With a burst of religious zeal rarely seen in the secular press, Time magazine has published a story titled, “The God Squad: The Next Generation of Catholic Priests.” It’s been receiving a lot of favorable publicity, and one has to wonder why—at least from a Catholic perspective. While not everything in the article is objectionable—and news of increasing vocations is encouraging—the rest of the article is superficial, slanted and uninformed. Indicative of the latter is Time's statement that Francis “is open to the idea of studying how some married men can be ordained to serve in a priestly function, to serve in rural areas short on ministers.” But it is highly doubtful Francis is “thinking about this,” since this is precisely what has been occurring worldwide since the restoration of the permanent diaconate at Vatican II.
The problem is not with the young seminarians and priests interviewed, most of whom appear genuinely sincere and committed, but with the way Time interprets their mission. “How Millennials Are Reinventing the Priesthood” is the article’s driving theme, which only underscores the article’s mistaken premise. The idea that the priesthood is being “reinvented” is itself an invention. When Christ instituted the priesthood on Holy Thursday, he bestowed on it a divine and sacramental permanence, which cannot be “reinvented” any more than Christian marriage can. (If Time had described the priesthood as being “strengthened” or “renewed,” that would be consistent with Catholic history, which has seen many priests periodically undergo healthy, orthodox reform.) Implying a radical break with Catholic teaching, Time tells readers to “forget the old stereotypes of the priesthood—reserved men, removed and dogmatic, who present themselves at the lectern to guide their congregations”—as though that caricature had ever been true.
Time pushes the idea of a new zero hour for priests, in which the fundamentals have changed:
This shift comes at a time when Pope Francis … is calling for a new kind of priest to serve in parishes around the world. His predecessor was known as a scholar, but Francis is renowned as a pastor for the people. For the first time in 30 years, the Vatican this past winter revised its global guidelines for educating priests, and modeled it after Pope Francis’ example of humility and vision for accessible and genuine leaders.
Each of these three sentences is misleading, to say the least. Pope Francis has called for a new “vocational culture,” but not a “new kind of priest.” And the qualities Francis has highlighted for being a “true minister of God” are quite traditional: “a firm faith and sincere spiritual life,” along with an attitude that is “merciful, humble and compassionate.” Francis has also exhorted priests to support the poor and those on the peripheries; to be pastorally sensitive to those in sinful situations; and to convey Catholic teaching in an all-embracing manner. But these are classic characteristics of the Church’s most celebrated priests. No priest was more supportive of the poor than St. Vincent de Paul; none more patient and pastoral with sinners than the Curé of Ars, and none more inclusive of outcasts than Damien of Molokai. If today’s seminarians and priests come anywhere close to living such holy lives, they are on the road to becoming great priests—but not to “reinventing” the priesthood.
Time’s statement that the pontiff’s predecessor “was known as a scholar,” whereas Francis “is renowned as a pastor for the people,” is an obvious effort to slight Benedict as aloof from the faithful. But this depiction is baseless, as is the suggestion that one cannot be a scholar and a pastor at the same time. Long before Joseph Ratzinger became a prominent theologian, he was an assistant pastor in the parish of the Precious Blood in Munich, where he was close to his congregants. It is a time he movingly recalls in his autobiography, Milestones:
The important thing was my encounter with the pastor, good Father Blumschein, who not only said to others that a priest had to “glow,” but was himself a person who glowed within. To his last breath, he desired with every fiber of his being to offer priestly service. He died, in fact, bringing the sacraments to a dying person. … I was surely in need of such a model.
Inspired by his mentor, young Fr. Ratzinger began each morning at Precious Blood spending one hour hearing confessions, and on Saturdays, four hours. Every Sunday he celebrated at least two masses and delivered two different sermons. Every week there were several burials, and he was responsible for the parish’s youth ministry, not to mention many baptisms and weddings. He initially found the workload challenging, but as he became more deeply immersed in it, “a great joy” overcame him. And when he became a full-time theological instructor—as much as he appreciated academic life—he “suffered a great deal” because of the loss of so many “human contacts and experiences afforded me by the pastoral ministry.”
After he became pope, Benedict, drawing on his love for parish life as a priest, wrote a beautiful meditation on the Curé of Ars, as well as a special letter to seminarians—neither of which Time appears to have read. Nor did Time mention that Francis has described Benedict as not only a great thinker, but an exemplary role model for priests, because he “embodies holiness,” which is “the heart of all priestly action.” One of Benedict’s great insights is knowing there is no conflict between being a scholar and an ordinary priest, for a good parish priest—including a street priest in the barrios of Latin America, as Francis once was—must know the faith inside-out, and be able to answer every possible question asked about it.
As for Time’s claim that the Vatican’s new document on educating priests is based upon “Pope Francis’s example of humility and vision”—as if those virtues were unknown to his predecessors—that is also untrue. As the Catholic News Service pointed out:
The updated document draws heavily on St. John Paul’s 1992 apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, as well as the teaching of and norms issued by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis and by Vatican officials over the past thirty years.
The new guidelines are a collaborative product of numerous popes, not the brainchild of just one.
Time’s article is filled with contradictions. After depicting Francis’s pontificate as a revolutionary new beginning for priests, it acknowledges that “most of the millennial priests of today chose their path before Francis was elected,” and thus “owe a lot to the popes of their youth, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI.” It celebrates “Pope Francis-style pastors,” but at the same time says some of them are “comfortable with legalizing recreational pot” and don’t think “preaching antiabortion homilies is a good idea”—very unlike Francis, who has denounced moves to legalize pot, and resoundingly condemned abortion. The article describes priests who admire “the old [Latin] mass of their grandparents,” and host events which “replace Christian rock music with very solemn, high mass, complete with incense.” But such a preference is not likely to have been inspired by Francis—who clearly prefers the Novus Ordo—but rather by Benedict, author of Summorum Pontificum, which generously expands permission for the Tridentine Mass, and whose tenth anniversary the Church is about to celebrate.
Most disappointingly, the article glosses over some of the most serious issues facing seminarians and priests today. It says nothing about the wrenching controversy priests are now faced with over the proper interpretation and implementation of Amoris Laetitia; and Time’s treatment of sexuality is predictably secular and progressive. It praises seminarians who “speak openly” about their “struggles” with chastity, pornography, and their sexual orientation—without considering any of these admissions as major red flags for aspiring priests. It selectively quotes the president of one Midwest seminary, saying, “I think they’ve embraced that sense of, ‘I’m here to live a chaste life, whatever my sexual orientation might be.’” But that idealistic view ignores the warning of the Vatican’s new guidelines, which reaffirm Pope Benedict’s 2005 instruction that “the Church, while profoundly respecting the person in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” Seminary directors cannot simply trust the promises of seminarians—gay or straight—to live a celibate life, but must carefully discern which ones will actually be able to do so.
In the end, the article conveys little regard for objective truth or the urgent need for modern priests to uphold it, as they bring people to Christ. Against St. Paul’s advice, it subtly encourages them to conform to this world, with a veneer of religiosity. It trivializes the priesthood, rather than honors it.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.