The current edition of The Swag reproduces a blog post by Fr Norm Langenbrunner, one of the founding members of the newly formed Association of United States Catholic Priests.

The AUSCP styles itself as an association of ‘Vatican II priests’ who wish to keep alive the Spirit of the Council. By way of clarification, Fr Norm relates in his post the content of a talk he heard at a recent AUSCP regional meeting:

In his presentation Father Bacik clarified the difference between Vatican II priests and JPII priests under two operative models of priesthood: servant/leader (inspired by Vatican II) or spiritual father (inspired by Pope John Paul II).

The servant/leader model tends to see a priest in terms of ministry shared with the laity, of witness to social justice issues, of exploring how the Gospel is to be translated into today’s world.

The spiritual father model tends to see a priest in terms of directing the laity in their service to the Church, of piety in prayer, of maintaining orthodoxy.

Bearing in mind that I didn’t have access to the actual text of Fr Jim Bacik’s talk, and Fr Norm wasn’t attempting to reproduce Fr Bacik’s talk in any detail, I shook my head as I read these paragraphs.

I consider myself a ‘JPII priest.’ John Paul was still pope when I discerned a priestly vocation and entered the seminary, and his writings and spirituality have had a big influence on me. Nonetheless, although I happily identify with piety in prayer and with orthodoxy, I certainly don’t pretend to “direct the laity in their service to the Church.” That’s a brand of clericalism which I’ll always reject. I suspect most ‘JPII priests’ do likewise.

Knowing your adversary

It’s never an easy thing to faithfully describe an adversarial position. I’ve failed at it myself. People sometimes ask me why I wear a clerical collar, and why many other priests don’t wear the clerical collar. My answer was always thoughtful and charitable, but for a long time it was wrong. I misread the motives of the older generations of priests who eschew the collar. I realised that when I asked a priest whom I respect why he had taken off the collar. His answer startled me, because his motivation to hang up the collar was identical to my motivation to take it up again: “It opens doors.” That’s not a reason I had attributed.

Because I get it wrong myself, I am patient with people who misrepresent an adversarial position. Misunderstanding one’s adversary is not on its own sufficient grounds to discount a voice, which is typically more authoritative when expressing more sympathetic positions. I persevered with Fr Norm’s article, and the rest of The Swag, for the insight it can offer on “Vatican II priests.” What are they thinking? What are they feeling? I did this, not only because they are my brother priests and it’s good to take an interest in family, but also because this past week, I attended the NCP Convention in Warrnambool.

Warrnambool 2012

I like to think I’m open minded, and that I went into the convention with a positive attitude. One of my favourite quotes comes from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

Catholic means, ‘Here comes everybody.’

I can deal with the fact that I disagree with other priests on many things. Nonetheless, walking into the convention room that first evening, I was very tentative. To my mind, The Swag is often beyond the pale, and the NCP excessively negative. Apart from that, any large clerical gathering can become something of a minefield. An old saying — often repeated by priests — came to mind:

Priests are like manure. Grouped together they produce hot air and bad smells; spread out they do a lot of good.

At best, I expected to receive deeper insight into the minds and hearts of self-styled “Vatican II priests,” while enduring unfair and inaccurate characterisations of my own generation.

But I received much more than that. I received the hospitality of priests who were sincere in their welcome, and quite willing to engage. And in the keynote addresses by Fr Timothy Radcliffe I received universal insights into the Church and the world. Radcliffe showed himself to be not only a clear and deep thinker, but someone who is able to understand and express his adversaries’ positions as well as his own. He set the tone for a convention which was not pessimistic or self-obsessed, but hopeful and supernatural in its outlook.

My differences with many in the NCP remain. I think I may have cast the sole dissenting vote on one motion. (I didn’t look around at the show of hands.) But all Catholic priests share a lot in common. I learnt a lot at the convention — from its speakers, and from its attendees. And I enjoyed the week immensely.

In many ways, I was more “at home” at last month’s ACCC Conference. But I felt a welcome guest at the NCP Convention, and I will go again. I recommend it.