Archbishop Wilton Gregory

1968 proved itself to have been an incredibly heartbreaking year in so many different ways.  It was the year of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  The Viet Nam war raged on at that moment in history seemingly with no end in sight. American cities erupted in violent protests over a number of societal troubles. Our USA political system fractured into extreme positions not unlike the situation at the present moment.

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 indeed a tumultuous year.

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.

Presbyteral Councils were themselves a product of the Second Vatican Council taking their original mandate from the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis No. 7.  These same 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.

The NFPC was not the only such ministerial association that traces its beginning back to 1968.  The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus was also established in 1968 for many of the very aforementioned reasons – 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.  These twin structures began in 1968 and they shared many common values and intents.

A lot of the very same societal issues that dominated the evening news broadcasts in our nation throughout 1968 and many still continue to hold us captive 50 years later but now made more intense through the incessant and overwhelming presence of cyberspace and the Internet.  In 1968, we usually had to wait for the morning paper or the evening news to find out what was going on in our world.  Today, that news comes unfiltered and immediately throughout the entire day.

The civil rights movement was in full gear in 1968 but because the scourge of racism always manages to die a slow and protracted death as we can continue to attest today because too many of its goals are still unfulfilled.  As the evening news then aired the horrible events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge so now our social media recently broadcasted the events on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, the human carnage at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, the horror at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, the violence at Sandy Hook and at Parkside High School letting us all know that too much work still needs to be achieved to establish lasting societal and racial harmony and justice and to achieve community safety even within our own classrooms.

International hostilities in 1968 then as today continue to frustrate our longed-for-desire for an era of harmony and security.  We no longer now listen to the broadcasting of the foreign names of Vietnamese towns and villages but we nowadays listen to the equally difficult to pronounce names of Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni communities.

We continue to add to the names of the people who now come to our country seeking asylum and opportunity for their families and for themselves like so many other immigrant peoples before them.  We no longer speak of the Viet Cong but of the Boko Haram and the Taliban as enemy combatants.  Names may change but the international battles and wars always seem to endure.

In a collection of the writings and speeches of the first Archbishop of Atlanta, Paul J. Hallinan [Days of Hope and Promise: Liturgical Press, 1972] revealed a haunting similarity between the issues that he faced in Atlanta 50 years ago, that remain active concerns for me today as his successor. A recent 50-year reflection on the findings from the 1968 Kerner Report confirms the sad reality that many collective social injustices have not greatly improved over the past half-century and in some situations, a few may have even grown worse.

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.

We cannot lose heart because so little seems to have been accomplished by the giants of a generation ago, but we must not deny nor forget the tasks that still lie ahead now for us.  One of these tasks is the strengthening of the bonds that unite a local Presbyterate into a fraternity of servant ministers. 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.

The Social Challenges of 1968 and 2018

While we can and should look back on our predecessors with profound respect, admiration and perhaps even with a touch of envy, we must also rededicate ourselves to the same responsibilities of pastoring our people with a full portion of the courage, wisdom, and determination that energized those pioneer founders of those twin priestly associations.  Rather than to grow disheartened because the triumphs from the past may not have been solidified as today’s successes, we need to take up those tasks that we might have hoped had already been completed as our personal responsibility today.

The names and the voices of yesterday’s racists have changed, but not their message.  The people who turned firehoses and unleased attack dogs on protestors and who stood in defiance at the doors of state universities to prohibit the entrance of students of color have now been replaced by their successors in spewing the same hostile rhetoric in different places but with the same degrading intent.  Hatred and bigotry always seem to manage to transition into a new environment with their venom undiluted.  Fortunately, there are still people of faith and courage who confront such hatred.  I proudly recognize the witness of the people of Newnan, Georgia in the Archdiocese of Atlanta who stood strong together last Saturday in the face of a public display of hatred who came to that otherwise quiet Georgia community to display their racial animosity and fanaticism.

As a young man growing up here in Chicago during those turbulent times, I along with countless others had hoped that the courage and the determination of those whose pastoral leadership responded eloquently to such violence and injustice would have dismissed such behavior once and for all.  Alas, those hopes have not been fulfilled. 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we still find ourselves confronting many of the barriers to equality and justice for which he gave such a powerful witness along with so many other brave souls.  Now it is our time and our responsibility to carry on that legacy.

The eyes of cameras that once captured the too brazen brutality and frequent violence of a half-century ago can now be worn on the uniforms of public servants who occasionally continue the violence against unarmed people much like that which others suffered in 1968.

Several weeks ago, as I participated at some local events that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, I frequently heard and now must personally confirm that many of the very same issues that the pioneers of Civil Rights confronted a half-century ago, still remain unresolved – and indeed may only have increased in the intervening decades.  There is even now racism – more subtle perhaps – but no less degrading that separates us from one another.  There is unabashed economic injustice from which certain classes can never fully escape.  There is violence that now engulfs even our own children in the sanctity of their classrooms as well as on too many battlefields across the globe.  We continue to find reasons to discriminate – some of which may have been little detected 50 years ago – wage discrimination that separates the genders who may be performing the very same work but receiving unequal compensation, the brutality that an individual’s sexual orientation often fosters and justifies, and the current wave of nativism that throughout USA history has constantly managed to changes its attire but not its vitriol.

