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Pope to priests from St. Pat's: Find unity in Christ

Benedict's homily (textvia CNS) at the mass with priests and seminarians this morning at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York (the first papal mass ever at the great church) was a heartfelt and often lyrical call for American priests to overcome divisions so that the church can grow once again.

"We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ!" Benedict told the assemblage. "In the light of faith, we will then discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to points of view which may not necessarily conform to our own ideas or assumptions. Thus we can value the perspectives of others, be they younger or older than ourselves, and ultimately hear 'what the Spirit is saying' to us and to the Church.""Was not this unity of vision and purpose--rooted in faith and a spirit of constant conversion and self-sacrifice--the secret of the impressive growth of the Church in this country?" the pope asked.The pope referred once again to the sexual abuse crisis, which he did during each of the first three days of his visit. Today's reference was somewhat more measured--no surprise given his audience of clergy, who have faced unprecedented suspicions and mistrust because of the scandal--saying he wished to encourage them in this time of "healing" and "purification."He also praised the hierachy, saying the priests should "cooperate with your bishops who continue to work effectively to resolve this issue."On Wednesday in Washington the pontiff drew praise for echoing a comment of Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the bishops conference, that some cases of abuse were "badly mishandled" by some bishops, the first public sign of Vatican unhappiness with any bishops, who the flock holds most responsible for the crisis.But the Vatican has since signaled that it does not foresee any plans to censure individual bishops, and Benedict's successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, former San Francisco archbishop Cardinal William Levada, said yesterday that Rome's main focus was on tweaking canon law to raise the statute of limitations on reporting abuse to make it easier to laicize abusive priests. He specifically rejected charges that bishops were knowingly responsible for sheltering abusers, despiteevidence to the contrary. (See yesterday's post on Levada's comments.)Benedict oriented his homily around the Gothic structure of the great cathedral, noting that the beauty of its windows, like the beauty of the church, could only be perceived from the inside. He compared a Gothic cathedral to a dynamic organism, constantly striving upwards toward God even as it is composed of many disparate parts. He cmpared this to church "divinely-willed structure" which has "hierarchical and charismatic" gifts, and he underscored the indispensible role of priests "who have been configured to Christ, the Head of the Body."The thrust of the pope's homily was to enourage the priests, uurging them to "forgive the wrongs we have suffered and put aside all anger and contention." The homily also highlights again Benedict's "frank" view, as expressed to the bishops in Washington on Wednesday, that the barometer of a church's health is its priests, and given the crisis in vocations and the priesthood, the church in America faces serious problems.Surveys of the priesthood over the years have shown a deep divide among priests, largely generational, and also between differing models of the priesthood, usually categorized as the "cultic," or higher view of the priesthood that Benedict seems to prefer, and the so-called "servant-leader" model that emphasizes the priest as a cooperator with lay people on a team.For further reflections on these issues within the priesthood, check out this April 2006 Q&A with Purdue sociologist and church researcher James Davidson, published in the Catholic Spirit. See also a very good essay in Commonweal magazine from November 2007 titled, "Mind the Gap: The Return of the Lay-Clerical Divide." Crosspost with "Benedictions."

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David,Davidson, Hoge, etc. tend to divide priests into such categories. But there is no reason why a priest can't have both a strong sense of being set apart and deep concern for his people.Look at the episcopal appointments of the last 3 years. This is the true barometer of what a pope values in the priesthood.

As a generalization, the divide between Vatican II and JP II priests tends to stand up.At the talk at the Cathedral then, i don't think the Pope was being naive in urging his clergy to more unity by listening to each other.In the Dunwooodie talk later, the call to young folk emphasized that, despite their diversity, they should base their lives in liturgy and Eucharist which will aid them to be Christlike in reaching out to the poor, marginalized and needy. He urged those seeking to pursue a vocation to avoid "careerism." (Where have I heard that term here?)Frankly, I think JPII clergy have been (and rightly in my experienbce) criticized for deficiebcies in those departments.

I know of a rural parish where the JPII priest believes he knows what is right, has introduced Latin into the weekly bulletin, and managed to alienate most of his parishioners. These folks are "salt of the earth" people --- farmers, small business owners, factory workers.On one occasion according to a friend who belonged to the parish, the hearse driver refused to give this priest a ride to the parish cemetery after a funeral. So the pastor showed up fifteen minutes late for the graveside service (he had to walk!).In addition, a clique of Tridentine-mass types followed him from another country parish upon his reassignment. Quite a few parishioners now commute to churches in other communities because they don't like their pastor. My friend told me that several folks had tried to get the bishop to foist this cleric on another parish, but to no avail.This priest has "both a strong sense of being set apart and deep [paternalistic] concern for his people" to the point that he has created deep resentment among many members of his "flock."If this guy is a true example of "what a pope values in the priesthood," these Catholics have replied, "Thanks, but no thanks!"My sentiments, exactly.

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.