Priests: So Many Then, So Few Now

John D. Gerken

Sixteen years ago, John L. McKenzie, SJ said some things that might help us understand and deal with the priest shortage in America.

McKenzie was a Biblical scholar and a Jesuit. The Journal of Biblical Literature, The Bible Today, Literary Journal, Time and America called his Dictionary of the Bible objective, factual, monumental, simply amazing, and free of polemics.

In his essay about the priesthood and ministries, McKenzie noted that "The New Testament church knows no cultic officers…." He wrote that "The New Testament enumerates offices or ministries and the cultic officer is not among them." These officers are… "nothing without the gift or the office or the ministry of love….The New Testament knows no sacred places, sacred objects, sacred rites – or sacred personnel." He also writes: "I do not wish to trivialize the Eucharistic ministry, but the New Testament nowhere tells us who presided at the Eucharist; it seems clear that the person was not designated by cultic ordination. When one compares the pomp and solemnity of episcopal consecration or priestly ordination with the simplicity of baptism and confirmation, there is no doubt that the ritual is saying something. I am not sure Paul would want that said, even by ritual."

In another essay ("Did I Say That?"), McKenzie wrote: "The Catholic Church did not get its sacred places and sacred personnel from the New Testament. It got them from the religious symbolism of Judaism and Hellenistic-Roman paganism." And finally, "The decision to become a priest was in many cases – I hesitate to say most – a childhood decision which was carried unchanged into adult life. By accident I happened to make an adult decision the year I was ordained."

No mention in the New Testament of the cultic office and the cultic officer? These scriptures were written after Christ's death – after some three, four, yes, five decades of lived Christianity. I find this remarkable.

It seems to me we could understand the present crisis better if we ask three questions:

     1) Why did we have so many priests in the 40s, 50s, and 60s?

     2) Why did so many resign (a kinder word than defect)?

     3) Why are there so few candidates today?

As for the first and second questions, my personal experience was this: I was one of some 34 novices who entered the Chicago Province Jesuits in 1942.Throughout the U.S. some 240 entered the 13-year course that led to the priesthood. In 1955 there were 23 in my ordination class. In that same year, 200 Jesuits were ordained in the U.S. Most of us came from high school; only a few had some college or a degree. 21 of the 34 who entered with me were 18 or younger. None was older than 25. Contrast this with the fact that in the year 2000, only 23 entered the Jesuits in the entire U.S. Their median age was 27 and 9 months, and the range was 18 to 39. Twelve had college degrees and some had advanced degrees.

Why did we enter? For me it was the wish to be generous, to merit a higher place in heaven, to be busy about the things of God, not the world. I did not want the divided heart spoken of by Paul (I Cor. 7: 32,33) nor did I want to be like the rich young man who turned his back on Christ (Matt. 19: 10 ff). It never would have occurred to me to paraphrase Paul, "… in Christ Jesus there is neither cleric nor lay nor religious nor secular but all are one in Christ." (Gal. 3:28) Nor was I aware that the whole Church was a kingdom of priests. (I Peter 2:9)

And then there was the power of the priesthood that attracted me: the pulpit and altar, Mass and the words of consecration, absolving sins, vestments, clerical garb, anointing the dying and thus helping people to become holy and die in the state of grace. And I suspect the prestige attached to the priesthood was also a strong motivating force.

I did not know anything about the Council of Trent, but I would have thought it obvious that it was "better and holier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in marriage." In his Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown remarks, "Today many Catholics and Protestants want to avoid the category of 'better' and recognize that both celibacy and marriage lived in the love of God are noble callings/choices." American Biblical scholarship had no Raymond Browns and John L. McKenzies in 1942.

There were plenty of role models for the priestly and religious life—dedicated nuns in grammar and high school, priests in high school and Jesuits in the parish. I was attracted by them to that life. And the opportunity for merit and a high place in heaven? Imagine, daily Mass, Holy Communion, the ascetical life, the sacrament of penance once a week, so many opportunities to grow in sanctifying grace – and no chance of missing one of the nine First Fridays.

And then along with St. Paul there was Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius, Bellarmine, and hundreds of missionaries who saw Adam and Eve as historical figures. There was the fall, the human race conceived in sin, nature without grace, baptism that restored grace but left us with concupiscence. The great concern: get grace, keep grace, and if you lose it, get to confession. "Confessions Saturday from 3 pm to 5 pm and from 7 pm to 9 pm," proclaimed the parish bulletin. Today it is, "Reconciliation Saturday from 4:15 to 5 pm. Mass at 5 pm."

Then there was Luther and his ninety-some theses nailed to the cathedral door. We had at least fifty theses in philosophy and another twenty-five or so for each treatise in dogmatic theology. We needed and got answers to the errors of the atheists and Protestants in order to defend the one true Church with the Vicar of Christ, our infallible guide in faith and morals. Defense, persuasion, conversion were our concerns, not ecumenism.

And then it happened. Pius XII gave scripture scholars some freedom with Divino Afflante Spiritu. Then the explosion: John XXIII, John Courtney Murray, Vatican II, ecumenism, John McKenzie, The National Catholic Reporter, the encyclical on birth control, the silencing of some theologians abroad and here, the tension between liberal and conservative theologians, liberal and conservative members of the press. And perhaps most influential of all – Karl Rahner with his essays on the vows, the supernatural existential, the anonymous Christian, Christ in an evolutionary theory of the world, the identity of love of neighbor and love of God, the individual ethic, theology of symbol, the personal element in the sacramental sign – all this made for tumultuous times and lack of peace in the Church, which means lack of peace in the priesthood. There were changes in the secular world: evolution and its implication for understanding Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception. And, perhaps more important, the changes in psychology for our understanding of how to love our neighbor.

