Celebrating its 50th anniversary as an organization representing priests and priests’ councils throughout the U.S., the NFPC came home to its origins in Chicago for its 50th Annual National Convocation of Priests. The 4 day gathering held from April 23rd – 26th, 2018, at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago, focused on the theme: “The U.S. Priesthood: Looking Back, Looking Forward.” Priests representing 36 U.S. arch/dioceses gathered to pray, reflect and dialogue on the issues facing priests, presbyteral councils and the U.S. church as a whole, with a particular focus on the role of the of the NFPC itself in the future.
Fr. Tony Cutcher, NFPC President, welcomed everyone and then introduced Very Rev. Ron Hicks, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who offered a welcome from Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich. Fr. Hicks then introduced a video welcome from the Cardinal, which was not just a welcome, but a call to deeper engagement and, as some attendees commented, ‘our marching orders.’
In his welcome, Cardinal Cupich used the analogy raised in Robert Putnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone.’ The concern he expresses is that more and more people in our society are dissociating themselves from belonging to organized social and fraternal groups. In the same way, many priests, because of fewer numbers and growing responsibilities, are feeling isolated, “ministering alone,” often to the detriment of their physical, emotional and spiritual health. The NFPC has been victim of this as fewer and fewer dioceses participate as member councils. “The NFPC and Priests Councils are essential for the future of the church,” Cardinal Cupich argues. “Vatican II always talked about priests in the plural, mirroring the early apostolic community around Jesus, a spirit of collegiality promoted by the Vatican Council and reiterated by every Pope since. We need each other! Yet we are not convinced of this.”
Cardinal Cupich also highlighted Pope Francis’ call to a spirit of synodality. “Walking down the road together, we teach, we learn, we speak, we listen, all of this framed in our life and ministry together with Jesus Christ.” Cardinal Cupich added, “In addition to collegiality and synodality, we need to engage the challenge of evangelization, a re-proposal of the Gospel and Jesus Christ within the church and to the world. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis invites us to “shift the gravitational center of all of our ministerial efforts to families. This requires a new creativity and a sustained effort guided by the Holy Spirit.” Quoting St. John Paul II from Pastores Dabo Vobis, Cardinal Cupich reminds us, “The ordained ministry has a radical “communitarian form” and can only be carried out as “a collective work.”(30) The Council dealt extensively with this communal aspect of the nature of the priesthood, (31) examining in succession the relationship of the priest with his own bishop, with other priests and with the lay faithful.”
Finally, the Cardinal raised up the number of social ills that the church needs to address on behalf of and with the People of God, e.g., health care, immigration and violence, inclusive of gun violence, domestic violence and the violence of multiple wars throughout our world. Again, he affirmed, the NFPC and active and engaged Priest Councils are more necessary than ever.
The evening continued with a panel led by former NFPC President Nick Rice, reminiscing on the past 50 years of NFPC and speculating on its mission for the future. On the panel were Fr. Don Wolf, former NFPC President and priest of the Diocese of Oklahoma City; Msgr. Rich Hynes, former NFPC President and priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago; Fr. Clete Kiley, Moderator of the Labor Priest Initiative housed with NFPC, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago; and, Mr. Alan Szafraniec, retired Managing Director of the NFPC, having served in various positions with NFPC since 1997.
The group shared some of the early history, from the excitement around its founding in the historically tumultuous year of 1968 here in the U.S., coupled with the changes happening in the church regarding Vatican II, the exodus of priests and the divisive fallout and confusion from Humanae Vitae. They shared how the NFPC continued to adapt, most importantly solidifying the importance of Priests Councils in every diocese and raising up the rights of priests to fair wages, health care and other benefits. What was also critical was the role of social justice in the NFPC’s ongoing formation.
In response to the question, “how has the NFPC evolved over the last 50 years?” comments included the origination of the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy (NOCERCC) and the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA). When these groups became independent from NFPC, the organization was left with a strong peace and justice emphasis which became its national image. Over the years, the challenge has been holding the tension between the prophetic and the relational.
