PROVIDENCE – Senior and recently ordained priests gathered at Our Lady of Providence Seminary for evening prayer, dinner and to discuss that while the two generations may have differing theological viewpoints, both groups are unified by a great concern for God’s people and love of the church.
The gathering was a result of a September meeting that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and Msgr. Albert Kenney, moderator of the curia, had with Priests for Justice, a group of older clergy who have met regularly for 35 years.
During the conversation, some of the priests informed Bishop Tobin that they really didn’t know many of the younger priests ministering in the diocese. As a result, the bishop asked Msgr. Kenney to organize an event in which members of both groups could gather for prayer, share fellowship and have a discussion about priestly life.
“We wanted to know the younger clergy better, “ began Father Eugene McKenna, pastor emeritus of St. Lucy Church, Middletown.
He added that during the discussion, the senior priests shared some of the highlights and challenges of their ministries and how the Second Vatican Council affected their priesthood and lives.
Father McKenna acknowledged that there are fewer opportunities for younger priests to get to know older clergy. Most parishes no longer have multiple priests living in the rectory, and other than funerals and occasional conferences, there are few occasions to meet.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to be in each other’s presence in an informal way,” he said.
Recognizing that there are differences between older and younger clergy, Father McKenna emphasized that the recently ordained are living and ministering in a different world and facing challenges unlike those faced by clergy ordained 50 years ago or longer.
“We saw the Council as a tremendous gift that charged us up and colored all of our ministries,” Father McKenna remembered. “We hope that the younger priests are finding some excitement in their lives and ministries and they seem to be.”
Newly-ordained Father Christopher Murphy, assistant pastor of St. Thomas More Church, Narragansett, said that despite having different experiences and coming from different cultures, all clergy share a common bond and love for the church.
“At the end of the day, we’re still priests and the priestly fraternity is what unites us,” he said.
Father John Lavin, pastor emeritus of St. Joseph Church, Newport, was ordained in Louvain, Belgium in 1964, and subsequently pursued additional studies in Rome during two sessions of the Second Vatican Council.
“Being in Rome during that experience was so lively,” he recalled, noting that attended many of the bishops’ press conferences when new developments were announced.
Father Lavin said that while younger members of the clergy have different cultural experiences than their older confreres, they share “the same values of the importance of Jesus” in their lives.
“I was very impressed with their sense of ministry and how enthusiastic they are,” Father Lavin said of the many younger priests who attended the priests’ gathering.
He added that he was “deeply impressed” with the younger priests’ spirituality and commitment to prayer.
Father Lavin emphasized that the event allowed clergy of different ages to share experiences and learn about different ministries.
“They are our hope for the future,” Father Lavin said of the recently ordained.
“The problem is we don’t know each other or spend time with each other,” he acknowledged, adding that priests sometimes categorize different groups as “aging liberals” or the “new breed.”
“We all have something to offer each other,” Father Lavin said. “Neither group has all the answers. Perhaps the questions are more important than the answers.”
While many individuals perceive that a generation gap exists between the two groups, Father Lavin believes that is not the case.
“A gap means that we are divided – or opposed,” he said. “I see differences but not a gap.” Father Lavin noted that one difference is that many Vatican II era priests were actively engaged in social ministry, especially outreach to the poor, which he hopes younger priests will continue.
He added that older priests’ approaches to ministry are influenced by years of pastoral wisdom and sensitivity.
“It’s a real gift,” Father Lavin acknowledged.
According to Father Adam Young, assistant pastor of St. Augustine Church, Providence, the event promoted priestly fraternity. Father Young was ordained in 2010.
“We are all priests in the same diocese and it brought us together as brothers,” he said.
Father Young added that the senior priests who attended the event were “joyful and fulfilled” by their long ministries.
“It gave me hope for my own priesthood,” Father Young said.
Father George K. Nixon, assistant pastor of St. Philip Church, Greenville, believes that all generations of clergy share a common concern for God’s people and a love for the church.
“At the heart, we are seeking the salvation of souls, we all want to preach the Gospel but at times we have different perspectives on how to meet that challenge in today’s world,” he emphasized. Father Nixon added that while the different generations of clergy all appreciate the “beautiful and rich traditions of the church,” there can nonetheless be different theological concerns and emphases among the clergy.
But he does not see this as a negative.
“There should be a healthy diversity of opinion and priorities among the clergy. It helps us grow and keeps us from being narrowly attached to our own way of doing things.”
Father Nixon, who was ordained in 2011, said that he has not experienced a disconnect between younger and older generations of priests, “certainly nothing that would not be overcome with honesty and friendly conversation.”
“I think that when we come together, we really love each other,” he remarked, adding that it’s important for priests to have opportunities for dialogue and fellowship.
Noting that younger priests have much to learn from older, more experienced clergy, Father Nixon described Father Francis Santilli, pastor of St. Philip Church, as an “incredible mentor” with whom he has shared many meaningful conversations about the priesthood, prayer, service and the challenges of preaching the Gospel in today’s culture.
Father Murphy emphasized that since they grew up in different time periods, older and younger clergy have unique perspectives on Vatican II yet share an appreciation and love for the documents produced by the Council.
“Following the insights of the Holy Father, we will strive to preserve that hermeneutic of continuity – the church has always preached and defended the same truth and we will continue to do so.
“During our formation, we were formed to love our priestly identity,” Father Murphy said.
Father Cornelius Lynch, who served in South America with the St. James Society, and currently ministers as a chaplain at the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, said that when he was ordained in 1954, the Catholic Church was at its “height” with full churches and many vocations.
The situation is much different for priests being ordained in a modern culture often driven by anti-clericalism and secularism.
“There were two experiences present,” he said of the priests who attending the recent gathering.
“They (younger priests) are experiencing something completely different,” Father Lynch observed. “I sense that they are very open to the church they are ministering to.”