Is a new movement among Catholic priests growing out of Seattle roots?

Priests used modern media to broaden the discussion of church reform in a Seattle gathering. A Skype conversation with Fr. Helmut Schüller, who founded the Austrian Priests' Initiative, followed a similar exchange with Fr. Tony Flannery of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests. Schüller, the former vicar general of Vienna, is scheduled to launch a U.S. tour in mid-July and will speak in Seattle at United Methodist Church on August 5. He has stirred controversy due to public questioning of church teachings, including celibacy, male-only priesthood, and divorce. Credit: Maria Laughlin

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.  

It all started simply enough, with an article Ryan published in America, a Jesuit magazine, in 2009 entitled “What If We Said, ‘Wait’?” Written as a last-ditch effort to call attention to the lack of collegial process and the awkwardly translated language connected to impending liturgical changes, Ryan made an impassioned case for setting aside additional time for dialogue, reflection, and study prior to introducing a new Roman Missal (once referred to as a Sacramentary) into U.S. parishes. The essay was paired with a grassroots, online signature drive that offered readers a public form to voice and share concerns regarding the new Roman Missal; it has amassed over 23,000 English-speaking postings from around the world.

In a follow-up article, “What’s Next?”, composed in late spring of 2012, Ryan recounted his inner struggle to adapt to "the overloaded sentences and convoluted syntax" of the revised prayers in the new Roman Missal, and then went on to ask bishops and laypeople a series of questions, including this refreshingly straightforward proposal: “Can we talk about what contributes to prayer and what gets in the way?”

Ryan's presence at the assembly was only the most recent example of his commitment to participating in bridge-building conversations. Shaking his head as he recounted "what an obstacle this is, and how unnecessary and sad it is, that we're at this point…when prayer itself is a distraction and a problem," he spoke of the importance of offering people hope while also "reaching out to the pastoral heart of bishops with our needs and asking them for help."

Saying that "this is not a done deal," Ryan vowed to continue to raise concerns and encourage dialogue on the Missal issue.  Taking into account the results of four surveys of priests’ reactions to the new Roman Missal published over the past few years, including a survey released in May 2013 by St. John's School of Theology in Minnesota, it's estimated that approximately 80 percent of U.S. priests find the new translation very difficult or somewhat difficult to work with and communicate to others. Surveys exploring parishioners’ views on the matter have yet to be developed or carried out.

Ryan’s words not only helped to inspire the founding of the AUSCP but also continue to offer an example of what’s possible when people gather, whether in person or online, to respectfully and insistently engage in conversations that matter. The group’s first members came from a pool of those priests who signed their full names in support of the online signature drive expressing dissatisfaction with the newly translated Roman Missal (many additional priests chose to respond anonymously). Survil estimates that he spent at least 300 hours on outreach to potential members, which included sending surveys by mail to explore priests’ ideas and interests connected to the establishment of a national organization.

At the two assemblies, priests set aside time on the first evening for a round-table lamentations session; through this time of bonding over personal trials, failings and disappointments, the community finds the support and strength to move forward through a reaffirmation of shared joy, purposeand hope. A final prayer is recited, which gives the last word to love rather than sorrow or grief.

But whenever the topic of the new translation of the liturgy returned, as it inevitably did during the subsequent days, a mournful chord reminiscent of those laments would return and linger, like waves fretting once-calm water. Despite his jovial nature, Fr. John Ecker, the longtime pastor of St. Paul Cathedral Parish in the Diocese of Yakima, could offer no words of praise for the new translation. Shaking his head, he explained, “With the former sacramentary, I always prayed the Mass; now, with the new Roman Missal, I find myself reading the Mass.” He referenced one of the changed phrases — “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall” — and dryly cracked, “Dew rises from the earth. It doesn’t fall on us.”

Fr. Patrick Howell, rector of the Jesuit community and an instructor at Seattle University who teaches a popular course on the Second Vatican Council, summed up his thoughts on the new Missal: “I’m still waiting for the text to be translated into English.” His face did lighten when he recalled his teaching experiences over the past year, marked by students’ excitement about the election of Pope Francis, which felt “like a grand finale” on the last day of class.

Addressing priests’ needs is an issue that Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ liturgy committee and a vocal critic of what he has called the “slavishly literal” translation of the new Roman Missal, has championed for decades. In Seattle to accept this year’s  award from the AUSCP for upholding "the vocabulary and linguistic style of contemporary mainstream Catholics," Trautman explained, “I am concerned as a bishop when priests are not being fed spiritually and nourished. This is a significant problem, as the Eucharist [the Mass] is the chief source of our spiritual strength … affecting how priests live their lives.” In addition to joining the AUSCP as a member, he plans to engage the United States Conference of Bishops on this issue and also pledged to take the case to Rome.

Final outcome aside, such negotiations take time, and many AUSCP members are well aware they “may not see the flowers bloom,” as one elder priest commented in his lilting Irish accent. Considering the notable absence of younger priests at the assembly (the average age of all priests in a 2009 study conducted by the NFPC was found to be 63, compared to an average age of 45 in 1970), and in light of findings published in the Official Catholic Directory that show a 36 percent increase in U.S. Catholics and a 34 percent decrease in the number of U.S. priests over the past quarter century, it’s clear that challenges associated with an expanding church and a declining priesthood are real and pressing. At the assembly, stories of recent parish closures or priests being assigned to multiple parishes were not uncommon topics of conversation.

Yet, to sit beside these priests as they join voices in song is to consider another, more nuanced angle: an illumination of a community’s hope and faith, reflected in the present through connection with what’s been and what’s to come. As members filed out of the chapel following the blessing and dismissal, some lingering near the adjacent reflection pool to chat or simply breathe in, quietly, the rain-scented air, the cantor confessed that she’d never heard the chapel so filled with sound. As a priest later explained: “We’re used to leading others in song. … so when we’re all together under one roof, we can be pretty loud.”

For more information about the AUSCP, visit http://www.uscatholicpriests.org.

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