Back in my seminary days in Teutopolis, Illinois (ca 1962), the term “care of souls” was one of the most important phrases in our vocabulary. In Latin the term was cura animarum.
We had been ordained to the priesthood in June of 1962, but we could not “get the cura” until we had fulfilled certain requirements. The most important of these was to deliver the “cura sermon,” a 30-minute written essay read orally to the entire seminary community during its main meal. Until we had completed the cura requirements, we could not do two important things that every priest was supposed to do: hear confessions and preach publicly.
I did not keep a copy of my cura sermon, but I remember that the topic was “tradition,” and that, following my life-long fascination with stories from the old West (the Lone Ranger), I based it on the robber’s phrase “hand it over,” which is what the word “tradition” basically meant.
I arrived at graduate school determined to use my graduate training to study the topic of “care of souls,” which people at Harvard translated, too literally in my opinion, as “cure of souls.” My heroes in the priesthood were men like Msgr. Alphonse Bertman (“Father Al”) of St. Aloysius Parish in Springfield, Illinois. My parents had moved to his parish shortly before my ordination. The neighborhood of “St. Al’s” had been an unruly Italian and Lithuanian coal miners’ enclave in the late 1930s. The bishop had asked Father Al to hold the fort for a while until some priest could be persuaded to take over the unwelcome assignment. Father Al stayed on the job until his death in 1963, and saw the parish grow into a vibrant Catholic community that helped to give new life to the entire northeast side of Springfield.
How did he do it? What did he do that made such a difference in the lives of so many people, who respected him so much that the city named a street after him? Those were my questions.
There are negative examples of care of souls also. Just recently I heard a story of how a foolish action by a priest resulted in the departure of two people from the Catholic community. That is not tragic--when we do not provide good care of souls, people should go where they can get it. But I believe that our Catholic tradition has riches that are worth trying to preserve and pass on, and that when someone leaves us, their departure impoverishes both that person and the remaining Catholic community.
For some reason, which I have spent a lifetime trying to understand, some U.S. parishes become really vital centers of Christian living, to the point where, on the whole, U.S. Catholicism has become much more vital than the Catholicism of western Europe. I was convinced that the answer lay in what I called “good care of souls.” Where you have that, good things happen. Where you don’t have it, good things don’t happen. But what is “that”? What is “good care of souls,” and how do we go about making it more likely to exist?
The Vatican II Hiccup
From 1962 to 1965 the Catholic Church experienced the Second Vatican Council, which was accompanied by a widespread revision of everything that U.S. Catholics had been doing for several centuries. Much of the revision was necessary and very productive, but some of it went off track, as many observers, including our present Pope Benedict, have observed. I want to focus on one way that the Council threw the priesthood off track.
What happened to the priesthood after Vatican II was something similar to what was happening at about the same time to the profession of teaching elementary and secondary school in our country. Every theorist in the country developed recommendations about how to make the job better. The expectations shot so high that no human being could possibly fulfill them. A priest was supposed to be a combination of financial manager, personnel specialist, psychological counselor, marriage and funeral advisor, expert in canon law, school administrator, and community organizer. In addition, he was expected to be a saint, and spend hours a day in prayer and contemplation. No wonder that many men in the role gave up in frustration, and many other people decided that priesthood was no place for them.
I call this the “Vatican II hiccup” because I think the fifty-year trend, a mere hiccup in the scale of the history of Catholicism, is about to come to an end. As priests have become fewer and fewer, lay people have taken over many of the roles that priests had been expected to play. That should make the role of priest more “do-able,” more realistic in its expectations. When I was first ordained, I thought I should act as counselor to several people who came to me for advice. Gradually I concluded that I was not doing them or myself any good and I withdrew from that role. Today I try to recognize when someone needs professional counseling, and as carefully as I can, I refer the person to a professional. Similarly, if I were a pastor, I would surely not try to handle the parish finances by myself.
Two Models of Priesthood
I use two priests as my exemplars of good care of souls. One is the man I just described, Msgr. Alphonse Bertman. The other is the pastor of the parish where I grew up, St. James Parish in Decatur, Illinois. Its pastor from around 1911 to his death in 1952 was Fr. Francis Ostendorf.
A priest who knew Fr. Ostendorf once described him, derisively, as a “sacristy priest.” That meant that Fr. Ostendorf did nothing more than carry out ritual duties without trying to help people in other ways. The criticism was muted, in my eyes, by the fact that the critic was himself pretty much a disaster as a pastor. However, I recognize that two observers can see quite different things and tell quite different stories about the same person. The author Mark Costello, who attended St. James grade school a year or two behind me, published a story about a woman I worked for at St. Mary Hospital during my high school summers. His picture of her was bitterly cynical, a picture that I could hardly believe.