Cardinal Bernardin, when he was secretary to the USCCB, helped pull the NFPC into a key advisory role with the USCCB Priestly Life Committee. NFPC has adapted and changed because we search to frame the questions and to seek out the solutions.
In response to the question, “Do you believe NFPC is needed for the future?’ all of the panel members said ‘yes.’ The challenges: they called for a need for a new focus with regard to the changing times and to the growing diversity within our presbyterates. This requires discernment: “Be ignited or be gone!” (Fr. Clete Kiley); “Relating to Jesus and allowing Jesus to relate to us; emulating Pope Francis, humbly engage in evocative gestures that reflect the Gospel.” (Msgr. Richard Hynes); “The vitality of the church is not dependent on the priest; the challenge is to engage the work of the Spirit already present in our people.” (Fr. Don Wolf) “The great challenge is to organize. Overwhelmed by administration, we need to move from maintenance to organizing with our people in an ecclesial and missionary way.” (Fr. Clete Kiley)
Sr. Katerina Schuth, OSF, in a Tuesday morning presentation titled “Looking Forward: Ministry Preparation for Priests in the Church of the 21st Century,” talked about the major documents that have influenced Seminary formation over the years and the evolution of focus on priorities in preparation of priests for pastoral ministry. Sr. Katerina, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, MN since 1960, has a 4-decade career in higher education. Since 1991, she has held the Endowed Professorship for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. She continues to do research, write and give presentations, her most recent book titled “Seminary Formation: Recent History, Current Circumstances, and New Directions.”
Recounting seminary formation developments from Vatican II to the present, Sr. Katarina focused on 5 documents:
- Optatam totius, 1965 (Decree on Priestly Training) Vatican II Document (Previous major universal Church document on seminaries was the Council of Trent’s Decree on Seminaries: 1563): “directed episcopal conferences to adapt their Programs of Priestly Formation to local circumstances and times so as to be in harmony with the pastoral needs of each one.” “Pastoral education is to permeate formation so that seminarians are prepared to serve the needs of all in all circumstances. She highlighted, “The document expresses the centrality of pastoral training; spiritual training, including celibacy and awareness of the necessity of seminarians giving over their lives for service, not for honors; connecting philosophical and theological studies with the modern world; Sacred Liturgy considered as primary and Sacred Scripture to be strongly emphasized; and, integration of all aspects of formation – spiritual, academic, and pastoral.”
- A Basic Scheme for Priestly Formation, 1970 Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis; revised 1985;
- Programs of Priestly Formation (PPF) Five editions by USCCB between 1971 and 2005; 6th edition in process. Formation is intended to teach seminarians to be accountable for the care, guidance, and leadership of communities: through their human personality as a bridge, through personal witness of faith rooted in their spiritual life, and through their knowledge of faith. All four dimensions of formation – human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral/apostolic are to be interwoven and develop concurrently.
- Pastores dabo vobis (PDV) I Will Give You Shepherds, Pope John Paul II: 1992; The goal of the document is “to update and contextualize priestly formation, in light of present day circumstances, introducing human formation as one of four formation areas. All of formation is to be oriented to the formation of true shepherds of souls after the model of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest and shepherd; thus, formation must have a fundamentally pastoral character, which unifies and gives specificity to the whole of formation of future priests, directed toward ever-deeper communion with the pastoral charity of Jesus.” “Especially important,” she notes, is evangelical discernment of the socio-cultural and ecclesial situation. The Seminary must initiate the candidate into the sensitivity of being a shepherd, in the conscious and mature assumption of responsibilities, in establishing priorities, and in the interior habit of evaluating problems, in looking for solutions.
