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U.S. priests hear at convention what they live in parishes

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Catholic News Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Priests from across the country met in Nashville April 23-26 to learn about and discuss “The Emerging Church of the 21st Century,” the theme for the 44th annual convention of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils.

Speakers addressed a range of topics including immigration and multiculturalism in the church today; how American Catholics engage religion in modern-day secular society; and the changing nature of priestly ministry.

One of the conference’s keynote speakers, Jerome Baggett, a sociologist and professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, relayed his findings about American Catholics’ struggle to live faithfully amidst the challenges of the modern world.

Fathers Dave Holloway of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., and Ted Olson of the Diocese of Orange, Calif., participate in morning prayers April 25 on the third day of the annual National Federation of Priests' Councils convention in Nashville, Tenn. (CNS photo/Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

Baggett’s talk drew largely from research that was distilled into his 2009 book, “Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live their Faith.” For that, he conducted hundreds of interviews at six parishes in the San Francisco Bay area, and included “everybody,” he said: Anglo, Latino, Asian, African-American, men, women, rich, poor, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, urban, suburban.

Baggett wanted to look at “what is happening rather than what you or I think ought to happen,” in the faith lives of ordinary Catholics. “It’s messy, but it’s worth paying attention to,” he said.

Baggett addressed the pastoral challenges of pluralism, authority and traditionalism, presenting the priests gathered with “conversational shards” of interviews to illuminate these ideas. He noted that he was not passing judgment on the findings, but was presenting them to the priests “for your discernment.”

One theme that emerged during the interviews was the notion of people living their own version of the Catholic faith. One interviewee told Baggett, “Some might call me a cafeteria Catholic, but I have to say that my faith is also deeply personal to me. I’ve grappled with it and come to terms with it in ways that make sense to me.”

Catholics of all stripes can be “cafeteria Catholics,” Baggett said. “They just have different things on their theological lunch trays.”

In his talk and in his book, Baggett also discussed how access to knowledge about other faith traditions shapes how Catholics view their own faith today. “Today we relate to our religious traditions differently than in the past,” he said Growing up in post-World War II South Boston, the extent of Baggett’s religious diversity was “short Catholics, tall Catholics, bald Catholics,” he said.

Today, however, Catholics routinely bump up against not only Protestants, but also Buddhists, Muslims and others, Baggett said. Whether or not Catholics understand the doctrines of these other faiths, “they are on their radar,” he added.

As Catholic laypeople discern what value the long-standing tradition of Catholicism has for them “amidst the hubbub of their everyday busy lives,” they “are presenting us with some really important pastoral challenges,” Baggett said.

He noted that many people who leave the Catholic Church do not do so for superficial or hedonistic reasons, but because “they are asking hard questions and not getting satisfactory answers.”

NFPC president Father Richard Vega said Baggett’s talk reminded priests not to be so insular. “Catholics in the pews are really influenced by everything under the sun. We sometimes forget all these other influences,” he said.

When asked what priests can do to better relate to their flocks, Father Vega said they should “be open to people, listening to their stories and not discounting them, especially young people.’

Priests must be sure that they are answering people’s “big questions and not writing them off,” Father Vega said. This includes adequately explaining the value of adhering to the Catholic faith versus another religious tradition versus no faith tradition. “It’s not just an ethical code we have,” he said.

In addition to Baggett, Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University spoke April 26 on the changing demographics of the priesthood and the changing nature of priestly ministry.

Gautier discussed key findings of recent research on priestly life in the United States, including the overall satisfaction priests have in their work and ministry, the challenges of collaborative ministry and the challenges of a graying priesthood.

While over half of all priests in the U.S. today are age 59 or older, she noted that there are more men studying in the seminary now than in the past 25 years.

Gautier pointing to survey results indicating that priests are overwhelmingly satisfied in their work even though they have “a ridiculous amount of pressure on them.”

She noted that priests who have the toughest time are those who are responsible for more than one parish, not only because they are stretched thin logistically, but also because they can’t fully immerse themselves in one faith community.

“It’s a wonderful life and ministry if you don’t mind working 80 hours a week and being on call 24/7,” she said.

Laurence is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, Nashville diocesan newspaper.