Before the 1960s, life was different for priests. Some were revered, some were loved, some were feared, all where held in awe. A priest was like a doctor, one we could go to when we were in any kind of trouble, be it financial, spiritual, legal or of any nature whatsoever. Father had all of the answers; Father knew best. He was the paterfamilias, the one who could make things happen when something needed to be done. He was doctor, judge and social worker. And he was feudal lord of his parish domain with all its subjects.

We are not that far removed from the days when Catholics were seen to be immigrants, foreigners with strange French, and German, Italian, Irish, Polish and Eastern European names. Not many had English or Spanish family names. They were seen as aliens in an Anglophile country. But being generally well educated, the parish priest was able to mediate between his lower class parishioners and the upper crust of the American legal, educational and social institutions. He stood as newly emancipated among other civic leaders.

World War II changed all of that. Post-war Catholics lived in a new status. They were mainstreamed into our general American cultural and societal institutions. Their brave and heroic deeds during World War II, along with the fact that the G.I. Bill opened the door to higher education for millions of Catholic families. This resulted in a Catholic arrival at the center of American culture. Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a crusade against communism designed to show that Catholics were loyal Americans, even more loyal than Ivy League educated WASPS. Catholics in great numbers were police officers, firemen, lawyers and politicians. Their American loyalty was second to none.

It was good news – and it was bad news, the bad news being that their priests were no longer seen as the father-providers they once were. With well-educated and affluent parishioners, people who were now quite middle class, priests were on pedestals that were no longer as high as once before.

Clericalism might be described as that status in which the priest lived within the mysterious confines of “the rectory”. He was invariably clothed in a black suit and wore a Roman collar. He used Latin to communicate with his superiors and with God. The aura of the supernatural surrounded him – he could do no wrong and make no mistakes. The pastor ran the parish without any committees, councils, or other bodies of lay folk who had a meaningful voice in decisions to be made, particularly serious decisions of great consequence. He was accountable only to his bishop.

And then came the 1960s, a decade during which the Catholic Church and Western Civilization were interactively re-formed. Within the Church we saw shifts in several key areas. The ancient role of the baptized and confirmed laity was reestablished. The model of the Church as it was constituted in its first centuries of existence was re-introduced. This resulted in challenging the clergy’s relational skills with lay people. Collaborative ministries were introduced along with diocesan and parish councils. There followed the development of careers in which non-ordained worked along side of priests in the Church’s organizational structures. The role of women in the Church likewise emerged, along with a decline in narrow parochialism. To say the least, the parish pastor’s preeminent position was challenged.
The Church’s self-definition changed from that of seeing itself as a “Perfect Society” to seeing itself as a “Pilgrim People.” Ecumenism followed with its crucial question: “Is God at work in non-Catholic Christian churches and in non-Christian religions as well?” Priests were forced to struggle with affirming the Spirit in other Christian denominations without at the same time denying the legitimacy of Catholic beliefs. Was Christ’s redemptive crucifixion and resurrection necessary for the salvation of the human race or was it simply a nice thing He did for us?

We cannot fail to note that the Fathers of Vatican II began their re-forming council by first addressing changes needed in the liturgy. Immediately prior to Vatican II the officials in the Roman Curia had prepared an agenda for John XXIII’s (as they saw it) council. When the bishops of the entire world began the work of the council, they immediately jettisoned the agenda that the curia handed them and began their work with renewing the liturgy. This astonished the observers and experts. Shouldn’t the Council Fathers, they asked, begin with the structures of the Church? The Holy Spirit thought otherwise. He inspired the Fathers to re-assert the truth that ” … the Liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, chap. 1, para. 10). Nothing touched the life of the priest more than how he celebrated Mass and the other rites of the Church’s Sacred Liturgy. And nothing touched the heart of the Church more than how she celebrated the Eucharist.