- and, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis: 2016
Currently 39 seminaries/schools of theology are operating; most enroll seminarians and lay students, 30 are mainly for diocesan candidates, 9 are primarily for religious order candidates, and almost all theologates enroll some lay students. Enrollment of seminarians in theology declined sharply from a high of 8,480 in 1961 to around 3,500 since the 1990s to 3,369 in 2017-2018. Diocesan seminarian numbers have recently increased somewhat to 2,622 in 2017-2018. Religious order seminarian numbers have declined to a low of 747 in 2017-2018. Lay ecclesial ministry students first enrolled in the 1970s; their numbers have risen and declined unevenly since then, from about 2,500 to 3,000
First and most noteworthy change in seminary programs has been “addition of a separate program of human formation, based on directives in PDV, which offered a new approach. Ultimately human formation aims to foster the growth of a man who will be an apt instrument of Christ’s grace in his priesthood, one who takes seriously celibacy, obedience, and simplicity of life. Formation for celibacy is to be aimed toward an affective maturity – the ability to live a true and responsible love.” Characteristics to be developed in seminary are “emotional maturity, with the personality necessary for priestly ministry in the contemporary Church, integrity in all actions and relationships, moral conscience that values the dignity of each person and is manifested in admirable moral behavior, credible public witnesses responsible for themselves and others in the exercise of ministry, and capacity for friendships and priestly fraternity to assist in formation and in future ministry. An open, ecumenical, and collaborative approach: flexibility of spirit that is able to make adjustments for new and unexpected circumstances; availability to those who serve and those who are served; zeal (an ardent desire) to bring all people closer to the Lord. Desirable personal qualities to foster are: “a spirit of collaboration, a sense of responsibility for initiating and completing tasks and an ability to facilitate resolution of conflict.” Formation for priestly ministry is being focused more on the primary responsibilities of priests: proclamation of the Word with an emphasis on homiletics; effective public ministry by acquisition and practice of certain skills, e.g., communicating the mysteries of faith in clear and readily comprehensible language, using media appropriately, and taking into consideration the social context.
Sr. Katarina offered these areas for further development in seminary formation: Acquire a balanced and realistic view of the church and her members; develop a more thorough understanding of the impact of secular society and culture; and, increase authentic collaboration and mutual appreciation among all those who minister.
Topics relevant to an accurate perception and understanding of the state of ministry: The realities of the present day and what changes are ongoing or likely to affect ministry in the future; strength of Catholic identity and reasons for decline in church attendance in recent years; uniting and polarizing factors that exists among parishioners, priests, and lay ministers; the strengths and shortcomings of parish staffing, and shifts that have taken place recently, as well as the degree of openness to new relationships and new ministries of staff.
Seminary faculty and students must be aware of: the number and proportion of Catholics in the diocese or area of ministerial responsibility; reasons for population growth or decline, for example, new immigrants arriving, or an aging population with few younger people remaining; the nature of diversity – ethnic, racial, educational, economic, level of commitment and enthusiasm; and, liturgical and spiritual preferences and ability to understand the local language, especially for worship.
“Future priests and lay ministers need to become more aware of and taught the knowledge, skills, and attitudes essential for authentic collaboration and mutual appreciation at all levels. Collaborative relationships must be developed between older and younger priests, and among those who are ordained as priests and deacons with each other and with lay ecclesial ministers. Parishioners must be welcomed into active partnership by expanding opportunities for involvement in essential ministries in parishes and local communities.”
Ongoing formation should be provided for all who are engaged in ministry in order to: better relate to the situation of Church, understand the influences of secular culture, and enhance the practice of engaging in effective collaborative ministry. “This formation is required for growth in the path toward maturity and is also needed in the exercise of priestly ministry. It is urgent today because of rapid changes in the social and cultural conditions and also because of the new evangelization, an essential and pressing task of the Church” (PDV #70).
For seminaries Sr. Katarina recommends: “Review of all formation programs with the goal of gaining a clear understanding of the Church as it exists at present; growth in knowledge about the impact of secular culture on religion and determine how it should influence formation for ministry; teaching future priests and lay ministers to engage in authentic collaboration and mutual appreciation; honestly appraising what has alienated so many Catholics from the faith of their birth and find ways to change the pattern; and, periodically reviewing the prescribed curricula of college, pre-theology, and theology programs, identifying pastoral implications in every course.