Carl Rogers taught us about "attentive listening to the neighbor" and the adult ego state, wherein one avoids being petulant or dominant in manner so as not to manipulate the neighbor and thus violate his/her freedom, but rather tries to hear and present facts; the self-fulfilling prophecy of Robert K. Merton wherein one tries to have positive thoughts and expectations of one's neighbor because that neighbor seems to pick up both the non-verbal positive and negative feelings we have of him/her. We do not want to hurt the neighbor. McKenzie has a beautiful essay on personal holiness, "The Source," where he remarks that Christ was not a role model for any particular lot in life, though He did say, "Learn of me for I am gentle and humble of heart." McKenzie sees Christian holiness in those who "seem to have completely suppressed the instinct to think of themselves." Attentive listening, rejection of manipulation, positive expectations—these are the signs of one concerned not about self, but about the neighbor.

Why, up to the 1950s did we have so many priests?  Because we shared and were motivated by the outlook of the world and church that I have just described. An outlook that is no more.

And so we left. When I left twenty years ago, I was unhappy, not at peace. I found peace in a job, with a wife, and four children, whom I did not raise Catholic. I did not want them to learn so many ways to commit mortal sin and worry about hell. I parented in such a way as to help these members of a supernatural order become anonymous Christians. One is a Mormon today, the other three are still anonymous. As far as I can tell they are kind and good people. Even though they experienced divorce, they love and respect their lesbian mother, as do I. They accept in kindness and respect her partner, as I do. Peace, the tranquility of order, the visible sign of integrity, of goodness, of grace – that is what I see in my family.

Priests and religious have heard a great deal about and have subjected themselves for long periods of time to the study of the spiritual life and the practice of asceticism. There is a subtle and devastating polemic against the body in those expressions. Christian maturity, human maturity (growth in sanctifying grace?) would have been a better description of both the goal and process. Had it been so, we never would have heard of the way of perfection, the undivided heart, and the better way of following Christ. I think psychology can teach us why and how to be gentle and humble of heart. Rather than formation in spirituality, formation in Christian human maturity would have been a better goal.

But here it must be said: We the people of Catholic culture, i.e., the family, the parish, the schools, the leadership and the followers did the best we could with the lights and yes, with the moral courage and psychological strength, we had at the time. "Father," we said, "forgive us our sins and enlighten our minds."

Another word about the sacred and the power of the priest. Power? Those who have it and those who don't, are they equal in Christ? What is the most sacred (and powerful) act in Catholicism today? Is it not the words of consecration?

It is probable that most regular Sunday mass attendees are not aware of the communion services that occur very frequently, sometimes every Sunday, in the Protestant churches. One can hear "the Body of Christ, broken for you… the blood of Christ… the sacrament…." Years ago while studying in Germany I read a discussion between two theologians, one Catholic, the other Lutheran. The Catholic said that the Lutheran Abendmahl (celebration of the Last Supper) was invalid because Luther had separated himself from Rome. The Lutherans had no valid orders. Before I repeat the Lutheran's answer, imagine for a moment all the communion services in non-Catholic churches last Sunday. People are quiet, reverent, recollected, and have some thoughts about Christ. Now hear the Lutheran's answer to the charge that all of this was invalid: "Do you want us," he said, "to stop?"

Were those Lutheran services a charade, a mockery, ineffective? Would we Catholics, priests, bishops, cardinals just feel better if those people didn't – however weakly – imitate our valid Masses? Did they become better Christians in those acts? Were they recalling Christ at the Last supper and doing the "Take you and eat all of this… take you and drink?" And now the big question: Just how does a Christian community (or any human being for that matter) go about having an invalid act of memory?

Now to conclude and answer the third question: Why are there so few candidates for the priesthood today? Because the Church does not need them – at least to do what it has been doing for the last thousand years. What should the Church do? Trust the Spirit. Think. Loosen up. Experiment.  Could the mistakes in the future be any worse than the mistakes of the past? I am thinking of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Pope Paul IV's Jewish ghetto, and the Galileo case.

What did Christianity do the first 40 years after Christ's death? How could there have been reconciliation (pardon the cynicism) without an officer who had two years of moral theology? Was there Viaticum? How did that early community support in faith those who were sick and about to die? Probably they visited the sick and made sure they were not alone during their last hours.

The Church already has many women and men (a few ordained, married and relatively young) who are knowledgeable and concerned about the community's stability and growth in faith in Christ and His command to love the neighbor. There is no real reason why the entire Catholic community could not say aloud with a frequently different designated leader (woman or man), taken from our common royal priesthood, "Who, the night before He suffered, took bread…."

Perhaps saying those words with such a leader and hearing them reverberate through the church would impress them with their royal priesthood, make them experience that with Christ, with whom they try to identify, there really is neither Jew, nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither cleric nor lay, neither lesbian nor gay, but all are equal and one in Christ.  Perhaps that weekly reexperiencing the Last Supper scene would be even more effective in helping them grow in understanding the Gospel's basic message, which McKenzie said, "Any twelve year old can understand." He also said, "Stop hurting one another."

John D. Gerken entered the Jesuits in 1942, got his BA in Classical Languages, his MA in English, and was ordained on June 15, 1955. He did his tertianship (a kind of spiritual finishing school) in Austria, and worked on his doctoral dissertation at the Jesuit Theologate in Frankfurt/ Main under Aloys Grillmeier . He was granted a Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1961, and taught theology for nine years at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he served as department chairman. In 1963, he published Toward a Theology of the Layman After he left the Society of Jesus, he worked in management training for General Motors and others and then taught high school for a number of years. In 1995, he published An American Ethic, a primer on the natural law written for his children.