The National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC) was founded in the exciting and often tumultuous days of the late 1960s. The Second Vatican Council, which encouraged all members of the church to participate more fully in the life and mission of the church and called all members to become a more collegial church, ended on December 8, 1965. The Council did not give a detailed outline of the procedures by which the monarchical church was to become a collegial church. That process could only be worked out in a trial-and-error manner. After seemingly endless and frequently difficult meetings, a number of now familiar structures emerged: Bishops’ Conferences, Priests’ Senates and Councils, Parish Councils, and Diocesan Pastoral Councils.
The bishops of the United States already had a national organization, the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC). In 1966, the NCWC was reorganized as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), thus quickly giving the bishops their own new forum for the exchange of ideas, for the establishment of programs and for speaking with a common voice about important questions. In July 2001, the NCCB and USCC (United States Catholic Conference) were combined to form the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) which continues all the work formerly done by the NCCB and USCC.
The priests of the United States, however, had no such precedent and, therefore, needed to break entirely new ground. In 1967, a Committee of Eight was formed to explore the possibility of a national priests’ assembly. The priests who made up the planning group, the so-called Committee of Eight, were all zealous, intelligent and experienced men who had spent a full year in preparing the groundwork for the organization, a year of discussion with equally dedicated priests throughout the country. They felt the need for structures of collegiality and co-responsibility on all levels of the church, as well as among bishops. They were convinced that episcopal collegiality could not be truly effective without presbyteral collegiality. The members of this committee were all Midwesterners: Fathers Thomas Carroll of St. Louis, Kean Cronin of Detroit, Patrick Flood of Milwaukee, John McCaslin of Omaha, James Moudry of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Patrick J. O’Malley of Chicago, James Supple of Dubuque and Kenny Sweeney of Indianapolis.
Within the national and world framework, little more than three years had passed since the close of Vatican II. The atmosphere in American society was heavily charged. This was also reflected in the American practice and mentality of many Catholics within the United States. The resignations of priests from active ministry dramatically increased. Religious sisters and brothers also began to depart from their communities in large numbers. Many parishioners were distressed by the new liturgical changes while others were equally distressed by the slow pace of those changes. Pastors and parish councils were struggling to accept and share new ideas. Bishops and Priests’ Senates were engaged in the same struggle.
As if this turmoil were not enough of a challenge for the fledgling organization, the NFPC almost immediately became involved in a dramatic conflict concerning due process in the church. On July 29, 1968, Pope Paul IV issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception. Some priests of the Archdiocese of Washington quickly stated their objection to the teaching of the encyclical and were just as quickly suspended by the Archbishop of Washington. Since the first Synod of Bishops in 1967 had so recently recommended that the church incorporate greater protection of individual rights into the administrative life of the church, the suspended priests appealed to the NFPC for assistance in obtaining a hearing. The Archbishop of Washington argued that the matter was one of doctrine rather than of discipline and, therefore, not subject to arbitration.
The NFPC agreed to assist the Washington priests and to work for a greater measure of due process for them. But the case lasted for three years and, in fact, threatened its very survival. The NFPC always insisted that its involvement in the case concerned due process and not the challenge to the teaching authority of the papal encyclical.
The relationship between the NFPC and the NCCB was strained in March 1971 when the Federation at its national convention overwhelmingly passed a statement on the priesthood which included advocacy for a change in the Church’s law on mandatory celibacy.
In spite of and perhaps because of these early struggles, the NFPC has had an impressive record of accomplishment. Within its first four years it addressed such issues as the need for personnel boards, continuing education and retirement financing. The National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA), the National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, (NOCERCC), and the Catholic Church Personnel Group Benefit Trust (CCPGBT) were launched. Today these organizations meet the needs of priests nationwide.
Later, the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics (CATH) and the Federation of Returned Overseas Missionaries (FROM) were founded by the Federation. The NFPC, true to the vision of its founding fathers, has sponsored a variety of excellent conferences on topics of specific importance to the life and ministry of priests. In addition, the president of the NFPC is a consultant on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
The NFPC was the first, and for some years, the only national organization of priests in the Catholic Church. But its accomplishments have encouraged priests in other countries to organize their own federations. In 1986, delegates from the national organizations of fifteen countries gathered for the Assembly of Priests’ Representatives of English Speaking Countries at DePaul University. Assemblies of worldwide priests’ representatives continue to flourish and thrive today.
The site of the annual conference is chosen to allow priests from the various regions of the country to collectively gather and discuss issues of importance in the life of the church as well as presbyteral ministry. The convention agenda items range from universal church concerns to church concerns in the United States, as well as issues affecting the life and ministry of priests.
