- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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In public forums, Jesuit and parish clergy reflect on the priestly journey
Immediately following a February 17 forum on the diocesan priesthood, Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, a scholar and priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, found himself in a conversation about why parish priests don’t have Sunday dinner with parishioners as often as they used to. “I’m going from six in the morning until nine or 10 at night on Sundays,” Hehir said, plaintively. “I have dinner at 10:00 p.m.” Given that Hehir had spoken at the forum held in the Heights Room and received a substantial introduction, his interlocutors probably knew that in addition to residing and ministering at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, the priest also holds down two day jobs, as a professor of religion and public life at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and as secretary of health care and social services for the archdiocese.
During the forum, Fr. Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was even more emphatic when a questioner, Robert Davis ’62, a retired philosophy instructor who taught at several institutions, wistfully recalled the days when a parishioner could knock on the rectory door and see a priest at any time. Stressing that the priesthood today must be a “collaborative ministry” involving lay people, O’Brien added colorfully that there are still many Catholics who “want a priest for every bowel movement they have and every occasion.”
There are issues in the Catholic Church obviously more pressing than the availability of priests for Sunday dinner, but those exchanges illustrate how easy it is to touch a nerve when the subject is this group of men. In recent months Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center turned a spotlight on ordained priests at two evening forums: the panel discussion of diocesan priests, which, in addition to Hehir and O’Brien, included Fr. William Lohan of St. Mary of the Assumption in Dedham, Massachusetts; and a March 31 standing-room-only gathering, also in the Heights Room, about being a Jesuit today, featuring University President William P. Leahy, SJ; John T. “Jack” Butler, SJ, Boston College’s vice president for mission and ministry; and Jeremy Zipple, SJ, ’00, who began theology studies this past year at the University’s School of Theology and Ministry.
The events were part of a wider series presented by C21, as the center is known, on the vocations of ordained clergy and members of religious orders. Other forums addressed the permanent diaconate (an ordained ministry of service carried out by men who may be married) and the future of women religious.
Both programs on priestly life began with vocational questions from the moderators about how panelists came to discern their calling. At least a couple of the six men on the two panels spoke of the decision to become a priest as a sudden bolt of inspiration. O’Brien said he had “no attraction whatsoever” to the idea of entering the clergy’s ranks, particularly the diocesan clergy, whom he regarded at the time (after graduating from Harvard in 1985) as “dim versions of Jesuits.” But he recalled how, as his mind wandered during a Sunday Mass at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, he felt God “hitting me over the head: ‘This is what I want you to do—to be one of the priests.’” O’Brien was ordained in 1991. For others, like Hehir, the discernment was gradual, and Leahy recalled entertaining his first thoughts about a priestly vocation when he was barely school age, growing up in an Irish Catholic farm family in Iowa.
The panelists at both gatherings were asked about their sources of priestly joy, and the Jesuits (prompted by moderator Michael Boughton, SJ, director of the Boston College Center for Ignatian Spirituality) were more animated on this question than their diocesan counterparts. Each one alluded to the characteristic Jesuit way of proceeding, which aims joyfully to “find God in all things” and discern God’s presence through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. (Unlike diocesan clergy, each religious order has its own style or expression of spirituality, defined originally by its founder and often described as its “charism.”) Zipple, who works as a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic Television, noted that Catholicism in general is deeply “incarnational” in that it recognizes the sacred in the ordinary, but he suggested that Jesuits are particularly prone to seeing the divine hand at work. Zipple noted that he has looked for signs of God’s activity in the course of his filmmaking, on subjects ranging from the life of St. Francis Xavier (which lent easily enough to Jesuit spiritual sensibility) to a rat infestation in northeastern India (which lent less readily). Butler said he and his fellow Jesuits will look at a troubling reality—such as the widening gap between rich and poor, or waning clerical numbers—and try to “see where God is active in it.” Even more, the Jesuit panelists enumerated the joys of religious communal life, all three paying tribute to the “brothers” who guide and nourish and share the priestly experience with them.
Diocesan priests tend to be situated differently. They are the ones most likely to be ministering to regular Catholics in the pew, a frontline role that gives them their sense of clerical purpose, according to those at the February forum moderated by Fr. Robert Imbelli, a Boston College theology professor and priest in the Archdiocese of New York. O’Brien, for example, spoke of the satisfaction he derives from tending to the spiritual needs of a bustling immigrant parish (formerly Irish, now largely Hispanic), and to some other needs—teaching children in the church’s youth group how to make a jump shot, for instance. But there are also distinct challenges on the diocesan road, personal ones, like returning alone to what is increasingly a one-priest rectory, owing to the worsening shortage of parish clergy. There was no talk of priestly community at the diocesan forum.
The Jesuits, too, spoke of declining numbers. A questioner asked how it came to be that so few young men are attracted to the Jesuit life, and Leahy replied that the attraction is still there, “but there are other things that get into the picture,” many other options that young, talented Catholic men have these days. Boughton injected a global perspective, citing increasing Jesuit vocations in countries such as India and Vietnam.
The most pointed comments came from panelists and audience members at the forum on diocesan priests, particularly when the subject turned to challenges confronting the clergy.
One problem has to do with “the priest’s relationship to the economically poor,” as O’Brien framed the issue, referring to the swelling numbers of poor immigrants who need pastoral care. “I don’t think the majority of priests today want to be in these communities, and how strange is that?” he said, alluding to Jesus’s ministry among the marginalized. “How is it that priests can drift away from the people who are most alive in Christ?” he wondered. Hehir, the archdiocesan official, was the only one at either forum who underlined the consequences of the clergy sexual abuse scandals, which are “so deep, so widespread, so profoundly shocking, that it will take 20 years to overcome,”
During the Q&A, an older man spoke up: “Nobody is talking about the big elephant in the room,” which was, in his rendering, the celibacy requirement that is tamping down priestly vocations. Lohan of the Dedham parish, who was ordained in 2008, responded with a provocative version of the boilerplate answer that priests are married to the Church. Motioning to the audience, he said: “Let me ask the ladies out there: How many of you ladies would like your husband to love you less exclusively?” He added that Christ was not married. There were some groans, and a man’s voice could be heard “But what about the Eastern churches?” (Married priests are the norm in Eastern-rite Catholic communions.)
The issue of women’s ordination received no development during either program, although at the Jesuit event a young woman related with a smile that someone recently told her, “If you were a guy, I could see you becoming a Jesuit.” She identified herself as a Catholic schoolteacher with an abiding interest in Ignatian spirituality, and her friendly question was about how she could pursue this passion.
“I would say follow your heart and live it out,” Leahy advised simply, and it seemed that some young lay men and women in the crowded room were already doing so. Speaking to a reporter afterward, Lauren Sommer ’08, GSSW ’09, a social worker at an assisted living facility in Roxbury, recalled that she “fell in love with all things Jesuit” as an undergraduate. She came to the forum with eight other student and alumni leaders of Boston College’s Kairos group—part of a national retreat program that brings Ignatian-style discernment to high school and college students across the United States.
Read more by William Bole