“I cannot over-emphasize the important role of missionary priests coming to the U.S. and our need to welcome them, help them enculturate into the U.S. church, recognizing and respecting the rich cultural heritage and apostolic zeal they bring with them, an identity as missionary disciples intimately woven into their very soul.” This was the challenge presented to the assembly in a talk titled, “A Band of Joyful Missionary Disciples: International Priests Serving Our Multi-Cultural Church,” presented by the Most Rev. Jose Arturo Cepeda Escobedo, S.T.L., S.T.D., auxiliary bishop of Detroit and Episcopal Liaison to the NFPC.
Bishop Cepeda recounted the long pre-revolutionary history of priests from foreign countries coming to the U.S., from the Jesuits and Franciscans in its early history, to the influx of Irish, German and French-Canadian clergy responding to an appeal by Bishop John Carroll, 1st Bishop of Baltimore to “a want of priests.” In later years, priests followed ethnic populations of their countrymen immigrating to this country. “the top countries sending priests today are India, the Philippines and Nigeria and, most recently from Latin America, mostly Mexico and Colombia.”
“The support of the receiving bishop is essential, the support of the local presbyterate indispensable,” Bishop Cepeda emphasized. “We must take the first step in welcoming them, bridging the divide of coming to a societal and church culture that can be mostly foreign to them. Our outreach must include intercultural programs encompassing understanding of U.S. culture, English comprehension and speech, understanding of our multicultural church and the unique social, political and religious environment of their local diocese, and the encouragement and invitation into the fraternity of local priests.” He quoted Fr. Eugene Hemrick from The Priest, 2010, “Prudence dictates that we must be brpther among brothers, not big brother!” Bishop Cepeda adds, “We must embrace solidarity, putting ourself in the place of the other. Accompaniment is crucial. We must assign mentors to them. We must provide platforms to listen to them. Now is the time for us to proclaim that we are a church of many faces. The role our parishes play in welcoming international priests offers a glimpse of the wonderfully diverse nature of the church.”
In a compelling and deeply insightful talk titled “Reconfiguring Priestly Ministry in Times of Epochal Change,” Fr. Allen Figueroa Deck, S.J., PH.D., S.T.D. provided “a context and interpretive framework that may encourage us to enter into long avoided, nitty-gritty conversations about what the Holy Spirit has in mind: the what and how of the ministerial priesthood in flux moving forward.” Fr. Figueroa Deck is Rector of the Jesuit Community and Distinguished Scholar of Pastoral Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He holds doctoral degrees in Missiology and in Latin American Studies.
Fr. Deck notes, “Can anyone deny that ‘something has got to give’ in the face of new opportunities and challenges? Is there any doubt that while holding fast to what is solid in our ecclesial tradition, today’s priests must embrace new realities? In addition, we priests must step up to the challenge of leadership that is inherent in our magnificent and humble calling. This means bringing the tradition forward with fidelity, creativity and apostolic boldness (parrhesia) rather than retreating into little niches, comfort zones or nostalgia. Much of what the Church in our times desires to be and become hinges on the ability of priestly ministers to channel and facilitate the reforms which have been proposed and urged upon us by successive ecclesial authorities for half a century now.”
He references the challenge of Pope Francis to embrace a “missionary option,” “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity at every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.” (Evangelii Gaudium)
He reiterates the ‘elephant in the living room’ that Francis continues to challenge: the sin of clericalism. Fr. Figueroa Deck suggests that, rather than scolding priests and bishops on this, is to invite clergy into a regular examen of consciousness focused on the fundamental importance of working on ongoing conversion or change out of “an ever-deepening sense of gratitude, joy and consolation, and not out of guilt, shame, or spiritual desolation.”
