Last weekend, I experienced an event that made me realize yet again how much the world, my Catholic faith – and I – have changed over the last 50 years. All at once, I realized that my prayers had been answered: a new age has indeed dawned for us all. It’s all quite revolutionary. Paradigms that once guided me and my contemporaries both religiously and politically have dissolved before my very eyes.
The clarifying event in question was a reunion of Catholic priests most of whom were ordained in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. I was in attendance since I too had been a priest. I was ordained in 1966 – after entering training for the priesthood in 1954 at the age of 14. Unbelievably to me now, at that tender age – as a high school freshman – I had enrolled in St. Columban’s Seminary in Silver Creek, New York. With virtually no experience of the adult world, I decided to give it all up to become a priest.
I changed my mind 22 years later. I left the priesthood in 1976, 10 years after ordination (for reasons I’ve explained here, here, here, here, and here). But it all means that I had spent more than 20 years in the religious life. I don’t regret a minute of it.
However, with all of that baggage, I found myself at this reunion at a former seminary in Bristol, Rhode Island – a place where, in 1960, I passed the “spiritual year” that candidates for the priesthood were required to experience. There, we had made our 30-day Ignatian retreat. We learned to meditate, fast, pray and discern God’s will. Today the seminary is a residence for retired priests.
Everyone at the reunion shared such experiences, though unlike me, few had begun their training as high schoolers. But all present are or had once been members of the Society of St. Columban – an Irish missionary organization founded to convert the Chinese in pre-revolutionary China. Though originally founded for China, Columbans were expelled from the mainland after Mao Tse Tung’s revolution in 1949. Thereafter, they moved on to work in 17 different countries, including Korea, the Philippines, Myanmar, Fiji, Pakistan, and various Latin American venues. Only relatively recently have they returned to resume work in China.
About 30 priests attended last week’s event – about a third of them still active priests, while about 2/3, like me, had long since left the clergy. Many of the “formers” came with their spouses.
Every three or four years, Columbans have held such reunions since the mid 1970s. This one, however, was special, since it marked the 100th anniversary of the Society’s founding in 1918.
Like all Columban gatherings of this type, the centennial version was characterized by reminiscences, jokes, laughter, plenty to eat and drink, along with questions and answers about what we and our families have been up to over the last 50 years or so since ordination. Name tags, of course were de rigueur. Nearly all of us have changed beyond recognition.
But history was in the air. And a century of work called for placing the event in that wider context. Fr. Tim Mulroy, the Society’s U.S. regional director, obliged on the meeting’s second day. His remarks connected world events over the past 100 years with profound changes not only in the Society of St. Columban, but in its umbrella institution, the Catholic Church – and in everyone’s understanding of God, priesthood, and life itself.
The changes in question were provoked more than anything by the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when Pope John XXIII called a meeting of all the world’s bishops for purposes of aggiornamento – for updating and modernizing the Catholic Church – for bringing it into dialog with the contemporary world. That meant embracing modern scripture scholarship and honestly coming to terms with the scientific revolution, evolution, and developments in history, psychology, economics, political theory, and related fields.
Judging by conversations with my reunion colleagues, more than a half century of living with the resulting reforms has rendered our faith as unrecognizable as our wizened and deeply lined faces.
As outlined by Fr. Mulroy, here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
• China has changed drastically; it is now part of the global village. More than ½ million Chinese students are currently studying in the United States. Nothing like that was happening in 1918. To put a finer point on the phenomenon: China is waxing as a world power; the U.S. and Europe are waning.
• Ireland has similarly transformed. Many now even speak of that famously Catholic country as a post-Christian society. The clerical pedophilia scandals are largely responsible for Ireland’s loss of faith, though the transition from a basically rural culture to a more urban, globally-integrated one bears at least equal responsibility. It has introduced a level of materialism never before seen in Ireland.
• The teachings of Vatican II about the salvific value of other religions has called into question the very purpose of missionary endeavor. If, as the Council taught, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and tribal peoples all have valid understandings of God and can be “saved” (whatever that means), there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying to convert them.
• The internet has underlined that same point. Moreover, the new atmosphere created by social media means that a strong on-line presence for groups like the Columbans has become even more important than preaching effective Sunday homilies.
• The priesthood has also changed. Again, pedophilia along with Vatican II’s revised theology emphasizing a “priesthood of the laity” has taken priests off the pedestal they once occupied. In the Society of St. Columban, there hasn’t been an ordination either in Ireland or the United States since the year 2000.
• Of necessity then, Columbans have become less western. In fact, there are now two classes of Columban priests: the over-fifties and the under-fifties. The over-fifties are found in Ireland, the United States and in Australia. Most of them are either in or about to enter nursing homes. Meanwhile, the under-fifties typically come from Korea, the Philippines, Peru, Fiji and Brazil. Gradually, they find themselves working in the United States and Ireland evangelizing the now-secularized countries whose priests once evangelized them! Global South clergy working in the U.S. bring with them understandings of mission, life, and family very different from what their new audiences have grown to expect.
