Generalizations often are dangerous, but for years, there has been a tendency to pigeonhole priests and the way they carry out their ministry.
Older priests ordained during or shortly after the heady times of the Second Vatican Council – which brought extensive changes to the Mass and increased emphasis on the role of the laity – sometimes looked warily at newly ordained priests who expressed a love for clerical dress and church traditions, such as the Latin Mass, which had been in use long before they were born.
More than 100 priests of the Archdiocese of New Orleans discussed these generational issues April 25 in a workshop led by Father Stephen Fichter, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, and Dominic Perri, a consultant with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Father Fichter’s book, “Same Call, Different Men,” explored four distinct generational groups – or ordination “cohorts” – to see if differences in their theological training and other factors influenced the way they viewed themselves as priests and their vision of the church.
Because it was a watershed event, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is the lens through which Father Fichter viewed the generational groupings:
Pre-Vatican II: Ordained in 1963 or earlier, which meant all seminary training took place before the council.
Vatican II: Ordained from 1964-77. “You had that experience of the seminary moving away from a more monastic model and moving away from the Latin Mass to the vernacular,” Father Fichter said. “It was a very turbulent time. It was also a generation that lost a lot of priests. By the time you celebrated your 25th anniversary, you had lost 25 percent of your ordination class.”
Post-Vatican II: Ordained from 1978-91. “Vatican II changes were already in place,” Father Fichter said. “These men were ordained in the first half of John Paul’s pontificate.”
Millennial: Ordained from 1992 to the present. “We were born after Vatican II had already happened and had no memory of the Latin Mass or of having five priests in a rectory and 20 nuns teaching in the school,” said Father Fichter, who was ordained in 2000. “We were called the John Paul II generation of priests.”
Why use Vatican II?
Father Fichter said Vatican II was such a big deal it is still the measuring stick by which all church events are measured in the last century.
“When Pope Francis was recently elected and all of the excitement was going around about his small acts of humility, I personally felt the excitement,” Father Fichter said. “I spoke to an elderly Jesuit priest friend of mine, and I told him, “I love Pope Francis. I’m really excited.’ And he said, ‘That’s what we felt at Vatican II, but in a much deeper sense.’”
The seminaries before Vatican II were overflowing with seminarians. “That’s part of what we call the post-World War II baby boom and vocation boom,” Father Fichter said. “1945 to 1965 was the only 20-year period in our 200-year history where we actually produced enough vocations ourselves. For those men, becoming a priest was a matter of great pride for the family and the community and the nuns who taught them and encouraged them.”
The Vatican II cohort (1964-77) did not have the same experience with the institutional church as their predecessors and they “rebelled against an overly clerical culture,” Father Fichter said. “They became ordained and went into parishes with a pre-Vatican II pastor and they butted heads quite a lot.”
Also, the monastic style of seminary training switched to “a more flexible model,” he said. Before Vatican II, seminarians were not allowed out of their rooms after certain hours and had their correspondence filtered.
All of a sudden, guys are going out on Friday night and they are doing musicals with girls,” Father Fichter said. “It was like going from one extreme to the other. It was a very difficult time to be a rector and a professor at the seminary. The priest was trained to be a ‘servant leader.’ They were moving away from the clerical. This is also the cohort that lost a lot of brother priests.”
Many post-Vatican II priests (1978-91) entered the seminary after college, “which is a major shift away from the first cohort, which entered after high school,” Father Fichter said. “There was a sense of the decline in enrollment numbers. That does play a role if you come into a seminary and you see 300 rooms but only 100 seminarians.”
Perri said this cohort often is overlooked because it lacks the “clear identity” that exists with the other three cohorts, but it also has a chance to be “bridge builders” among the groups.
World Youth Day ties
The millennial cohort – often called the John Paul II priests because many of them were inspired by attending World Youth Day – were ordained after 1992. There are a number of late vocations included in this group, and many priests do want to wear their clerics “as a witness to the world outside,” Father Fichter said.
“They have a strong identification with church traditions, some of which pre-date them,” he said. “There are a number of priests younger than myself who are keen on celebrating the Latin Mass, and these are people who never had that experience as children. For them, the priesthood is something very countercultural. A lot of this cohort had to do something that was not well received and had to make a stand to be a priest in a world that is much more secularized.”
After table discussions among priests from the same cohorts, several questions emerged. Most of the questions were directed from the Vatican II priests to the millennial priests – and vice versa.
“It’s not surprising that the millennials get the most questions,” Perri said.
Vincentian Father Louis Arceneaux, a Vatican II priest, encouraged the millennial priests “to be less rigid in the applications from church rules, as distinct from church doctrine, which cannot change.” He used the example of Pope Francis washing the feet of several women on Holy Thursday, a departure from the previous tradition of washing only the feet of men.
Father Jeffrey Montz, a millennial priest, said some of the things that happened within the Mass after Vatican II – things such as “clown” Masses – led to a reaction against that by younger priests.
“Our big driving forces were John Paul II and Benedict,” Father Montz said. “As we got into the seminary, we recognized that there were guys we were in formation with who had never met before, but we were all thinking the same way. We saw a sense of beauty, and we wanted to grasp back at that. Some of us experienced growing up and never hearing a homily on contraception, perhaps feeling that the post-Vatican generation was silent on certain topics, so we were going to talk about it.”
Thank you to older priests
Father Kyle Dave, who was ordained in 2001, thanked the Vatican II cohort for helping “transform the image of the priest from a king with a fiefdom to a more family-like, approachable figure. You empowered the laity to embrace their ministry in the church and emphasized active participation in the liturgy. You emphasized a universal call to holiness. You gave us a good example of how to be involved in the everyday life of the laity.”
Vincentian Father Tom Stehlik said the church is “big and needs many different ministers. Symbols mean different things to different generations.” He said just as people come to a priest for help with various problems and need a priest to listen respectfully and with love, priests should always be willing to listen to each other.
If we can do that for other people, we need to love and accept each other and put aside our own things and follow the Lord,” Father Stehlik said.
It would help if each of us, individually, steered away from any sense of competition with each other,” said Father Luis Rodriguez, ordained in 2001. “We have one mission, and it’s the priesthood of Jesus Christ. It’s not my priesthood. We need to work together to be Christ for others.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was ordained in 1975, said the day helped all priests listen to and respect one another.
“We don’t have to be alike,” the archbishop said. “We are who we are in our goodness and our weakness, but we all want to be good priests.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.