Young Priest, Old Priest

Via the Rome Report, an interesting article by Tim Drake from the National Catholic Register on the difficulties faced by newly ordained priests. As a friend of many young priests from different parts of the world, the tensions Drake points out seem particularly a North American phenomenon.

All newly ordained priests face the difficulty of a transition from a style of life with a heavy emphasis on community to a relatively solitary life in a parish. With few exceptions, rectory life, even if there are other priests living there, is a lonely existence. I’ve known of situations where priests, living together, almost never have a conversation, let alone pray together.

There is frequently a generational conflict of younger men living with older men. Styles, patterns, habits, all cause tensions. Most problems, however, seem to emerge from doctrinal differences. The younger, generally more orthodox priests living with older, generally more heterodox pastors. The older priests tend to greet their younger colleagues with a suspicious attitude – after all, these are John Paul’s men, all interested in turning the clock back to 1950. Not that the younger priests are innocent of suspicions either – sometimes, very legitimate demands from the pastor (who is, after all, the “superior” in this relationship) are treated as affronts. Bitterness and acrimony replace mature dialogue, and a parish is often divided as people, for various reasons, chose sides. While Christ promised that the Gospel would bring division, I’m not certain this is what He had in mind.

If the pastor asked the vicar to preach in favor of women’s ordination, the vicar would be required by the demands of faith to do otherwise. Likewise, if the vicar preached on the invalidity of the Second Vatican Council, the pastor would be rightly angered. But let’s create this hypothetical situation: The pastor asks that the parochial vicar preach on stewardship on a particular Sunday – a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The vicar, instead, preaches on the evils of abortion – a perfectly reasonable thing to preach on.

Here’s where manly virtue (something sadly lacking in many quarters of the Church) should come into play. Instead of talking behind each other’s back – complaining to their own cheering sections where they would be reassured of the righteousness of their actions and the deviousness of the other’s – real men would not be afraid of confrontation. Calm, reasonable confrontation, that is. And, owing to the hierarchical nature of the Church and the pastor’s canonical role in the parish, if the pastor isn’t demanding something odious to the faith, his preferences reign. The Christian virtue of obedience isn’t a virtue if it’s only practiced when one agrees with the authority demanding it.

On the other hand, pastors should not dismiss their vicar’s points of view simply because they disagree with them. There is much to be said about the fervor of the newly ordained. On a purely practical level, pastors should take care how they treat their vicars – it is the younger priests who will be taking care of them in their retirement years.

I realize I present this as somewhat of an outsider, but as someone not ordained who has close friends in the priesthood and plenty of experience in rectories, I think I can be relatively objective. My ideological tendencies are alligned with the younger priests, the JP II generation, but there are times when I hear these young priests complain about their pastors and I can’t help but cringe. Young priests need good, solid mentors. Sadly, the generation of priests who naturally should be providing that mentorship are a generation noted for their navel-gazing tendencies and too many are simply concerned about protecting their shrinking ideological base to be good guides.

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About Tim Ferguson

A canonist and judge on a marriage tribunal, student of Latin, history and theology with a particular interest in liturgy, the Middle Ages, penguins and the Green Bay Packers
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