• All of the changes just listed have meant that English-speaking Columbans (for reasons of self-preservation) are gradually transitioning towards membership in a lay missionary organization. And fully 80% of its new members are female. One can only imagine what this means in terms of altering the extremely macho, patriarchal culture I experienced growing up in a Columban seminary!
In sum, the centennial celebration of our clerical group caused all of us to face the undeniable fact that our world has been drastically transformed. The Catholic Church has changed along with it. So has the Missionary Society of St. Columban along with all of its members and former members. The last 100 years (and especially the last 60 or so) have altered our understandings of God and the meaning of life.
Take my own case.
When I began my priestly odyssey, my faith was simple. I was certain that God was “up there.” His word was revealed in the Bible whose truths were infallible and valid for all time. I knew for a fact that the Catholic Church was in sole possession that book’s true meaning. My purpose as a missionary-in-training was to get others to see that truth, so, like me, they might get to heaven.
The “holy sacrifice of the Mass” was all important then. I believed that the words of a priest could call Jesus down to enter a piece of bread and a cup of wine. I believed in Jesus actual presence in the tabernacle of every Catholic church where I might literally sit before him and “visit” as I would an intimate friend. Similarly, a priest’s words of absolution spoken in the confessional could open the gates of heaven to sinners previously on the road to hell.
Sin, judgment, heaven and hell were inescapable preoccupations for me. My focus was on the after-life. The priesthood was a divine calling that would make me “another Christ.” What a singular privilege!
Today, I can believe none of those things with the simplicity of faith I once enjoyed. Instead, my idea of God has become belief in the universal presence of a creative Life Force in whom (as St. Paul put it) we live and move and have our being (ACTS 17:28). Other religions are just as valid and questionable as Christianity. I have no idea what happens after death. Heaven and hell are this-worldly realities shaped either by love on the one hand, or fear on the other. Like almost all other Catholics, I’ve given up going to confession. And my commitment to daily meditation has replaced the importance I once gave the Eucharist. I’ve been driven away from the latter by priests still promulgating a vision I can no longer endorse.
All of this, I believe, represents not only a profound paradigm shift, but a kind of liberation. Its process has been a gradual coming of age that is paralleled by a similar shift in the political realm.
During the reunion, that political change was reflected in conversations with my former colleagues in the seminary and priesthood. Almost to a person (there were a few exceptions), everyone was completely scandalized by Donald Trump and his politics that have impacted so negatively the migrant communities to whose welfare (according to Fr. Mulroy) all Columbans are committed. I mean, political remarks at our gathering were more critical and negative about the United States than I’ve ever heard before at similar gatherings.
It all suggested that at least many of my Columban friends had gone through political paradigm shifts like my own. Again, without speaking for others, let me admit my own swing from right to left. My friends may have experienced something similar.
Growing up, of course, and at least till my late twenties, I was a good American and quite conservative. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the pre-Vatican II American church responsible for my seminary education was so conservative, anti-communist and patriotic. As a result, I believed that the United States was a force for good in the world and that it had always been so.
Only afterwards, did events and study correct such misperceptions. For me, the catalyzing elements included:
• The Vietnam War
• The Civil Rights Movement
• Women’s liberation movements
• Study of Global South, post-colonial theologies
• Travel and study in Rome (and across Europe), Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Israel, and India.
All such experiences gradually revealed to me the truth of Martin Luther King’s identification of the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – and (I still find it shocking to write this for a polite audience) the challenge of the Nicaraguan Sandinista meme that the United States is “the enemy of mankind.”
A sad highlight of the reunion I’ve just recounted was a meeting with a former mentor of mine. Fr. Dan remains a Columban priest and at the age of 92 resides in the Society’s nursing home in Bristol. For the past few years, dementia has robbed him of his memory to the extent that in our meeting last week, he was unable to remember me or the time we shared in Rome, where we both completed our formal studies. (There, Dan had given me sound advice as I contemplated leaving the priesthood for which I had prepared since the age of 14. I remain extremely grateful for his wise counsel.)
In any case, Dan was always a maverick and I loved him for that. One time, he announced that if he ever made the rank of bishop (fat chance!) the slogan on his coat of arms would be “No more bullshit!”
As I left our reunion last week with the reflections and insights just shared, I couldn’t help thinking of the relevance of Dan’s motto. It applies to church and state as I’ve experienced them over my 78 years. Over those years, both the Catholic Church and the U.S. government have exposed us all to great quantities of b.s.
Thankfully, the events of the past hundred years (especially since Vatican II) have empowered us to leave much of that behind while retaining the friendships and quasi-family ties that have characterized the Society of St. Columban. The evidence I encountered in Bristol last week shows that (despite the ancillary uncertainties) we’re all better off for the process.
I’m grateful to my Columban brothers (and sisters) for the experience of last week, and for the continued friendship and support that have enabled us all to more or less approximate Dan’s ideal.