Fr. Deck reminds us that Pope Francis is calling us to retrieve the missiological character of our baptismal and priestly vocation. “This means really owning the Church’s decisive turn toward evangelization – outreach, “going out.” “This constitutes a clear and unrelenting affirmation of the urgency of change, change in tone, in mood and in focus regarding how the Church and her pastoral agents, priestly and lay, think about themselves, conceive of their roles, and pursue their activities. I call this transformation a reconfiguration, that is, a rearrangement of priestly ministry in ways that allow it to function more fluidly, flexibly, and effectively in and for an evangelizing Church.” In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis calls us to pastoral conversion “which is a clarion call to reconsider our image of priesthood in terms that go way beyond gatekeeping, niches, and the cursus honoris, to really embrace the radical call to “going out,” to missionary outreach and engagement with the world first as it is and only second as it should be.”
He cautions against seeing the priesthood as a niche to be occupied where we limit our job descriptions, holding to what we will and what we won’t do in ministry. This calls for “rolling up our sleeves” to actively find and enable coworkers: laity, deacons and religious. It calls us to “a generous desire to take up initiatives and engage new situations, challenges and opportunities, to embrace Pope Francis’ notion of the church as “field hospital,” hardly a static territorial silo, but a place permanently adaptive and mobile.
“We must recognize the need for new expressions and methods in the way priesthood is lived beyond the structural confines of territorial parishes or even dioceses. The rise of social media, rising human mobility, globalization of various kinds as well as pluralism and diversity demand a priesthood that is anything but rigid or shackled to one paradigm, model of outreach, to one instrument of evangelization. The parish can exist in different ways and be quite effective. But the times require a more flexible and wider range of ministries, differentiated outreach that parishes often cannot deliver.”
Our identity as Church must be a dynamic commitment to missionary outreach not proselytism, to engagement with all cultures including the contemporary cultures of secularity, modernity, postmodernity and beyond. The late systematic theologian David Powers makes the simple but profound point that the Church asks us to conceive of everything including ministry and hierarchy (order and structures) in terms of mission. “Mission accordingly must come first if, indeed, the Church’s identity and purpose are to prolong and incarnate God’s initial, loving outreach (mission) which took place first of all in creation and continues now in redemption, in time and in history.”
Within this context of mission, Fr. Figueroa Deck contends, the pursuit of the equality for women is particularly dramatic. “The radical equality of women will require opening up more roles of leadership for women, inclusion in Church governance, in seminary formation, and a more credible recognition of women’s roles in Church and society.” He also highlights the central importance of lay ecclesial ministries in the U.S.
Quoting Fr. Lou Cameli, he challenges us in our mission focus “to evangelize secular culture but also allow ourselves in some ways to be evangelized by it.” Cameli insists that the whole Church and we priests as ecclesial leaders will be challenged to foster a spirituality of discipleship and accompaniment that requires openness to the other in a world of secularity and pluralism. In line with this, Pope Francis pleads for the development of a capacity for discernment in seminarians and clergy whereby we will be equipped to help God’s people freely exercise their consciences rather than try to resolve consciences for them.
Also essential in our understanding and ongoing conversion is to develop our priestly function of connecting or bridging diversity and differences, the creation of a communion of people “in which differences and diversity are not suppressed by the misguided tendency to favor conformity, but rather find ways to co-exist in a deeper harmony.” “The church in its entirety must become more and more expert in cultures, that is, in the ways of feeling, being, thinking, and acting of people. Culture is accordingly focused on the core of our humanity, on what makes people real human beings. The Church and we priests at the forefront of its outreach must also be “experts in humanity.” To become expert in humanity requires, on the one hand, affective maturity on our part and on the other the ability to engage others, especially the faithful, but also humanity in general.
Fr. Deck concludes by saying, “The success of our priestly mission depends on our ability to recruit, form and enable growing numbers of the faithful to reach out to others whom we would never be able to reach out to ourselves. Consequently, we must increasingly think of our priesthood in terms of the one baptismal vocation in correlation with the common priesthood of all the faithful.”
