The piece picks up on the interesting matter of the generational differences which exist between today's young clergy and seminarians (and laity as well of course) and those older generations.
In the course of the piece, it picks up on some interesting themes.
On many occasions, I have spoken about generations: about my own, about the one before me, about the future generations. This is, for me, the crucial point of the present situation. Of course, the passage from one generation to another has always posed adjustment problems, but the one we are living through now is absolutely exceptional.
The theme of secularization should help us to understand better, even here. This secularization saw unprecedented acceleration during the 1960's. For the men of my generation, and even more for those who preceded me, who were often born and raised in a Christian environment, it constituted an essential discovery, the great adventure of their lives. They therefore came to interpret the "openness to the world" called for by Vatican Council II as a conversion to secularization.
In this way, in fact, we have experienced or even fostered an extremely powerful self-secularization in most of the Western Churches.
The examples are many. Believers are ready to exert themselves in the service of peace, justice, and humanitarian causes, but do they believe in eternal life? Our Churches have carried out an immense effort to renew catechesis, but does not this catechesis itself tend to overlook the ultimate realities? For the most part, our Churches have embarked upon the ethical debates of the moment, at the urging of public opinion, but how much do they talk about sin, grace, and the divinized life? Our Churches have successfully deployed massive resources in order to improve the participation of the faithful in the liturgy, but has not the liturgy for the most part lost the sense of the sacred? Can anyone deny that our generation, possibly without realizing it, dreamed of a "Church of the pure," a faith purified of any religious manifestation, warning against any manifestation of popular devotion like processions, pilgrimages, etc.?
The collision with the secularization of our societies has profoundly transformed our Churches. We could advance the hypothesis that we have passed from a Church of "belonging," in which the faith was determined by the community of birth, to a Church of "conviction," in which the faith is defined as a personal and courageous choice, often in opposition with the group of origin. This passage has been accompanied by startling numeric variations. Attendance has visibly diminished in the churches, in the courses of catechesis, but also in the seminaries. Years ago, Cardinal Lustiger nonetheless demonstrated, setting out the figures, that in France the relationship between the number of priests and that of practicing Catholics had always remained the same.
The difficulty to which I would like to draw your attention therefore goes beyond the boundaries of a simple generational conflict. My generation, I insist, has equated openness to the world with conversion to secularization, and has experienced a certain fascination regarding it. But although the younger men were born in secularization as their natural environment and drank it together with their mother's milk, they still seek to distance themselves from it, and defend their identity and their differences.
There now exists within the European Churches, and perhaps within the American Church as well, a line of division, sometimes of fracture, between a current of "composition" and a current of "contestation."
The first leads us to observe that secularization includes values with a strong Christian influence, like equality, freedom, solidarity, responsibility, and that it should be possible to come to terms with this current and identify areas of cooperation.
The second current, on the contrary, calls for keeping distance. It maintains that the differences or points of opposition, above all in the field of ethics, will become increasingly pronounced. It therefore proposes an alternative to the dominant model, and accepts the minority opposition role.
The first current emerged mainly during the period following the council; it provided the ideological framework for the interpretations of Vatican II that were imposed at the end of the 1960's and in the following decade.
Things were reversed beginning in the 1980's, above all - but not exclusively - under the influence of John Paul II. The current of "composition" has aged, but its proponents still hold key positions in the Church. The current of the alternative model has become much stronger, but it has not yet become dominant. This would explain the tensions at the moment in many of the Churches on our continent.
It would not be difficult for me to provide examples illustrating the contrast I have just described.
Today the Catholic universities fall along this dividing line. Some of them play the card of adaptation and cooperation with secularized society, at the cost of finding themselves forced to take a critical distance from this or that aspect of Catholic doctrine or morality. Others, of more recent inspiration, emphasize the confession of the faith and active participation in evangelization. The same applies to the Catholic schools.
And the same could be said, to return to the topic of this meeting, in regard to the typical profile of those who knock on the doors of our seminaries or religious houses.
Candidates of the first tendency have become increasingly rare, to the great displeasure of the priests of the older generations. The candidates of the second tendency have now become more numerous than the others, but they hesitate to cross the threshold of our seminaries, because often they do not find what they are looking for there.
They are concerned about identity (and are sometimes mockingly described as "identitarians"): the Christian identity - how should we distinguish ourselves from those who do not share our faith? - and the identity of the priest, while the identity of the monk and the religious is easier to perceive.
How can harmony be fostered between educators, who often belong to the first current, and the young people who identify with the second? Will the educators continue to cling to criteria of admission and selection that date back to their own time, but no longer correspond to the aspirations of the young? I was told the story of a French seminary in which adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament had been banned for a good twenty years or so, because it was seen as too devotional: the new seminarians had to struggle for a number of years to have it reinstated, while some of the professors preferred to resign in the face of something that they judged as a "return to the past"; by giving in to the requests of the younger men, they had the impression that they were renouncing what they had fought for their entire lives.
In the dioceses in which I have been bishop, I have experienced similar difficulties when older priests - or even whole parish communities - have had great difficulty in responding to the aspirations of the young priests who were sent to them.
The full piece is available on Chiesa.