A review of convention (now convocation) themes over the NFPC’s 50-year history also serves to highlight the range of concerns addressed by the Federation:
1969 Due Process (New Orleans)
1970 Shared Responsibility (San Diego)
1971 Ministerial Priesthood (Baltimore)
1972 Peace & Justice (Denver)
1973 Accountability (Detroit)
1974 Hope (San Francisco)
1975 Reconciliation (St. Petersburg)
1976 Ministry: The Ordained in a Ministerial Church (Houston)
1977 Ministry II: New Ministries (Louisville)
1978 NFPC: Past, Present, Future [10th Anniversary] (Seattle)
1979 Ministry-Evangelization-Community (Boston)
1980 Family Ministry & Church Structure (Tucson)
1981 Priest as Person (Memphis)
1982 The Parish: Preparing for the 3rd Millennium (Kansas City KS)
1983 The Word: Its Power to Form Church (Milwaukee)
1984 The Church: Word! Ministry! Sacraments! (San Antonio)
1985 The Pastor in an Age of Challenge (Newark)
1986 Women & Men: Partnership in Ministry (Salt Lake City)
1987 The Economic Pastoral: A New American Challenge (St. Paul)
1988 Into the 1990’s The Call to Priesthood [20th Anniversary] (Louisville)
1989 In the Crosscurrents of Change: Presbyteral Leadership in Transformation (New Orleans)
1990 Gift & Challenge: A Spirituality for Leadership in times of Transition (Los Angeles)
1991 Priesthood: The Prophetic Call To Ministry (Orlando)
1992 Priests and Community: Their Stories, Their Futures (Albuquerque)
1993 At The Crossroads: Reflections on Priesthood and Ministry for the 21st Century (Chicago) [25th Anniversary]
1994 Decisions for the Future: Priestly Ministry for the 21st Century (Williamsburg)
1995 The Priesthood Today: Generous Hearts, Changing Times (San Diego)
1996 Unity Amid Diversity: Pastoral Ministry in an Age of Pluralism (Nashville)
1997 Challenges of Pastoral Leadership in the Church of the Third Millennium (Phoenix)
1998 Standing on Common Ground: Leadership for Ministry in an Age of Renewal (Newark)
1999 From the Many, One Church (San Antonio)
2000 Ministry in a Church of Many Cultures (Oakland)
2001 The Spiritual Renewal of the American Priesthood (Worcester)
2002 The Evangelizing Mission of the Church in the New Millennium (Toronto)
2003 35 Years of Presbyteral Ministry, Serving the People of God (Kansas City, MO)
2004 The Center and Source of Our Call to Mission (Atlanta)
2005 From Generation to Generation (Portland, Oregon)
2006 That You May Be One: The Community of Priests (Minneapolis)
2007 Many Gifts, One Body: Intentional & International Presbyterates (Tampa)
2008 National Ministry Summit (Orlando)
2009 The Parish of Tomorrow – Today! (San Antonio)
2010 The Call to Holiness and Wholeness (Houston)
2011 Pastoral Leadership: One Mind, One Heart, One Spirit (Albuquerque)
2012 The Emerging Church of the 21st Century (Nashville)
2013 All Things Renewed in Christ (Reno)
2014 Renewing the Heart of the Church (Atlanta)
2015 Father, Brother, Son: The Priest in the Family of God (Louisville)
2016 Keeping Up With Pope Francis: Bringing the Message to Parish Life (Indianapolis)
2017 Forging the Future with Pope Francis (Anaheim)
At the 1989 House of Delegates, a new process for identifying priorities of the Federation was introduced. Taking a more proactive and collaborative stance, the House of Delegates adopted a process whereby statements of concern rather than solutions would be identified. These then become part of the agenda of the National Board and are assigned to a committee of the Board for appropriate action.
This was a significant developmental step in the life of the NFPC and it marked a major shift in the working style of the House of Delegates. For 20 years, the NFPC had focused its energies on resolutions. These statements were often controversial and divisive at the member council level. They frequently placed the Federation in a difficult, confrontational stance with respect to positions taken by the NCCB and the Vatican. This new process-oriented approach was considered to be more collaborative in style as well as educational. Similarly, it was designed to call forth more ownership of the issues addressed and positions taken by the Federation on the part of member councils and the individual priests associated with them.
One of the many important benefits of the NFPC was summed up quite well by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin:
While the priests of a local church relate in a special way to their bishop, it is good for them to have a broader forum in which they can exchange ideas. Such an exchange helps to enrich their experience and broaden their perspective. The NFPC provides such a forum. Over the years, the NFPC has been instrumental in assisting and motivating priests to face the challenges of priestly ministry in today’s church in a creative and effective way.
While the Federation has seen an evolution and growth during its history, the NFPC stands today as committed as at its genesis toward the attainment of the following goals:
- to promote priestly unity and fraternity by facilitating communication among priests councils;
- to provide a national forum for priests to discuss pastoral matters;
- to enable priests councils to speak with a common voice;
- to promote and collaborate on programs of pastoral research;
- to further the spiritual renewal of priestly life;
- to collaborate with national groups of religious and laity in ways that will promote the renewal of the church in the United States;
- to collaborate with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in addressing the needs of the church in the United States;
- to encourage and assist priests councils to reflect on and promote justice in light of the social teachings of the church;
- to participate in developing a national and a universal perspective of church and ministry.
The NFPC was and continues to be an organization formed by priests for priests. Yet its vision is much broader than merely the self-interest of the clergy. A concern about all aspects of ministry in the ever-evolving church and society and its service to others formed the basis for the organization and gives credence to its existence today.
A more detailed account of this short history can be found in the archives of the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. Access: archives.nd.edu and follow the prompts.