“Christ is the world’s Light… the world’s Peace… the world’s Life.” These opening phrases of each of the stanzas of the Christe Santorum
set the tone within Evening Prayer for the 44th Annual Conference of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, gathering to reflect on the theme: The Emerging Church of the 21st Century
. Held from April 23–26th at the Radisson Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, the conference drew 85 priests representing Presbyteral Councils and priests’ associations from over 40 dioceses including 13 US Conference of Catholic Bishops regions along with a representative from the Priests’ Councils of Great Britain and Wales. The priests gathered to learn about, reflect upon and strategize on how to best minister within the changing sociological environment of our world.
Father Richard Vega, NFPC President, welcomed those gathered, framing the conference theme by mentioning a litany of challenges/opportunities that ministry today presents: welcoming the growing diversity of parishioners and priests, meeting their needs, recognizing and embracing their gifts and accompanying them as they seek to add their gifts to the mission of Jesus Christ through the Catholic Church. He noted the challenges of a growing number of one-person rectories including the reality of loneliness, overwork and becoming pastors very early in priesthood. Father Vega offered words of thanks and encouragement: “Our gathering gives us the opportunity to celebrate and reinvigorate ourselves as we continue to seek lives of holiness and wholeness centered around the table of the Lord.”
In the absence of our Bishop Delegate from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Father. Shawn McKnight, S.T.D., Executive Director of the bishops’ Secretariat on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, shared information regarding several initiatives from the USCCB that directly affect priests. The first item is an update of the document on preaching, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.” The document will be expand upon the original in three major areas: the New Evangelization; Explicit Encouragement of Catechetical Preaching; and, addressing the postmodern liturgical assembly, particularly in regard to new moral and ethical challenges that have emerged since the original document. The working outline focuses on three themes: Apprenticeship to Jesus the Preacher; Improving Homiletic Preaching; and Spirituality of the Preacher. The document will be voted upon in November, 2012, with a plan to promulgate, in English and Spanish, in January, 2013.
Father McKnight also commented that the bishops are discussing ongoing consistent guidelines for admission of seminarians. They are also engaging a consultation regarding the use of psychological methodologies in seminary admissions.
In Tuesday’s opening presentation, Mr. Allert Brown-Gort, Associate Director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, spoke on the topic: Latinos in the US: Challenges and Opportunities for Society and the Catholic Church. Mr. Brown-Gort, a Fellow of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies at Notre Dame is a citizen of both the United States and Mexico.
“Why should we care about Latinos in the US?” Then raised the following statistics: 1 out of every 6 US residents is Latino; 1 out of every 5 students in our elementary and high schools is Latino; 1 out of every 4 babies born is Latino; 1 out of every 3 church members is Latino; 1 out of 2 youth group members is Latino. 63% of Latinos are native born, 26% are foreign born, non-citizens. 23.5% of Latinos are below the poverty level.
Noting that in many places Latinos are looked upon as an intrusion and under suspicion, Mr. Brown-Gort offered this challenge to us a Catholic people: “We need to work toward an authentic desire to learn a cultural competency as regards our Latino brothers and sisters. This involves welcoming, having an open heart, wanting to understand cultural realities; basically, our actions and words need to express, “I want you here!”
He noted that we have much to learn from our Latino brothers and sisters, and to avoid stereotypes such as, “they don’t contribute to their churches” without understanding the dynamics of what philanthropy means in Latino cultures. We also need to be more aware that when we speak of Latinos or Hispanic peoples, we are referring to a people with a variety of national origins, not unlike what we do with the pan-Asian community. This is a construct set up for the benefit of those in power, but can also work to the advantage of the minority population.
Mr. Brown-Gort offered this additional challenge: “By 2050, over half of Catholics in the US will be Latino. As a church, we must continue to assess and embrace the transformation necessary to embrace this reality. There are many religious, political and materialist forces competing for the hearts and minds and souls of Latinos. “We need to build a real dialogue with the Latino community that carries with it a neutrality and responsibility to create, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a church that will continue to strive to include and embrace the gifts of all.”
Mr. West Cosgrove, founder and executive director of Project Puente in El Paso, Tex, began the second major presentation of the conference by declaring, “We are a lost pilgrim people, trying to find our way back to God.” The title of his talk, “When God’s People Hit the Road,” laid out the dynamics surrounding the current reality and debate surrounding immigration in our country.