The afternoon session offered an inspirational reflection by Fr. Don Wolf, priest of Okalahoma City and a former NFPC chair, on his priest/friend Fr. Stanley Rother, a missionary and recognized martyr of the church. Recounting Fr. Rother’s early beginnings in Okarche, OK, a small town of 800 families, Fr. Wolf highlighted his problems in seminary, finally being ordained from Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in 1963. Fr. Rother served 5 assignments from 1964 to 1974, mainly because of priests leaving the priesthood.
In the mid-60’s, Oklahoma City established a missionary outreach to Santiago Atitlan in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, to minister among the native peoples. The church there had been built in 1597 by the Dominicans, but there had been no ordained priest there in 100 years. The Oklahoa mission was comprised of a pastor, 2 associates, religious sisters, Vista and papal volunteers. Stan went there in 1968. He was unique in a number of ways that were helpful as a mechanic, electrician, carpenter and general handyman, as a very down to earth working man that people could relate to, and he was the only member of the group to be able to learn the native language fluently.
By 1973 all of the mission priests left the priesthood and Stan remained. In 1973 there was also a growing guerilla insurgency against the oppressive government supported by the U.S. In 1979 government troops occupied the town to counter the insurgency. At the same time Fr. Stan was helping the people form a weaving co-op; seeing the co-op as an organized threat to outside vendors of Mayan goods, they murdered everyone who was a part of it.
The government continued to counter any organized or educational activity, murdering, sequestrating, torturing and kidnapping people. Besides other leaders, a number of parishioners trained in Catholic Action were also killed. Fr. Stan was often asked to help find the bodies of those who had been taken, searching morgues, ditches and other areas. In February 1981, he was informed by an associate that he was on a government death list. He returned to Oklahoma in May, ’81 to attend Fr. Wolf’s ordination. He returned to Guatemala in late May, telling his bishop that the shepherd could not abandon his sheep.
When people would ask him what they should do if he was taken or killed, he told them, “Go to the Church, light the Easter candle and sing Alleluias.” On July 28th, government officials broke into the rectory and found his room, broke down the door and shot and murdered Fr. Stan. He had put up a fight, mainly because he did not want to be kidnapped and tortured for information that would harm his people.
On the 25th anniversary of his death, the cause for sainthood was opened. On September 23, 2017, in Oklahoma City, Fr. Stan Rother was beatified as saint and martyr. Although Fr. Stan’s body was buried in Oklahoma, his family gave permission to have his heart stay in Santiago Atitlan. Fr. Wolf concluded by reflecting that Fr. Stan’s legacy was ‘a life given away in service before it was given in blood.’
Tuesday evening the Conference attendees participated in a Mass presided over by Bishop George Rassas, retiring Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The group then gathered on the downtown campus of Loyola University for the annual awards dinner. The 2018 NFPC Touchstone Award, presented to the priest who, in his leadership enhances the ministry of others and his words and deeds support the life and ministry of priests, whose service in the Gospel of Jesus Christ exemplifies the purpose and goals of the Federation, was presented to Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. Fr. Rosica holds degrees in Theology and sacred Scripture from Rehgis College in the University of Toronto, the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. He is the founding Chief Executive Officer of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, has served as Media Attaché at four Synods of Bishops, and as English language Media Attaché to the Holy See Press Office from 2008 – 2016. He has led many retreats for bishops, priests and women religious, has authored hundreds of articles on Scriptural and ecclesial themes, and is author of several books on Scripture, Spirituality and the Saints.
