Priests meeting to strengthen bonds of unity; give Archbishop Aymond high marks
More than 200 priests of the Archdiocese of New Orleans are meeting with Archbishop Gregory Aymond at a Metairie hotel this week to discuss the best ways to "cultivate unity" among themselves, and the results thus far have amazed facilitators.
In a pre-convocation survey of priests, as well as listening sessions held throughout the archdiocese, Father Stephen Fichter, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark who is coordinating the three-day workshop, said the priests' opinion of working with Archbishop Aymond is "off the charts."
While some of that good feeling may be attributable to the "honeymoon" effect, Father Fichter said the results make the archdiocese "out-liers" – or, in a statistical sense, extremely rare.
The 97 percent figure represents those priests who either agree or strongly agree that Archbishop Aymond, who became archbishop of New Orleans in 2009, "understands and supports his priests."
"There is something very significant going on here," said Father Fichter, a sociologist who has coordinated unity workshops across the country through the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy (NOCERCC). "There is a great bond of unity between you and Greg. It's very strong, and we want to build on that."
In a separate question, only 1 percent of priests who responded to the survey said that unity with Archbishop Aymond was "very weak." The average in other U.S. dioceses, Father Fichter said, was 20 percent.
"You guys are off the charts," Father Fichter said. "Sociologists call you 'out-liers."
One of the anecdotal stories that came up at the listening sessions was the decision by Archbishop Aymond to give his private cell phone number to every priest in case the priests ever needed to talk directly and quickly to him.
Father Fichter told a story about former Newark Archbishop Peter Gerety, who at a clergy meeting told priests to make sure they were always available to their parishioners, no matter the time of day or night.
"Father Beck, may he rest in peace, got up and said, 'I'll be very happy to do that. Archbishop, would you please give us the direct number to your room?'" Father Fichter said, smiling. "Archbishop Gerety shook his head and moved on to the next topic."
The priests' survey revealed several major challenges to unity among the clergy: the feeling of being overworked because of having too few priests; theological or ecclesiological differences between older priests, who might be considered more liberal, and younger priests, who are often considered more conservative; and differences caused by ethnic, racial or cultural backgrounds.
The priests are working through Thursday to identify the major challenges to unity and brainstorm about opportunities to strengthen their bond.
Msgr. Earl Gauthreaux, who was ordained in 1956, said as a young priest he went through the heady, exciting changes of Vatican II and then had to come to grips with many of his colleagues leaving the priesthood in the 1960s and '70s. He admitted that in recent years, many priests who have been ordained have been much more conservative than their older colleagues.
"We (older priests) don't want to go back to the Latin Mass," Msgr. Gauthreaux said.
Another offshoot of the meeting has been building a fraternity among priests that has been missing.
"There are some priests here whom I've never met," said Father Billy O'Riordan, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse. "There are some priests here whom I've not seen in 10 or 15 years."
The gathering will conclude on Thursday at noon.