Casting immigration in biblical terms, Cosgrove noted that the Scriptures from beginning to end are about migration. “At the creation, God migrated over the chaos to bring forth order and beauty. In Revelation, John is in exile, reflecting on the migration of all God’s people to the heavenly Jerusalem.” He notes that the Scriptures are replete with references to the mandate to welcome the stranger. “In many ways, the Bible and the stories of its followers to the present day and beyond, is an atlas of human migration.”
Sharing a number of statistics, he laid out the current reality of unauthorized immigrants in this country: Today there are approximately 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the US. Why they came? Poverty and oppression. Why didn’t they come legally? To reunite with their families and/or employment opportunities. What is the “pull factor” for them? The jobs are here; e.g. 58% of farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants; most jobs are 3-D jobs: dirty, dangerous, difficult. Why don’t they wait in line? If you check the latest visa bulletin from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), there are thousands of people in line, many who are still waiting whose requests date back to 1993. Do they pay taxes? Yes. Sales, property, income and social security taxes. $7 billion in taxes each year go into an earnings suspense file, these amounts attributable to taxes deducted by employers using false social security information. Aren’t they a burden on the economy? Every major study done on this issue indicates a net positive effect on the economy. Aren’t they criminals? Coming here without going through border crossings, or overstaying your visa, is not a felony. Yet over two-thirds of the 400,000 unauthorized each year, over the last 3 years, being deported have had no criminal record. That is why it is more appropriate to use the term “unauthorized” rather than “illegal.” Enforcement is not working: in 1993 the US spent $740 million on border enforcement, in 2010 we spent $17 billion. There were big gains for the prison and law enforcement industry with little proven effect and continuing devastating effects on families currently living here and those still seeking to flee the poverty of their homes..
The church’s main concern is the dignity and sanctity of every immigrant and the preservation of families. Too many families suffer separation. Too many children–over 90,000 caught crossing the border last year–are suffering from our broken system. “The current immigration system is broken!” Cosgrove observes. This is echoed in many pastoral letters by bishops and by the USCCB, especially the Pastoral Letter “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope”, a joint document issued by the USCCB and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Mexico.
Cosgrove closed with the following quote from Justo Gonzalez, reflecting the mestizo understanding and, he would suggest, a Christian incarnational understanding of borders: “A border is the place at which two realities, two worldviews, two cultures, meet and interact… at the border growth takes place by encounter, by mutual enrichment. A true border, a true place of encounter, is by nature permeable. It is not like medieval armor, but rather like skin. Our skin does set a limit to where our body begins and where it ends. But if we ever close up our skin, we die.”
“In reality,” he said, “we have the greatest migration story of all time in Jesus Christ!”
Exploring the cultural dynamics that account for American Catholics not being “Less religious,” but “differently religious,” Professor Jerome P. Baggett lead a thought-provoking session titled: “Living Tradition within a Post-Traditional Society: The Self, the Sacred and the Emerging Church of the 21st Century.”
Dr. Baggett, Professor of Religion and Society at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University and a member of the Graduate Theological Union’s Core Doctoral Faculty, and Visiting Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley has researched and written numerous articles and books, including Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith (Oxford, 2009).
He suggests that there are three practices involved in the flux of religious traditions today. The first is Negotiating and Renegotiating. For example, what response do we get when we ask someone, “Do you think the Catholic faith is better or truer than other religious faiths?” In a sample dialogue, the respondent gave responses such as, “Catholicism is the best religion for me. I think that if you have a relationship with God, it doesn’t make any difference what you are. Why be Catholic? Because it’s what works for me, the tradition I know and feel comfortable with.”
In positing the question, “What, in your estimation, does it mean to be a ‘good Catholic?’” the respondent offered: “Going to Mass regularly, giving your time and money to the church, praying regularly and embodying the beliefs of the Catholic religion in how you treat other people.” When pressed further on adherence to Mt. 25:31-46 (the Last Judgment) the respondent offered, “When I hear that passage, I’m reminded that we’re called to do things for other people, a pretty daunting task. I wonder how good I have to be to be good.”
Professor Baggett goes on to observe that many cast their faith as something deeply personal, that it is purely subjective and helps form self-identity. One person offered, “Some might call me a cafeteria Catholic, but I have to say that my faith is also deeply personal to me. I’ve grappled with it in ways that make sense to me in ways I didn’t before. I think you should always doubt because that gives you the drive to mature religiously. I think practicing spirituality means staying true to the core of Jesus’ message and not to all the doctrinal trappings.”