Some feel as if the Second Vatican Council pulled the rug out from under priests. But while it may superficially appear that way to a few, a deeper examination reveals a huge shift not simply in the Church but in our entire Western culture as well.
To properly understand the Second Vatican Council one must view it as a continuation of the First Vatican Council, the latter focusing upon the onset of secularism and its attendant movements that sought to divorce people from God’s revelation and Christ’s presence to us through His Mystical Body. Vatican I dealt with the infallibility of the Church standing triumphant among all of the developing “ism’s” that sought to possess and control human beings. Communism, fascism, capitalism, secularism, consumerism and individualism all had their origins and development in the nineteenth century. Vatican I was the Church’s magisterial response to them all. But its triumphalism removed it from the central theme of Christ the Suffering Servant, a theme to which Vatican II returned the Church. Jesus as the Friend and Consoler of suffering people was the vision of Pope John XXIII and the reason why he called for a council to take up where Vatican Council I had stopped. We must remember that Vatican I was never officially closed. It simply ceased to meet because all of the assembled bishops had to get out of Rome due to the invading soldiers of the Italian Risorgimento led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. The Church saw herself as “under attack” from any number of political, philosophical, theological and military quarters. Out of felt necessity it adopted a fortress mentality, one that lasted until Pope John XXIII and the 1960s.

The 60,s brought with them the onset of the Vietnam War (undeclared), the death of Pope John XXIII, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In May of 1961 John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra was published. It met with immediate dissent from the right when the noted conservative William F. Buckley Jr. wrote his widely read article in America magazine “Mater, Si; Magistra, No.” Seven years later Humane Vitae was published (July of 1968) and met with dissent from the left, along with a broad section of centrists who weren’t really liberals in any other sense even though a few commentators accused them of being so.

The Soviets had put Sputnik into space in the latter part of the 50s. It was in the 60s that American scientific and technological skills were thrown into high gear. We moved at an accelerating rate into the Age of Technology. The operating dogma was “if it can be done, it will be done”, an imperative that still propels us as we move into man’s ability to control life (both at its inception and its termination), clone human beings, and even set the genetic codes for the kind of human beings we wish to manufacture.

All of this resulted in a massive reconstitution of Western civilization’s culture. Its legal, moral, educational, social and governmental structures were gradually disassembled. The legitimacies of the government, the Church, the university and even the institution of marriage itself were questioned. As a result hyper-individualism emerged. As we lost control over our institutional structures people began to feel that they had lost control over their lives. People felt like they were victims. Various choreographs of victimhood emerged. If you could establish the claim that you were a victim you could claim some entitlements from the institutions that were supposed to support you. A small minority could thereby gain leverage over a vast majority.

And the priest? Instead of being a big piece in a small jigsaw puzzle he found himself after the 60s to now be a small piece in a huge jigsaw puzzle. His role was now that of being a community organizer, a servant of oppressed victims and those in need, a mediator between God and those technological humans who now thought they were gods and goddesses in sole charge of their universe. Stardom was not his; stardom was now in the hands of those who fashioned idols and media meteors. He certainly wasn’t portrayed in movies and in television shows as one whose life was to be admired. Mothers and fathers no longer suggested to their sons that they might aspire to be priests.

Onto this apocalyptic stage God sent Pope John Paul II with his role of insisting upon the sacred value being human. His incessant message: “Fear not; have courage. Each and every human life presents us with the Presence of God.”

That is the message he gives to priests in our times. It is John Paul II’s revelation of what it means to be a priest. It is the priests’ mission and purpose in this new millennium. The priest is to affirm, support and build up each and every human life God sends to him to care for with God’s care. Who else can do that? Only with Christ’s ordination can any mortal man do that. The priest’s specialty is his holiness in relinquishing everything – family, fame and fortune – so that he can bring us the One who gave up His life for each and every one of us.

Where does this leave us today? Perhaps we now find ourselves in the status of the first Christian priests. Perhaps God has taken us back to our beginnings. Like the first apostles and priests, we are I think being called to choose to leave everything and give everything in our humanity over to God to be disposed as He wishes. Poverty, chastity and obedience are, after all, ways of living in which we have nothing to rely upon except God’s provident love. The glamour of this world’s power, glitter, admiration and esteem are not worthy of God. They offer Him nothing. Only a priest’s heart that has nothing but His love in it is worthy of Him.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”