In the 1950s and 60s, high school and college seminaries were packed with boys and young men, 14-22, wearing cassocks, smoking cigarettes, and trying to grow up within structures permitted by priests charged with forming them to become clerics. As one of them recalls: “They treated us like boys, dressed us like girls, and expected us to act like men. They isolated us from the world and sent us to conduct complex social systems within churches, schools, and neighborhoods.”
They were indoctrinated into a clerical culture that has experienced pendulum swings from then till now. There aren’t many high school boarding facilities remaining, and the few college seminaries—realizing that many candidates for priesthood join after earning a college degree—have widened their curricula; but there, and in our graduate-level seminaries today, indoctrination and clerical culture still exists. I am personally blessed by many aspects of my seminary training, especially the habit of prayer that was instilled in me and the introspective aspects of formation that help me and many former seminarians gain self-awareness, self-understanding, and (hopefully) self-betterment. For these benefits, I am immensely grateful.
Like many of you, I do not understand the peripheral things advocated by many young priests: wearing cassocks, saying Mass in Latin, turning their backs on congregations, or obsessing over orthodoxy. We’ve probably all heard stories about young priests spooked by their own sexuality who routinely lambaste the LGBT community from pulpits, others who refuse to give communion to family members at funerals and weddings because they are in illicit or invalid marriages while the priest is engaged in his own sexual affair, others who won’t permit women or girls into the altar area or into ministries because of their gender… Most of us, including the pope, have grown tired of this kind of clericalism that is tolerated by some bishops and encouraged by some Catholics.
The Ad Orientem posture (turning one’s back to the congregation) may have a noble and dignified place in worship as the leader in prayer lifts his arms and speaks to God on behalf of all gathered; yet since the Vatican II Council, we have come to know the value of not just pointing to God out there but also to God in our midst. Similarly, liturgical Latin and cassocks served a place in history as official language and ancient wardrobe but do not seem relevant today. There are numerous theories as to why guys are attracted to them. A high percentage of priests ordained in this young century were home-schooled and/or come from households that hold to rigid ideologies; a significant percentage also come from unstable households in which parents were married multiple times. Many of these priests crave structure and they administer unbending order. Yet many of them are quickly disappointed and leave active ministry within their first ten years of priesthood; they join a religious community for a while, take a sabbatical, fall in love for the first time and marry, or do uncharacteristic or shocking acts that destroy them and devastate others. Some are not equipped to deal with the chaos of life—theirs or those they serve, and some, after realizing that they are imperfect according to standards set by church or parents, hate themselves. Still others build psychological walls to shelter and self-protect, much as the corporate church has habitually protected itself.
The church is not the only organism with negative subcultures within its structures. In my college fraternity there was hazing and pillaging, drinking to excess and seeking conquests of various forms. In business, there are endless stories of young entrepreneurs employing nefarious tactics to outpace competition. Most of us grow from, and grow out of, such antithetical behavior, leaving it in the past, like smoking and sexism. Hopefully, young priests will grow out of the clerical subculture which sometimes overlaps with the subculture of social awkwardness and/or sexual confusion, and sometimes manifests in turning away from people or hiding deep-seated issues in language or appearance or orthodoxy. Jesus was as unorthodox as they come; it drove the rigid religious leaders of His time crazy. I pray that all of us can help our church move to a healthier place in imitation of Christ for the sake of those who follow us.