From my perspective, as a child growing up during the Second World War, Fr. Ostendorf created a safe and sacred world. Every day all 300 of the students in the school (there were about 40 in my grade) marched outside for the raising of the American flag (with reveille played by a student bugalist), processed over to the church for the 8:00 am Mass, and then returned to school until, around 3:30 pm, we marched outside again for the lowering of the flag (this time the bugalist played “Taps”).
Fr. Ostendorf had an assistant, Fr. Joseph Prokopp, who won our admiration by bringing his cocker spaniel (“Smokey”) to his once-a-week catechism class and let the dog wander up and down the rows of classroom desks. The two priests presided at Masses every day (6:30 and 8:00 am), “Mother of Perpetual Help” devotions on Tuesday evenings, Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings during Lent, Saturday confessions (2:00 to 4:00 and 7:00 to 8:00 pm), and at least two or three Sunday Masses. Thirteen School Sisters of St. Francis lived in a two-story convent next to the church. Besides teaching, administering the school and providing excellent musical leadership for the church and school, they baked hosts for Mass, and probably cleaned the church. (They must have done that. If lay parishioners had been asked to do it, I am sure my mother would have been one of the volunteers, and I do not remember her ever doing it.)
Fr. Ostendorf drove a Packard, and every year he went to Wisconsin for a month of fishing. Except for that month, he was always present, bounding up the steps from the street to the rectory two at a time. I am sure he “went on sick calls,” anointing people and giving them the “last rites” in their homes at all hours of the day and night, and did many other things I never saw.
I spent three months in bed with rheumatic fever during my high school years. Fr. Ostendorf lent me a tiny metal puzzle, a checkerboard cut into pieces. The goal was to re-assemble the pieces into a complete checkerboard. It took me two months to get the puzzle solved. When I returned the puzzle to him after my recovery, he produced a piece of paper on which he had written several more solutions of the puzzle. I concluded that he must have spent a lot of time on the puzzle. He was able to relax.
A job description based on his life described a job I could handle. The Saturday confessions bothered me because that meant that I would never be able to listen to a Notre Dame football game. But some bad always comes with the good.
“Father Al” provided a rather different model. His rectory was an ordinary house along 20th Street in Springfield--if you didn’t know where he lived, you would have had trouble finding the place. He was a stickler for ritual details. I remember him carefully removing his biretta at every mention of the name of Jesus during the sung Gloria and Credo at Mass. The story was that he reproved an assistant for washing a car in the rectory driveway wearing shorts. Yet he refused the title “Monsignor,” and must have done something to win the approval of those unruly immigrant coal miners. His “right hand man” was a woman, Gilda Fulgenzi, who stayed near him as he died of liver cancer, and later became Chancellor of the Springfield diocese.
When I was ordained, even though my parents had only lived in his parish for three years, he insisted on having a “First Mass” for me in the parish. He paid for a breakfast for the clergy and my family at the Springfield Fairgrounds.
Both of these men seemed to me to be comfortable in the role of pastor, able to laugh and have fun, to be reverent and serious when dealing with sacred things, and with a sense of compassion and sympathy for the plight of ordinary men and women trying to live a Christian life in the midst of the more Catholic Springfield and the more Protestant Decatur environment.
Preparation for Priesthood
My seminary education took place just before the changes of Vatican II. The system was easy to understand. We studied Latin for six years because we needed it to say Mass, pray the breviary, and use Latin textbooks in philosophy and theology. We studied philosophy so that we could understand theology better. We studied theology so that we could minister to people (do care of souls) better. Theology consisted of four major topics: dogma, moral theology, Scripture, and canon law. Each of these fields was studied throughout the four-year program. Other smaller topics got a year or so: homiletics (how to preach) and catechetics (how to teach catechism) were two that I remember.
I came out of theology with the conviction that book learning is essential but limited. You study books so that you get more tools in your toolbox, but in the real world you are never sure that the tool you plan to use will work. You try all the existing tools, and if none of them work, you invent a new one. In the meantime you keep reading. The priest who quits reading is likely to do the care of souls poorly.
The advice about reading was good, but the system did not prepare us for change. We expected that life in the Church would be pretty much the same as it was when we started our studies.
After Vatican II much of the fixed structure of the old curriculum changed. I did not experience the change first hand, but it seems that one important change involved rejection of what was called “theology based on the manuals.” In dogma and moral theology there were “manuals,” textbooks based on earlier textbooks. The manuals tried to condense for practical use what was known about each of the issues discussed. In moral theology, for example, our (Latin) textbook was the 17th edition of a text written by Jesuits at Louvain. The first edition was probably written in the 1700s.