Baggett observed through his studies, “Catholics feel free to recalibrate their faith. Seventy-five percent of Catholics say it is not necessary to go to church every Sunday.” He suggested that many Catholics are re-framing the symbols and teachings of our faith. “Many Catholics are reframing using a bucket of symbols unmoored from their original sources and understanding and reframing them to fit a personal spiritual context.”
Finally, Professor Baggett offers that many Catholics begin to innovate meanings to Catholic teachings, fusing Catholic symbols with other cultural symbols and scripts available to people. He used the example of one man who re-appropriated the Last Judgment scene with a passage from the Koran, suggesting that a God who is ultimately merciful will side toward forgiveness of our many inactions over the little good we might do in this life.
Quoting Ernst Troelsch, Prof. Baggett offers this hope and pastoral challenge: “Thoughts will have to be thought that have not yet been thought.” In other words, the future of our church is dependent on our ability to engage the minds and hearts of seekers and the faithful, to encourage questions, to seek authentic dialogue, while honoring the rich tradition of our past.
In the final major talk of the conference, Mary L. Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC spoke on the theme “Same Call, Different Men: Priesthood Since Vatican II.” Dr. Gautier edits The CARA Report, a quarterly research publication, and other CARA publications. She also co-authored of five books on Catholics in the United States, most recently Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II (Liturgical Press, 2012). The book was commissioned by NFPC.
Gautier reflected upon several key findings from the most recent CARA survey. First was the changing demographic of priests. Currently there are 41,000 priests in the US with an average age of 63. In 2009 the median age for Catholic priests is 59. About 20-25% of priests in the US are foreign born. Approximately 62% of diocesan priests who have been ordained since 1992 are already pastors; in 1993 that figure was 39%.
Secondly, Dr. Gautier shared statistics regarding the changing nature of priestly ministry. “Priests place great responsibility on being present to their parishes and ministry. A majority of respondents said that they worked over 80 hours per week.” Overall, she said, satisfaction among priests has increased over the years. The sources of satisfaction in descending order are, the joy of administering the sacraments and presiding at liturgy, preaching the Word, sharing the Good News of the Gospel, and being a part of a Christian community. Of note was one predictor of overall happiness: a priest with responsibilities for more than one parish is less likely to be happy because of their inability to be involved in those communities at a significant level.
In terms of the most common problems, Gautier offered these observations from the study: the way authority is exercised in the church; too much work (17% of priests responded this way), and unrealistic demands and expectations of lay people. The CARA study also evaluated the effects of the 2002 Dallas Charter on priests. Sixty percent of priests responded that the Charter had a negative effect on their ministry.
The study also focused on priests encouraging vocations. As expected, many young priests responded positively to regularly encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life. They are the most likely to be working with young people. Fifty-eight percent of priests responded that they had encouraged vocations sometime within the last 6 months; twenty-one percent responded that it had been more than a year ago.
On Thursday evening, the NFPC’s Touchstone Award was presented to Holy Cross Father Daniel G. Groody, an Assistant Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Father Groody’s involvement in the US Latino community and migration issues can be traced to the late 1990s when he was appointed International Missions Director for the Valley Missionary Program in Coachella, California from 1997-1999. He continued his studies by doing post-doctoral research in the field of migration and theology.
Fr. Groody has written numerous books and articles on the themes of migration and social justice. In addition, he is the producer of documentary films including “One Border, One Body: Immigration and the Eucharist,” and “Dying to Live: A Migrant’s Journey.” His book titles, some of which have been translated into five languages include, Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of the Heart and Spirit (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice: Navigating the Path to Peace (Orbis Books, 2007), and most recently Gustavo Gutierrez: Spiritual Writings (Orbis Books, 2011). The award was given in abstentia.
Also on Thursday evening, Father Richard Vega presented NFPC’s Mandatum Award to Mr. Joseph Maher, president and cofounder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii (Work for the Good of the Priesthood). Mr. Maher cofounded the organization with two other businessmen in April 2002 as the US clergy sexual abuse crisis was unfolding. Opus Bono Sacerdotii is the only lay organization of its kind that assists Catholic priests with difficulties that require the assistance OPS offers.
Prior to founding Opus Bono Sacerdotii
, Mr. Maher was responsible for the founding and senior level management of a variety of companies including financial firms, multimedia and entertainment companies and career outplacement services. Mr. Maher works daily to assist the Roman Catholic priesthood and raise his family with his wife of 20 years.