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Posted September 30, 2004

Book: View from the Altar: Reflections on the Rapidly Changing Catholic Priesthood
Author: Howard P. Bleichner
Cross Roads Publication, New York, pp.222

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

View from the Altar opens a window into the lives of dedicated men of the Church who have repeatedly had to relearn their mot cherished traditions, rituals, and roles.

Fr. Bleichner, a priest, rector, and longtime leader in American priestly formation, has a fresh perspective on the rapid changes of recent decades. Moving beyond the idealistic accounts of flawless priests, and the cynical rehearsal of grievances about the Church, Bleichner uses engaging an memorable vignettes from actual experiences to give us a compassionate, humorous, and ultimately hopeful account of the recent history, and likely future, of real men who dedicate their lives and spirits to the service of the Church.

An Excerpt from the Book:

I wrote this book because I care deeply about the Roman Catholic priesthood. Like other Catholics, I was horrified at and scandalized by the steady stream of stories of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests that began rolling out in January 2002. I was revolted by attempts to hide these incidents, ignore victims and evade responsibility. For me as a priest, horror mixed with shame because I could not separate myself from the perpetrators of such unspeakable deeds. I was joined to them in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. My dismay only grew as I realized that evil deeds done long ago could now be creating new victims, other priests wh may be falsely accused or quickly judged. Evil deeds continue to beget their own kind. Like many bad gifts from the past, they have not ceased giving.

At the same time, I was struck afresh by Rene Girard’s thought that the spirit that raised Jesus from the dead was something new that this world could not produce on its own, a spirit of courage without violence, of courage now mixed with forgiveness. Jesus’s followers never sought to revenge his death. The dying Jesus in Luke’s Gospel gives his disciples the lesson: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

In the same spirit I began this book. I have tried not to apportion blame anew to participants in these events — more to bishops, less to priests, more to the past, lest to the present. There is blame enough to go around and everyone’s cup is filled. Instead, I have tried to say something positive about the priesthood in order to rekindle in priests the highest ideals of their vocation. The hope is to call forth a heroic response at a difficult moment. The tableau about the good shepherd says much about me. In hard times, when many large issues hang in suspension, what is the one positive thing I can do? For me it was to write this book with a little recrimination and rancor as possible in a sea awash with those sentiments. In hard times, this is my own small offering.

My hope is that in time, as the scandals begin to recede, the bishops will convene a new plenary council of Baltimore. But in this age, although a meeting of bishops might be a necessary first step, a truly serious meeting of bishops might be a necessary first step, a truly serious meeting would include some representation of priests, deacons, religious and laity. It would be peculiar if the laity were not included, as if they are invited to oversee the most troubling issue facing the church ---- sexual abuse by priests and complicity by bishops — but are excluded from plans to chart the future.

This is not to introduce the principle of representative democracy into a hierarchical church. Something different is at stake here. The issue is about unity and diversity in a very active church in which collaboration has been encouraged for two generations. What we seek in our church, which is often, as fractious as the society in which we live, is a unity in the midst of our diversity and a center — as broad-based as possible — that will hold. This is a worthy goal for a faith that adores one God in three persons.

This much is crystal clear. We need a large public gesture of a positive nature to pull us into the future. We need it as much for ourselves as for others. To repeat Lukacs’s distinction, we have motive enough right now to go forward, the push from the past, the bruising experience of the scandals. What we need is the pull of the future, a new sense of purpose. We are a large community and need a corresponding communal gesture. But a council is not a panacea and not without risk. On the contrary, it represents a big gamble, if only by way of raising false hopes. But what is the alternative? To languish indefinitely in the shadow of past mistakes? My hope for such a council developed after I began this book. But at the end, it stands as one man’s hope.

My fear is that in response to the scandals in my own generation, younger priests will turn to an older template for the priesthood by way of reaction. If in the process they become protective of priestly prerogatives and resentful of lay collaboration, I fear a train wreck down the line. To see a clash on this front between young priests, who are few in number, and active laity, who are already on the job in large numbers, would be a needless tragedy and a false reading lay aspiration. Laity involved in church ministry say with one voice that they need good priests to make their own ministry effective.

The truth here is that the theology of priesthood that emerged from Vatican II in the first generation was perhaps not lofty enough to call for heroic sacrifice or to justify the cost of the discipline of celibacy. On this point young priests may be right in their instincts. But an elevated theology of priesthood will not be found in a return to theology of the past or by assembling the surface accouterments of an older era, e.g., birettas, amices, and palls. Such gestures speak only of human need, fear, and uncertainty. Such emotions are understandable, but they are not positive enough to chart a course into the future. A loftier theology of the priesthood may yet lie ahead. But it must come on its own as a genuine movement of the spirit. Still, we will be spared no human travail when it arrives.

The transition between generations in any vocation is always perilous. Each generation imagines the future as the realization of the dreams it had in its youth. In reality, the ideals of one generation are replaced by those of another, which the older generation never fully understands or accepts. Given this natural disjunction, the transition from an older generation in the priesthood to my own after Vatican II was far too abrupt. To follow one abrupt transition with another is not good. Yet one fact remains. The shift of generations will be fought out in small gestures at the liturgy. For Catholics, it always is. These are power-moves, no surprise for a theology of priesthood, still on the books, that centered on the power to consecrate and the power to forgive sins. It remains part of the equation.

We now carry the legacy of Vatican II into its third generation. At the beginning of the journey, we often spoke about a pilgrim people and the phrase carried an upbeat note. Now we sometimes resemble weary travelers on the high sea without land in sight, the children of Israel murmuring in the desert, pining for the fleshpots of Egypt, which they were happy to leave a scant generation ago. But the task of carrying forward the reforms of a great council remains a bracing challenge, broad enough to span generations, joining them together in a sense of common purpose. Is this not what we seek and need at the present moment?

In our own vision of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — a primordial change of generations stands enshrined. From the Father to the Son in the Spirit. “In the Divinity, Father and Son unfold the quality of being, by spreading it through two generations. And the Spirit, lest he be confused with the wit of the moment, is explicitly said to descend from the interaction of two generations, the Father and the Son.” Surely the divine pathos by which Father sends the Son stands over and blesses all who in later generations undertake perilous journeys in the Son’s name.

Table of Contents:

The Situation

1. The scandals
2. This generation of seminarians
This generation of seminaries

The Subjective Donation

3. The Evangelical Counsels
4. Prayer
5. The challenge of simplicity of life
6. The challenge of celibacy
7. The challenge of authority and obedience

The Object Gift

8. The doctrine of priesthood
9. The theology of the priesthood
10. The priest as minister of the Word
11. The priest as minister of the sacrament
12. The priest as shepherd