This text comes as a product of The Church in the 21st Century initiative, begun at Boston College in September 2002. The fifteen chapters consist of presentations from the June 2005 conference, “The Roman Catholic Priesthood in the 21st Century.” The text covers critical questions surrounding the Catholic Priesthood today and offers the insight of well-known theologians. Relative to the different topics, as well as writing styles, some chapters prove more engaging than others. On the whole, Dietrich offers a fine text.
In the final chapter Eugene Lauer raises a most striking question after noting that there are currently over thirty-one thousand lay ministers in the United States today, a number that suggests no shortage of professional ministers. “And, if there is no shortage of ministers, could we possibly conclude that Catholics in the United States are actually being ministered to more carefully, frequently, and effectively than they were fifty years ago when ordinations to the priesthood were at their highest level?” (206). Lauer’s question jumped out at me as I read it while returning from a conference on religious priests in parishes. What struck me most was the profound difference of perspective. More than a few priests at the conference continued to bemoan the “shortage of priests” while not appreciating the opportunity for greater lay ministry.
The perspective on increased lay ministry as a positive gift to the contemporary church permeates the text. Likewise the text recognizes the challenges that come with the gift. Thomas Mahoney captures the spirit of the conference and the book while reflecting on several of the presentations. “How unusual it feels to reflect on the future of the priesthood in the presence of life-giving hopes and dreams, instead of in the presence of the all too familiar defensiveness and ineffectiveness of those most empowered to create a blueprint for its future” (190). His reflection follows Thomas Groome’s recognition of the significance in reclaiming the full charism of Baptism for defining the church and ministry today.
The book gives the reader the historical perspective of the forty years since the Second Vatican Council as well as a sound treatment of the priest’s identity as a sacramental minister. Other chapters take up the more practical aspects of the relationship between priest and bishop, along with the laity, as well as the issues surrounding sexuality and friendships. Dean Hoge offers his usual well-thought out perspective on the question of the priest “shortage” basing his insight on solid sociological research. The experience of burnout usually gets associated with the topic of the “experienced shortage.” James Burns moves beyond his overly technical start to a good presentation employing clear examples of burnout and practical suggestions for some resolution. The chapter on the moral rights of priests identifies some clear problems that have emerged in responding to the scandals of sexual abuse.
Certainly the priesthood, like the vowed life and the church itself, finds itself in the midst of a most profound shift. To believe that a quick solution lies right around the corner suggests nothing more than Pollyanna wishing. To believe that a quick solution lies right around the corner could well suggest a distrust of the Spirit of God and God’s reign. The believing Christian lives the future as now embracing the present moment with all of its blessings, challenges and limitations, as the real place of God’s activity. Priests for the 21st Century encourages the reader to live that kind of faith.