San Francisco priest: Clericalist attitude evident in some priests of all generations

This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

Author's note: Ever since October of last year, when we began soliciting stories about parishes, especially those with thriving ministries to the poor and marginalized in the spirit of Pope Francis' famous metaphor that the church should bind the wounds of the injured, we have been inundated with upbeat, positive stories.

We've been more than happy to report on those.

We've also encountered scores of other story suggestions: namely, complaints about newly-ordained pastors, in particular, who come with an agenda seemingly turning back the clock on practices that have been well established in typical post-Vatican II parishes. This especially is evident in the liturgical realm, as the newly-ordained frequently suggest chant over contemporary hymns, and curtail lay Eucharistic ministers and the role of women and girls serving as altar servers. Some parishioners complain about an overemphasis on sexual morality issues emanating from the pulpit.

This widely-commented upon generation gap among pastors, with older clergy, ironically, frequently viewed as more liberal while younger clergy are viewed as traditionalist, regularly impacts on parish life.

We wanted to find out about these newly-ordained priests (many of whom, by the way, do not embrace what's been called a quiet "restorationist" movement among younger clergy). Nurtured in a seminary system inspired by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, how are these priests responding to the Age of Francis? You can read our previous interview here.

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NAME: Fr. Mark Doherty

ORDAINED: 2014 for the Archdiocese of San Francisco

AGE: 35

CURRENT POSITION: School chaplain, parochial vicar for two parishes in San Francisco's Mission District, retreat director, spiritual counselor.

NCR: Tell our readers about your background.

Doherty: I am the third of four boys born to an American father and a French mother. My brothers and I were raised in San Francisco. After two years of college I left school to enter the novitiate of the California Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in August 2000. I am part of the JP II generation of vocations. I entered religious life to begin studies for the priesthood during the Jubilee year. John Paul II has exercised a significant influence on my understanding of the priesthood, the church, and the state of contemporary society, especially Western society. His successor, Benedict XVI, has also exercised a significant influence on my understanding of these realities. 

I was a member of the Society of Jesus from August 2000 to July 2010, at which point I was transitioned out of the Society of Jesus. The Archdiocese of San Francisco accepted me into its priestly formation program in August 2011. I completed my studies for the priesthood and was ordained a priest of the archdiocese in June 2014. 

What is your ministry?

At the moment, I wear several hats in the archdiocese. I am the parochial vicar of two Latino parishes in the city's Mission District, namely St. Peter and St Anthony of Padua. This past year I have also been the chaplain of San Francisco General Hospital; I serve as the chaplain of Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep (my alma mater); I serve as chaplain and confessor to several convents in the city; I am a retreat director; I teach in the permanent diaconate program; I am the chaplain to the French community on the Peninsula; I am an elected member of the presbyteral council and an appointed member of the college of consultors for the archdiocese. I write a regular column for the archdiocesan newspaper. 

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Fr. Mark Doherty

What aspects do you like most?

The most fulfilling aspect of my work is representing the Lord and his church. In the concrete, the most enjoyable expressions of this ambassadorship are preaching, teaching and spiritual direction; interacting with the kids in the grammar schools (St. Peter and St. Anthony each has a grammar school); hearing confessions and administering the sacrament of the sick. The least enjoyable part of my work is the administrative side (paperwork).

How did your seminary experience prepare you for priesthood?

I tend to think of it this way: My 10 years in the Society of Jesus prepared me for the teaching, counseling, and spiritual direction dimensions of my work, while my three years in diocesan seminary formation at St. Patrick Seminary prepared me for preaching, liturgical and sacramental ministry.

You were formed in a system shaped by Popes John Paul II and Benedict. Is it different being a priest in the Pope Francis era? 

In the midst of differences in style, we cannot lose sight of the fact that both Benedict and Francis, each in his own way, have made the theme of communio a guiding theme of their pontificates. Both have raised concerns about the dangers of an individualistic mentality that has spread far and wide, and both have repeatedly stressed the importance of community and family as keys to the blessed life.

My experience of the call to priestly service is bound up with this theme of communio. As a young college student I perceived a desire to give my life to a greater cause than my own self-interest. At first I thought a career in the foreign service might provide me with the sense of purpose through service that I was looking for, but in my second year of college, through the example of John Paul II, St. Ignatius of Loyola and others, I discovered what for me would be a greater pathway to service on behalf of a greater community, namely priestly service on behalf of the Kingdom.

The contours and exercise of my priesthood in the Francis era are not much different than what I envisioned as I worked my way through formation during the latter years of John Paul's pontificate and the whole span of the Benedict years.

Are things really that different in the Francis era? I tend not to think so. My experience in the confessional and in the realm of spiritual direction and counseling reflect the same mix of spiritual and psychological tugs and pulls that have always been present. The modus operandi of the three classes of persons St. Ignatius describes for us in his Spiritual Exercises are the same three I encounter every day in my work.

Do you find clericalism prevalent among newly-ordained priests?

My 14 years of priestly formation, both religious and diocesan, as well as my experience as a priest, have taught me that there is no more clericalism present among today's younger clergy than there has been among the priests of the baby-boomer generation. It's just that it tends to manifest itself differently. 

How so?

Clericalism has many poses or manifestations. Careerism (of which Pope Francis has often spoken) is a symptom of a clericalist attitude evident in some priests of all generations. 

Among some baby-boomer priests and priests of the preceding generation we have seen a spirit of presumption in connection with the teachings of the church and the celebration of sacred rites. The sacrament of holy orders does not confer on a man the prerogative to alter the sacramental rites of the church, especially in their essential formulas. How often have we seen certain priests take great liberties with the Mass, including changing or creating out of whole cloth the eucharistic prayer? The baptized have a right to experience and participate in the rites of the church as the church wishes them to be celebrated.

It also has happened that some priests knowingly misrepresent the church's teaching, especially teachings touching on the neuralgic points of human nature and sexuality. That a priest disagrees with a long-established teaching is one thing; that he intentionally misrepresents this teaching to the baptized who have a right to be taught what the Church teaches is evidence of a clericalist mindset. 

With respect to priests of my generation, there are some who evidence a spirit of condescension towards the laity. Priests are called to shepherd the People of God, but the mission of building the kingdom is a collaborative work, one in which laymen and women play an essential, not an accidental role.

Some priests of a younger generation neglect to adequately acknowledge and encourage a collaborative spirit. The baptized have a right to assume their share of the work and be valued for the unique contributions they make in the apostolate. Everyone loses when the spirit of collaboration is stifled. In addition, the lack of tact, sensitivity and generous interpretation of another's intentions that some younger priests evidence in their interaction with the laity betrays the presence of the spirit of condescension.

Upon arriving in a parish, for example, a priest has to appreciate the way liturgies have been celebrated there for many years. He cannot come in like a Tasmanian devil and change the way things have been done for a long time. Of course, if there are grave abuses taking place, these need to be addressed promptly, but otherwise the priest ought to strive first to understand and appreciate how the people in his parish have experienced the presence of the Lord before he seeks to make some gradual adjustments.

[Peter Feuerherd is a professor of communications and journalism at St. John's University in New York and contributor to NCR's Field Hospital blog.]

Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …"

If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris-Young (dmyoung@ncronline.org) or Peter Feuerherd (pfeuerherd@ncronline.org).


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