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Opinion: Papal attacks on young priests are uncharitable and damaging

The Daily Knight

Crisis Magazine

Yes, “clericalism” is a disease, but so is anti-clericalism–especially when it comes from a pope.

“There you go again!”

Remember that winning line from presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to President Jimmy Carter in October 1980? It was a riposte to Carter’s constant rehashing of pet topics.

That retort came to mind as Pope Francis, once again, landed on young priests and their sartorial preferences. This time around, however, it was sallied at the conclusion of his final address to the participants in his “Synod on Synodality” and, on that score alone, inappropriate and offensive. It was a reprise of his favorite “hobby horse” of “clericalism”:

Clericalism is a thorn. It is a scourge. It is a form of worldliness that defiles and damages the face of the Lord’s bride. It enslaves the holy, faithful people of God.

And the best example of this “scourge”? “It is enough to go into the ecclesiastical tailor shops in Rome to see the scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats, or albs and lace robes.” “Scandal”?

Even more: “The faithful holy People of God patiently and humbly enduring the scorn, mistreatment, and marginalization of institutionalized clericalism.”

Ironically, he lobbed this at them—the only group he singled out for castigation—in the context of calling for charity in the Church and criticizing those exhibiting “dictatorial attitudes.”

With everything going on in the Church and the world, why the focus on lace albs? In the interests of transparency: I don’t wear lace surplices or albs, largely because I don’t think their use reflects the 1500-year tradition before their arrival on the scene. That said, I don’t think it should be cause for a major ecclesiastical kerfuffle.

Of course, anyone can read between the lines to apprehend that the Pope’s issue is not really about cassocks and lace; rather, he knows (correctly) that the junior clergy are not in his camp.

His broadsides against anything that smacks of tradition have been incessant, dubbing seminarians “little monsters”; delivering a profanity-laced assault this past January to seminarians from Barcelona against priests who deny absolution (where does that happen?); repeatedly suggesting that traditional Catholics probably suffer from mental illness.

What have been the results of these mean-spirited, unkind attacks? I spend hours of my week trying to convince young priests and seminarians not to give up on the priesthood.

However, there is much more than my own anecdotal data. According to the Vatican Office of Statistics itself: “The temporal tendency of the number of major seminarians observed in the world since 2013, reflects an uninterrupted decrease, which continued in 2021.” Further: “The number of major seminarians worldwide surged from 63,882 in 1978 to 110,553 in 2000—far surpassing the rate of world population growth—and rose more steadily over the next decade to a peak of 120,616 in 2011. The decline has been especially pronounced since 2019.” From that same source, we learn that the number of seminarians has been hemorrhaging since 2013 (the year of this Pope’s election).

Just this month, very disturbing data surfaced from Poland. In 2012, the country gained 828 new seminarians; in 2023, 280. In 2010, the country could boast of 5500 seminarians in toto; in 2023, merely 1690. Similar data comes from Latin America where, in 2010, there were 12,000 seminarians but fewer than 10,000 in 2020.

To be sure, one cannot posit a single cause for these declines, but nor can one deny a serious “Francis effect.” Due to the climate of fear generated in the Beroglian era, it is only in closed-door conversations with seminary rectors and bishops that one can hear such sentiments expressed.

I do not know a single seminarian who counts Pope Francis as a positive influence on his decision to pursue the priesthood. Amazingly, young men not even born or mere infants by the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, see him as a model and guide. On the other hand, I know of many potential seminarians hanging out on the fringes of vocational commitment until this pontificate is ended.

Francis has constantly urged clergy to have “the smell of the sheep.” Interestingly, the lay faithful are almost uniformly laudatory of the junior clergy; they appreciate their orthodoxy, their ars celebrandi, their preaching, and their pastoral zeal. The Pope ought to be praising these young men, who have offered themselves to Christ and His Church at an historical and cultural moment when there is no status or payback for such a decision. John Paul understood that and so gifted us priests every Holy Thursday with a letter aimed at supporting us in our holy vocation. He knew how to correct and challenge priests without being demoralizing or bullying.

It is somewhat curious that although Pope Francis is put off by seminarians and priests in cassocks, he apparently turned a blind eye to many nuns parading around the Synod in lay clothes and even a formal presenter, Father Ormond Rush, in a suit and tie–all clearly in violation of church law!

Yes, “clericalism” is a disease, but so is anti-clericalism–especially when it comes from a pope. I suggest that the papal Francis have recourse to the fraternal advice of his heavenly patron:

I am determined to reverence, love and honour priests. . . . I refuse to consider their sins, because I can see the Son of God in them and they are better than I. I do this because in this world I cannot see the most high Son of God with my own eyes, except for his most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others.”

That kind of attitude would foster holy priestly vocations, not snuff them out. So, please, no more “There you go again!”

In Christ Crucified and the Most Victorious Heart of Jesus.

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