The old system gave me a solid foundation in factual information (what doctrines were defined by the Church and when and why they were defined the way they were), but many of my classmates found the texts deathly boring. My impression is that the new system evolved to look more like the standard game in secular academic institutions: do a critique of everything and win points by looking creative. It seemed to me that the game did what Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, accuses many Protestant seminaries of doing: make religion into an academic exercise and take out of it any emotion that might give it life. In other words, make the seminary a branch of a secular university and its graduates will kill whatever religion they find when they go out into the “real world.”
U.S. seminaries are apparently in the middle of a rejection of the post-Vatican II approach. I welcome the rejection, but my impression is that what the rejectors are suggesting to replace that approach is too slavish an attempt to return to what we had before the Council. What we need is a theological preparation designed to help us do good care of souls in the world we live in, not in the world of 1950.
My Own Struggle with the Care of Souls
I began work on my doctoral dissertation in sociology at Harvard in 1967 with the goal of describing the role of the Catholic priest. I had in mind some of the efforts to provide such care in the environment I was in: the student body at Harvard. Our efforts revolved around what we called “small-group liturgies.” Instead of focusing on the larger Catholic community at Harvard (which was centered at St. Paul Church near the center of the campus, and which regularly drew capacity crowds on Sunday), we had Mass in a nondenominational building in the Harvard Yard called Philips Brooks Hall. We could get maybe 50-75 people for a Sunday Mass.
After my dissertation committee rejected my thesis proposal in May of 1968 (“much too ambitious--get one advisor and work with him”), my new advisor, a woman named Renée Fox, suggested, “Why don’t you study the place where you live, St. Anthony Shrine in Boston?” The Shrine was the total opposite of the small-group approach that had fascinated me. I made the switch, except that problems in Boston made me move the study to Chicago, where I ended up with a study of St. Peter Church in the Loop, a place very similar to the Boston Shrine. Processing several thousand written surveys and analyzing 80 face-to-face, hour-long interviews, I developed more ideas about what makes for good care of souls.
Several of my interviewees made statements like “I like it when the priest enjoys saying Mass.” A woman interviewee said “I was praying the Our Father with the congregation one day, and suddenly the thought struck me: these people—they come here to pray.” I have never been able to pray the Our Father at Mass without thinking of that statement.
One finding astounded me. The church walls are marble. It is marble with an orange tone, but to me, any kind of stone feels cold. Yet the one adjective that came up over and over in the interviews in people’s description of the church was “warm.” The church and its staff were warm.
What makes a place “warm”? Here is my answer: the people who staff the place are open to involvement with the people who come there. The staff involvement has two characteristics: it is vulnerable, and it is faithful. The staff do not stay behind plexiglass shields, and they try to make each encounter with every individual open to future encounters. I could use the word “love” to describe this kind of involvement, but the word has become so overloaded with other connotations that it has become useless for serious use. Nevertheless, that is what love is: vulnerable, faithful involvement.
Good Care of Souls
So good care of souls requires vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people. What does that look like?
To be vulnerable means that you can be influenced by the other person. This means that you cannot enter an encounter with all the answers, dictating how things will be or have to be. Here is where the pre-Vatican II approach has its greatest difficulty. That approach was grounded in a theory which said that the pastor is judge and ruler. Judges and rulers tell you how it is and how it should be. Such an attitude makes a loving relationship difficult.
Does that mean abandoning principles and becoming totally wishy-washy? One principle you can never abandon: you must be vulnerable and faithful. That principle is not open to negotiation. If you are to be really faithful to another person, you have to have the other person’s long-term well-being at heart. If you have someone’s well-being at heart, you cannot just “let anything go,” cannot just abandon all principled behavior. The key is how you communicate your idea of what the principled behavior should be. You approach the other person vulnerably, open to the possibility that you might have to change your own mind about what is good for that person. “I believe that something has to be done a certain way, or bad things will follow. But I could be wrong.” Could the pope be wrong? The pope speaks to a universal audience, and maybe if the pope were facing this particular individual at this particular time, the pope would have second thoughts too.
This kind of openness fits exactly what Gustav Weigel, one of the great promoters of Vatican II ecumenism in the Church, laid down as the rules for ecumenical dialog: 1) state your own beliefs as clearly and honestly as you can; 2) listen to the other person state his or her beliefs as clearly and openly as she can; 3) let God determine what you should do next. That’s vulnerability. That’s what made the Vatican Council such a moment of grace in the Church.