In his acceptance speech, Fr. Rosica extols “the only revolution that Pope Francis has ever spoken of that is found in his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” (Evangelii Gaudium #88): “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”
He continues: “I believe that the second revolution Pope Francis has inaugurated is the revolution of normalcy. What he is doing is normal human, Christian behavior. Tenderness and normalcy are the revolutions at the heart and soul of Pope Francis’ ministry. I firmly believe that we are living a moment of kairos in the contemporary Church, – the appointed time and hour, when the Gospel story is unfolding before us in technicolor 4K and dolby sound in the life of Pope Francis. This Bishop of Rome demands a lot while preaching about a God of mercy, by engaging joyfully with nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and those sitting on the fences of life – many who thought that Christianity has nothing left to add to the equations of life. We need the Francis revolution of tenderness, mercy and normalcy now more than ever before. Let us pray for one another, encourage one another and befriend one another in this great mission of being agents of salt and light, joy and hope, mercy and reconciliation, dialogue and peace for the Church and for the world.”
The NFPC Mandatum Award recognized the dedicated ministry, work and witness of Mr. Alan Szafraniec. Alan has been an invaluable asset to the NFPC, an important reference person to many dioceses and Catholic organizations. His developed connections with Catholic personalities across the U.S. have also been invaluable to the NFPC’s work in support of the U.S. presbyterate. From editing various publications such as Touchstone and NFPC’s commissioned studies to compiling and editing the weekly digital e-letter, NFPC This Week, Alan’s ministry truly has made God accessible through his presence, his warmth, his passion and dedication. Most appropriately, Alan became known as the “history and the heart of the NFPC.”
On Wednesday morning, in the final President’s Address of his tenure, Fr. Tony Cutcher, a priest of the Diocese of Cincinnati, highlighted the ongoing challenges of the NFPC. “We continue to do what we have done in service to our mission: programs and publications, most recently the National Directory of Salaries of Priests and Laity (in partnership with NACPA and CARA), and our annual publication on Income Tax for Clergy.” Fr. Cutcher, despite running a parish, has kept constant contact with bishops or their gatekeepers, done 12 different radio interviews in the past 7 months, and responded to questions from the Chicago office. On an ongoing basis, NFPC continues to encourage dioceses and priests to reach out if they are in need of advice/information on particular issues, and we send an email to members to offer their wisdom. “Unfortunately,” Fr. Cutcher said, “dioceses often see us as a purveyor of goods and services – and we are more than that! Our value is mostly in our communication, which is meant to be two-way. He also added that Touchstone is sent by mail to all priests every 4 months. He encouraged priests to sign up for NFPC This Week on the website.
He also lamented the little voice that NFPC has with the USCCB, being one of 12 organizations that gets to present a one-page summary of activities/thoughts at Committee meetings, the result of budgetary cuts and downsizing at the conference a few years ago. He also commented that Plenary Sessions of the USCCB are now broadcast on television and as a result have become scripted.
Fr. Stan Mader, Chairman of the NFPC Board, invited the attendees to offer thanks to Fr. Cutcher for his 7 years of dedicated and exemplary service to presbyterates, priests and the ongoing work of the NFPC.
In preparation for this discussion of developing a plan for the future, the Board met in February with the former NFPC chairs. The suggestion was to do a year of discernment, including meeting to engage the insights and imagination of 25 bishops. The Presidential search surfaced 5 candidates who ultimately could not commit to take on the role. And the other reality is that finances dictate that we cannot hire a full-time President. There are efforts to surface granting foundations who would support our mission.
The Finance report was presented by Board Treasurer Fr. Richard Vega and Mr. Terry Oldes, Business Director. The report was approved unanimously. Fr. Vega added that, in light of decreasing numbers of member dioceses, they will be formulating a new financial plan.
The priests were then invited into a forum on the state of the Presbyterate and the Future of NFPC. Table discussions were to focus on one of these two areas.
Some of the challenges surfacing from table discussions were:
- Getting people to see themselves as part of a greater church, that the mission has a church, and not the other way around.
- Adapting to the growing multicultural and intercultural nature of the U.S. church; acknowledging and developing the knowledge, attitudes and skills needed.
- Helping some priests move from prince to presbyter, from lone ranger or hired hand to co-shepherd.
- Developing the fullness of the baptismal identity we share with our people, as priest, prophet and king.
