I've often wondered what happened to those priests I met right after the Second Vatican Council, the priests who were eager to understand and support me in the gay ministry God put in my path when I attended graduate school. By now, they must be, like me, well eligible for Social Security.
At the end of June, I found out where many of them had been when I bumped into dozens and dozens of them in Chicago. Most of them were retired now or, as one said to me, "Not retired, just recycled." They were still concerned about spreading the Gospel and fostering justice issues.
I met them at the annual conference of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP), which was formally organized five years ago in Pittsburgh by 27 priests. The group owed its existence to the dissatisfaction that thousands of U.S. priests voiced about the changes in the Roman missal that the Vatican forced on countries in the English-speaking world in 2011.
There is still dissatisfaction with these changes among the priests. From one working group at the conference, I heard complaints such as, "The changes use bad English, bad theology, and are not pastorally sensitive." A number of priests acknowledged they had not adopted the Vatican changes. Instead they use the 1998 edition of the missal, which, one priest promptly said, can be found at www.misguidedmissal.com. (However, when Chicago Archbishop Blaise Cupich presided at the conference Eucharistic celebration, it was not the 1998 edition that was on the altar!)
I felt right at home with these priests whose organization was founded to keep the vision of Vatican II alive. As Paul Leingang, the AUSCP communications director, put it, "We make Vatican II not a matter of nostalgia, but a matter of urgency."
I liked this spirit of freedom in speaking their mind when they disagreed with the institutional church's present policies or customs. For example, the AUSCP has taken a position favoring a married male clergy and the ordination of women as deacons, but not the ordination of women as priests. I felt disappointed that the organization skirted this issue because I know that a number of priests at the meeting believe that women should not be barred from priestly ordination. I asked members of their leadership team about this.
One of them, Fr. Bernie Survil, a diocesan priest from Pittsburgh and one of the first founding members, told me, "There are limits to dissent because all the priests are in good standing" with their dioceses.
Another founding member, Fr. Frank Eckart from Toledo, commented, "We push those issues that are not set in stone, but that are not contrary to dogma or faith, although we believe in dialogue with dissenting groups."
The group's international liaison, Fr. Dan Divis from the Cleveland diocese, agreed. "Dissent is part of the church; it's not unhealthy, but messy," he said, pointing out that one of the plenary speakers, Dr. Massimo Faggioli, an Italian theologian who will teach at Villanova University in the fall, affirmed that "even the resisters are part of the Vatican II Church" advocated by Pope Francis.
As if to show that the AUSCP recognizes the value of dissent, the group presented an award to Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a church resister who has publicly supported same-sex marriage.
But it was not dissent or resistance that I most heard from the participants as I mingled among them; it was an appreciation for the organization that brought them together. Fr. Jim Kiesel from the Baltimore archdiocese expressed the sentiment I noted time and time again: "The highlight of this week for me is seeing my brother priests, sharing dreams and visions with them about the church."
I thought of these diocesan priests (although a few were members of religious communities), their hunger for relationships, and the importance of a community of faith to sustain ministry. I thought of the bonds that women and men religious often take for granted, with a built-in system for discussing significant matters of the mind and heart. How do these priests cope when they are back home? How does the institutional church provide for the community needs of diocesan ordained ministers?
The significance of community rang clear in a presentation by St. Joseph Sr. Carol Zinn, past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who spoke on Pope Francis' second encyclical, "Laudato Si', On Care For Our Common Home."
Zinn explained that our care for humankind, the earth, and all of creation centers around connection, not separation. Our care for our common home is based on community, not individualism. Whether the critique is about exploitation of our environment or various species; the abuse of people made poor by physical, sexual, or economic violence; global warming or consumerism; insufficient or unsafe water; hostility toward ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities; or the numerous other sins that cry out for justice — we need to grasp the fact that the cause of all these evils is the lack of genuine relationships. Laudato Si' calls us to get the message that the universe is connected; it is not isolated bits of matter. Only when we see our relatedness will we be motivated to care about all the beings in our common home.
Zinn's presentation was very well received, as were other statements or references to remarks by Pope Francis. Repeatedly during the conference, the priests made comments such as, "My hope is in Pope Francis and what he is doing for the entire church."
So what happened to those priests I met right after Vatican II? As I had known them in the 1970s, I had found them 40 years later -- concerned about a Vatican II vision of church and yearning for a community with the same hopes and dreams for justice and peace. They seemed to have found this vision in Pope Francis and to have realized community in a group called the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.
[Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick is a longtime friend of NCR.]