.
CWR: Did you have a particular audience in mind for the book? Was it written for priests specifically, or for everyone?
Archbishop Hughes: I have in mind priests, particularly, of all ages, who are seeking to draw on the riches of our spiritual history to address the invitations and challenges for renewal today.
But I also see it as a book that can be very helpful as a basis of a course for seminarians, which would invite them to go to the original sources for priestly renewal over the centuries.
I would also hope that the wider Church that seems today so interested in renewal in the priesthood might also pick up this book and read it. I find so many who are eager to support seminary formation also have an interest in what formation for a renewed priesthood might look like.
CWR: You’ve been a priest for almost 64 years, and a bishop for over 40. How did your years of priestly and episcopal ministry inform your reflections in this book?
Archbishop Hughes: I would draw attention particularly to Chapters 10, 11, and 12 of this book. In Chapter 10, I address the spirituality in which I was formed in seminary prior to the Second Vatican Council. In Chapter 11, I address the particular focus of the Second Vatican Council inviting priests to see their call to priestly holiness in service to promoting the holiness of living out the baptismal priesthood in which all of the faithful are incorporated.
In Chapter 12, I attempt to address the excitement and turmoil of the ‘60s, the soul searching of the ‘70s, the buoyancy of the ‘80s. And then how the two narratives about the Second Vatican Council have led to two parallel and unfortunately contrasting interpretations of the actual teachings of the Council leading to the special challenges of today with the leakage in Church membership. I consider the loss of affiliation with the Church increasing among young adults and adolescents as the principal challenge that the Church faces going forward at this moment.
CWR: In the book you talk a great deal about the responsibility of the priest to be a servant to his flock. Did your experience as Archbishop of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina inform your sense of the need for priestly service?
Archbishop Hughes: I would begin with an experience that I had two days after Hurricane Katrina. I visited an adoration chapel and poured my heart out to God as I became aware of the extraordinary devastation and enormous challenges facing me and the people. The Lord, of course, remained silent, but at the end of the hour it struck me that the Lord is present making available his providential care and concern. Perhaps he is inviting me to be an icon of that providential and caring presence and love to the priests and people of the archdiocese.
That shaped the way in which I went forward as that conviction led me to seek ways of meeting regularly with the priests and central staff of the archdiocese and then also reach out to those people most impacted by Katrina. I experienced my role as offering in a Ministry of Word and Sacrament and Pastoral Care a reassurance that God was present, caring and enabling us to respond.
CWR: After retiring as archbishop, you now serve on the faculty of Notre Dame Seminary, and as a spiritual director. You’ve got your finger on the pulse of priestly formation—what hope do you see for the future?
Archbishop Hughes: We live in a time of post-scandal formation of candidates for priesthood. The formation today has been significantly strengthened because of all that the sex abuse scandal has revealed is important to address: more specifically in terms of selection of candidates, formation of candidates, and preparation of our candidates. I see many signs of hope in the Church in the ecclesial movements and in the various pastoral initiatives such as Theology on Tap, Christ in the City, Young Catholic Professionals, the St. Louis IX Art Society here in New Orleans, and young members of the St. Thomas More Society among lawyers.
These encourage me greatly, but most of all I am encouraged by the cross-section of men who are hearing God’s call in this time of particular challenge. I do believe the developments that have taken place in human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation will help us moving forward in addressing the challenges of our own time. I consider the challenge of developing priests who are profoundly formed in the tradition—but eager to engage the challenges of today in a truly evangelizing way—to be very important.
CWR: You feature many saints (and others) who can help us see the sort of priests we need today. How did you go about choosing which figures to feature?
Archbishop Hughes: I looked back at the various challenging times when priestly renewal was needed in the Church, and then try to identify those writings that most fostered the renewal needed in that time. This brought me to saintly figures who had a significant impact on renewal. As always in the life of the Church it is saints who lead the way.
CWR: What do you hope people will take away from the book?
Archbishop Hughes: I hope that by surveying the history of renewal before addressing the contemporary challenges that people will be realistic about what we face in the Church today. In some ways the challenges are new but in other ways they are reiterations of previous challenges.
I hope also that people will be strengthened in the sense of the need for renewal in the Church as a whole and in the priesthood as we address the challenges of becoming ever more fully an evangelizing Church. The mere maintenance of parishes will not be enough. We need to become parishes led by evangelizing priests and alive because of evangelizing parishioners.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Archbishop Hughes: I would draw attention particularly to Chapter 16, which treats the most recent crises that we have experienced in the Church. The challenge of the clergy sex abuse scandal, COVID-19, the fiscal issues that still mark our efforts at recovery, and the social crises expressed in a particular way by the racial unrest and the unresolved issues of a rightful understanding of the unity we need to experience while respecting diversity of race, ethnicity, and culture.
As we move forward, priests are going to be serving parishes that represent an increasing number of people who struggle with the faith and a cross-section of people from different backgrounds. It will be very important that the Church does not just try to maintain existing structures but is willing to move forward with an evangelizing zeal to embrace these new challenges with love of God and an eagerness to live the Gospel.
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