50 years ago, our bold pioneers who worked for the alleviation of such social injustices often did so in isolation.  Many of those priests who aligned themselves with the social movements that were in full swing 50 years ago were then seen as mavericks and rebels because they were brave enough to speak up and to challenge the prevailing systems and structures.

I have been fortunate enough to have known a few of those heroes who represented the Catholic Church with such great distinction during those days of social conflicts.  They often stood alone or felt isolated in their courageous witness against social injustices.  We have similar courageous witnesses today who often face the same hostile stares and taunts.  A Presbyterate ought to stand with those members who represent us so courageously.  Even if we as individuals are not on the front line, we ought to stand behind those who are.  They should never doubt our support and admiration.

These men who were formed in a seminary environment prior to 1968 that only perhaps occasionally suggested such counter-cultural behavior as befitting a man preparing for Ordination.  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.

While we all may continue to admire the courage of those who led the Church pastorally 50 years ago, we must help to prepare the hearts of those who will assume leadership in the next half century. 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.

We priests and bishops today must also see ourselves engaged in a collaborative presbyteral ministry that needs all types of personalities and ecclesial perspectives to fulfill Christ’s mission.  In short, the work of 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.


The Gifts and the Challenge of International Priests

Nevertheless, things are different today in almost every diocese than they might have been 50 years ago.  We are now all much more international in our identity and composition – and that is a blessing for everyone.  Local churches have always had different groups of priests within the presbyterate – religious order priests whose mission might have included education, hospital chaplaincy, the administration of their community’s needs, Newman chaplaincy, prison ministry and a host of other equally important tasks within a given diocese. These fine ministers joined the diocesan clergy in forming a wonderful bulwark of priestly service in a local Church.


50 years ago, there certainly were priests from other countries that served in the US Church, many of them speaking the languages and following the cultural traditions of the very people that they pastored so well and so zealously.  50 years ago, the Church in the United States was largely a mission-sending community.  Today, we are regularly a mission-receiving church.  As a bishop blessed with a highly diverse presbyterate, I praise God that these wonderful men have come to the Archdiocese of Atlanta to help in serving all of our people.  They have as great and generous a heart as did any their international predecessors


The pastoral service today of our international clergy is not, however, limited just to the people who speak the same language or who follow the customs of our foreign-born clerics – as may have often been the case in the past.  These men generously serve all of our people across many different language groups and ethnic traditions.  Spanish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Korean or Creole may well be their first language, but they now serve people whose first language is English or any of a host of languages other than their own. In short, today’s international cleric is a missionary to the entire diocesan family without exception.

This is also a personal challenge for any diocesan bishop who must strive to fashion a single presbyterate from such a diverse assembly of brothers.  Bishops and priests must work together to form a united priestly fraternity – knowing full well that the members thereof come from many different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.  We must help one another to feel a part of a single assembly of servant ministers.  This is an awesome challenge for all those involved.

Language indeed is a great barrier separating people, but culture is an even greater chasm that must be bridged.   Parish life in the USA is often different than parish life may be in other countries – not necessarily better but clearly different.  Becoming a priest for the people of the United States and a brother to all of the other presbyters in a local Church takes time and humble submission to those tasks on the parts of all concerned.  We bishops must play close attention to the building-up of a true spirit of fraternity, trust and unity among the priests of our dioceses and religious communities.  We must also recognize that our international priests may have divergent experiences of how priests are to relate to one another and engage their parishioners in providing the pastoral service of the People of God.

The laity and in particular lay women are those who breathe life into our parishes and are indispensable partners in the life of the Church in the USA.  The active participation and leadership that our laity provide energize parish life.  This may represent a new reality for some of us – international as well as native clerics as we depend more and more upon these wonderful people in animating our local communities.

50 years ago, we were graced with great numbers of women religious, some pioneer parish secretaries, and a few organizations of men who played an important role perhaps best described as “the pastor’s kitchen cabinet.”  Today every parish has a pastoral council, a finance council, a school or a catechetical board, a fortunate few may have a parish administrator, and many are graced with a phalanx of deacons who share the pastoral life of our communities.  They all deserve our respect and our gratitude.

Pope Francis during the five years of his pontificate has taken a laser-like critical focus on the disease of clericalism that so often puts up barriers between priests and their people.  It sometimes demands that we clerics deserve preferential treatment and privileges.  It regularly fails to recognize the tremendous gifts that the laity offer our communities.  It is always counter to the way that Christ established His Church as a community of servants who choose foot-washing over prestige.  Every cleric is tempted on occasion perhaps to think more highly of himself than he may warrant.  This may be a particular hazard for those who are bishops in today’s Church.

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.  This dynamic is another expression of how the Church must be unified in our outreach to the world that is ours today.  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.

1968 was a trying time – much like the time that we now live in 50 years later.  Let us pray for the courage and determination that marked the lives of the pioneer priests who started the NFPC and other structures to bring unity and vision to the mission of the Church and its priests.  They were models for our current age.  May we become the models for the next generation as well.