After years of decline, the latest Vatican report on the number of priests in the world shows a rather healthy increase. While it is too soon to say that this increase will continue in the foreseeable future, it does indicate that after almost 45 years, the people of God are finally beginning to understand and appreciate the Second Vatican Council. By this I mean Vatican II’s documents as written, not the “spirit” of Vatican II as some have misinterpreted these documents, what is now called the hermeneutic of rupture.
I was in the seminary shortly after Vatican II and during some of the most tumultuous years of seminary formation. A few of our professors interpreted Vatican II as a complete break from what the Church had been prior to the Council. The first thing to suffer in the seminary was the Mass. By this, I mean that in some cases the Mass was so creatively designed, depended so much upon the priest who was celebrating it and his particular idiosyncrasies that in some cases the Mass was not only illicit but invalid.
Next to suffer was the very doctrine of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The priesthood was no longer viewed in its high sacramental theology as the sacramental image or icon of Jesus Christ who alone is the High Priest and Victim at the altar as well as the Bridegroom of the Church. Rather the Catholic priest was described as some sort of “leader” of prayer called from the assembly to help the people of God feel the presence of God. This leader, in the not too far off future according to this hermeneutic of rupture, could be called by the local community to preside over what ever creative form the Liturgy would take and would not necessarily need any higher endorsement from, let’s say, the Bishop! The parish could just call someone who had some good leadership and prayer skills, male, female, adult or child, and allow them to lead things, since in fact the priesthood of all the baptized is what brought about the desired results of the Liturgy.
Finally, the ministry of the priest was defined more in terms of what a social worker would do in the secular or religious world rather than the specific high calling that the Priesthood truly is, the sacrificial sign of Jesus Christ, the one and only High Priest, Bridegroom and Good Shepherd, leading people to God through His Sacrifice on the Cross. The new theology viewed the priest as one who would help transform the world in an eschatological way by bringing about through social work God’s kingdom here on earth as some Utopian experience of heaven on earth.
In addition to this, theologians of the Church began to see themselves as a “parallel hierarchy” of the Church. Their role was to be like the “loyal opposition” of political parties to those who are in power. In this case it was the pope and bishops that they would oppose and sometimes not loyally!
All of what I described above was a result of a “hermeneutic of rupture vision” of what many thought the “spirit of Vatican II” was.
What then, following strictly the documents of Vatican II, is the recipe for a strong Catholic Church and a strong priesthood, not to mention Religious Life (nuns, monks, sisters, and brothers)? In a nutshell it is a strong Catholic identity amongst all baptized Catholics, clergy and laity alike. This identity is based on what Pope Benedict XVI is striving to bring about in the Church. Vatican II did not redefine the Church as though this Council was a rupture from the past, but Vatican II is very much in continuity with the Church of all ages beginning with Pentecost! One of the clearest examples of Pope Benedict’s understanding of this “hermeneutic of continuity” of Vatican II is his personal permission given to every priest in the world to celebrate the Mass as it was celebrated before and during Vatican II and shortly afterward, the Traditional Latin Mass, now known at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. This Mass along with the current vernacular Mass are two expressions of the one and same Reality! Wow! Who would have thought?
This brings me to the meat and potatoes of this article. What is the recipe for more abundant vocations to the priesthood and religious life? My answer quite bluntly is what Pope Benedict and his predecessor Pope John Paul II have emphasized, the laity’s strong Catholic identity based upon the hermeneutic of continuity that Vatican II truly represents.
One of the most unexpected graces that I experienced between 1991 and 2004 the years I was pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, was the number of vocations that came from this parish as well as the other parishes in Augusta. What was the reason for this? I can tell you it wasn’t the radical understanding of Vatican II that I described from my seminary days. I failed to mention that when I entered the seminary in 1976, there were 65 men in my class. By the end of that first year it was down to 30 and by the time we were ordained deacons in 1979 it was 23. Most left because of the radical things they were hearing and seeing!
At the Church of the Most Holy Trinity since the 1980’s nine men have been ordained for our diocese and one as a Jesuit. Two others are in religious life studying for the priesthood in the Dominican and Jesuit orders. Two women have joined religious orders. What accounts for this astounding number in these post Vatican II days? I can assure you it is not some liberal, angry form of Catholicism in discontinuity with our past. It is a secure, happy form of Catholic identity based upon the “Deposit of Faith” taught by Holy Mother Church and obedience to these teachings handed down through the ages. In this Vatican II Catholicism, the hierarchy of the Church, meaning the pope and bishops are not seen as a “patriarchy of idiots” hell bent on suppressing the true character of Vatican II, but rather as leaders, human, sinful and frail as they are, called by God to lead the Church. The “keys to the kingdom” have been given to them and in a specific way to the successor of St. Peter, the pope.
This understanding of the Church along with a “high” understanding of the way the Mass is celebrated combined with strong faith communities has acted as a “leaven” for other Catholics in Augusta. The parishes in Augusta are providing vocations to the priesthood and religious life and in astonishing numbers. Large Catholic families, a strong Catholic spirituality and prayer life, fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church and pro-active recruitment of candidates to the priesthood and religious life contribute to what has transpired in terms of the increase of vocations. I am convinced it would not have transpired with some “angry, wishy-washy” malcontented “spirit of Vatican II” desire for the Church to be something else other than what the authentic theology of Vatican II is. Pope Benedict’s emphasis that the Second Vatican Council’s vision of renewal was based not on the hermeneutic of rupture with the past, but one that emphasizes our continuity with the past is what will help us to truly understand Vatican II and implement its vision for the Church.