- Continuing to address the ongoing effects of the priest sexual abuse scandal, taking the wisdom we have cultivated, applying it to the greater culture where child and youth sexual abuse is 2.7 times that of adult sexual abuse, and preparing our pastoral staffs to create safe spaces for adult victims to reach out for help.
- Bishops who are not prophetic or relational.
- Mental and physical health, discernment and spiritual formation of seminarians.
- Councils needing to prioritize and provide in regard to care for the People of God, especially those on the peripheries.
- Addressing the deep wounds that afflict all of U.S. society: racism, sexism, domestic violence, child and youth sexual abuse, rampant individualism, and growing social isolation, despite the myth that technology has brought us closer together. and,
- Developing a vision for the future role of the NFPC.
In the final presentation of the Conference on Thursday morning, “The One and the Many: Priests and the Local Presbyterate,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, S.L.D., began by presenting a historical perspective of the tumultuous year of 1968. “The Catholic Church was still busy attempting to enact the reforms of the Second Vatican Council – and not without more than a few difficulties. The issuance of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in that same year brought widespread and strong public reactions – both pro and con from numerous clergy and laity.”
1968 was also the year that the National Federation of Priests’ Councils was formed. While some bishops and more than a few priests may have looked with some suspicion and hesitation on this new organization, the good fraternity and ministerial dialogue that NFPC has accomplished during the past half-century have long ago rendered those suspicions and fears as unwarranted. He noted that “The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus was also established in 1968 for many of the very same reasons as the NFPC – bringing priests together for support and fraternity. The National Black Clergy Council was born of the fruits of the Civil Rights Movement and the increased importance of Black cultural identity.”
Archbishop Gregory noted, “Presbyteral councils have developed during the past half century since the Second Vatican Council and turned those bodies into indispensable vehicles of consultation, encounters and sources of ongoing dialogue between not only the bishop and his priests but equally important they have become a rich opportunity for fraternal sharing among priests within a local Church.”
At the same time, he highlights that the social issues have not changed much over the last 50 years: the American original sin of racism still persists; wars continue to be waged across the planet; our penal institutions are currently overflowing with inmates disproportionately representing people of color, the majority of whom are young people; widespread impoverishment, in spite of having been specifically targeted by an aggressive War on Poverty is still prevalent and seemingly intractable. “We who are the priests today observing a 50th Anniversary of the establishment of structures begun in 1968 must take up the task of working to improve these persistent injustices – much like our predecessors did so courageously 50 years ago. Maybe what these enduring unfinished concerns indicate is that the task of converting the human heart is never achieved definitively by any single generation but that it remains an on-going challenge that we all must eventually face in each generation.”
“Today’s priestly formation programs should better prepare our candidates to witness to the Gospel mandates of charity and justice. Pope Francis certainly has called upon the entire Church to provide such witnesses – especially through the lives of those called to public ministry. Seminary formation today must include training our candidates to see the world and its troubles as an exciting and compelling field for gathering in a harvest of justice. The Church’s social justice teachings must be included in seminary formation.”
“At the same time,” he adds, “organizations like NFPC must include fostering a spirit of unity and fraternity within the presbyterate of a local Church – a goal that I believe the founders of this structure also saw as important. This includes welcoming. embracing and accompanying the growing number of international priests.”
In closing, he tells us, “A healthy presbyterate should take pride in its unity, in its fraternity, and because of its successes in pastoral mission. Yet we can never do so at the expense of our friendship with and our respect for all other members of the Church. Clergy and laity are meant to work together for the building up of the Body of Christ. There are many people who now serve the Church in a wide variety of professional and indispensable ways. We priests must first consider how our ordained service fits within that circle of the faith life of a community and how we are enriched in our priesthood by working collaboratively with our lay and religious colleagues in ministry.”
The 2019 NFPC Convocation will be held in Oklahoma City, OK from April 29 – May 2, 2019. All priests from across the United States are welcome to attend as NFPC enters its 51st year.