The Chapel of St. Ignatius on Seattle University’s campus, where almost 150 Catholic priests from around the country gathered late last month to celebrate Mass between lectures and board meetings, was designed by its architect, Steven Holl, to “be forward looking, but anchored in the past." The hand-carved cedar doors, inset with elliptical glass lenses hinting at portals within portals, lead to an intimate, yet sweeping space offering unexpected vistas of light, water, color and stone.
The priests (representing 1,000 members and more than 120 dioceses in all) were here for a four-day assembly of the Association of United States Catholic Priests (AUSCP), an organization committed to looking both forward and back. The group, according to Fr. David Cooper, a Milwaukee pastor and AUSCP president, seeks to uphold the visions and teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and promote a spirit of consensus-building collegiality and dialogue that was once encouraged and fostered through priests’ senates and councils.
Such groups fell under the jurisdiction of bishops following changes to church law in 1983; the National Federation of Priests' Councils (NFPC), which has been in existence since 1968 and is based on diocesan council membership, reports 28,000 members. Cooper’s hope is both homegrown and far-reaching: that the AUSCP will not only recruit new members but will grow in solidarity with other organizations worldwide, including the Australian Priests Association, the Irish Priests Association, and the Austrian Priests Initiative, as well as organizations representing bishops, theologians, the members of religious orders and the laity, to reclaim and renew priests’ abilities to hear and be heard.
At the Seattle gathering — just the second conference for the group — it soon became clear that the hot button issue among 15 proposals emerging through panel and roundtable conversations was one that had also animated last year’s assembly Florida: priests’ struggles to adopt a new Latin-aligned translation of the prayers of the Mass, now called the Roman Missal. Spearheaded by the Vatican and approved by U.S. bishops, the new Roman Missal was introduced into U.S. parishes in late 2011 despite widespread concerns raised by clergy, liturgists, theologians, lay people and even some bishops regarding awkward and inaccessible language and lack of collegiality and transparency during the decision-making process.
The priests at the conference were asked to convey their support or lack of support for each issue by filling out a numerical ballot, and were asked to take both individual and community costs and benefits into account. Ironically, a proposal that sought to address priests’ difficulties with the new translation of the liturgy through the form of a letter sent to newly elected Pope Francis, requesting permission to use the 1974 edition of the sacramentary if priests wish, failed to gain enough consensus this year. There were criticisms that the resolution’s wording was imprecise and the scope was inadequate when compared to the changes many members wanted. Another landmark proposal that failed to pass was a call for study and open discussion of the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood. But even without the extension of formal support, the group’s openness to dialogue and study of such issues reveals a commitment to recognizing and considering, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “the signs of the times…in the light of the Gospel.”
Proposals that did pass, moreover, represent a significantly more open and shared approach toward people’s roles and relationships within the Church, such as resolutions supporting the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate, the opening of the selection of bishops to the participation of the laity and clergy, the reinstatement of general absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and an expression of support for labor union efforts.
Both the issue of raising public awareness of the concerns surrounding the Latin-to-English translation of the new Roman Missal and the priests' group itself have Seattle roots. Fr. Bernard Survil, an AUSCP board member, Pennsylvania priest and longtime social activist, said that the formation of the organization wouldn’t have been possible without the vision and efforts of Fr. Michael G. Ryan, pastor of Seattle’s St. James Cathedral Parish. Both Survil and Ryan received the first annual Blessed Pope John XXIII Award at last year’s assembly in recognition of their leadership. During the welcome address at this year's assembly, Jackie O'Ryan, a Seattle-based communications and public affairs consultant, was introduced as the group's new managing director.
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