Fr ymondson SJ enjoys a
book about the Anthony57 varieties of American priests Enormous prayers: A journey into the Priesthood by Thomas Kunkel, Westview Press £19.50 THERE ARE 60 million Roman Catholics in the United States. It is estimated that by 2005 this number will have increased by a fourth, to 70 million. There will be about 21,000 active diocesan priests to serve them, down from 24.000 at the present time. It is against these troubling statistics that Thomas Kunkel, an orthodox Catholic journalist, has travelled widely in America to conduct interviews with priests of all generations to try and depict a picture of contemporary priesthood.
He begins by attending a convention of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, at San Diego. Casually dressed in blue jeans, in slacks and blazers, a few even in cowboy boots, some clean-shaven, others moustached — scarcely a collar in sight — they could easily be mistaken for another "greying assemblage of insurance agents or snackfood distributors". But by the opening session most had changed into clerical black to listen to an emaciated and exhausted Cardinal Bemardin give a valedictory address. The mood was sombre, the morale low, as the Church had been racked by an interminable series of sex scandals and the priesthood had fallen victim to coarse jokes and innuendo, leaving few unscathed.
Yet for many Catholics the priest retains a powerful mythic presence. It is to release him from it, and to set him in the context of a diversely expressed and changing Church, that Kunkel began his investigation.
Twenty-eight priests were chosen, each representing a different strand of pastoral work. There is Fr Benedict Groeshal, of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, New York, considered by many to be a living saint, who believes that the Church must return to its longstanding values. There is Fr Jon Fisher, a Jesuit doctor at Boston City Hospital, who believes in a sustained and healthy celibacy yet who has created a valuable primarycare model for doctors working with AIDS. Fr Peter Gallagher, a moderate, looks after three parishes in Indianapolis: one Irish, one Italian, one a centre of unreflective liberalism. Or Fr William Jenkins, of Cincinatti, a member of the Society of St Pius V, who parted company with Archbishop Lefebvre because he believed he was becoming too liberal, and has a flying apostolate to scattered congregations for whom he celebrates the Tridentine rite.
Enormous Prayers is not solely confined to interviews. Clear explanations of the Church, the Mass and the priesthood are worked into them and provide a necessary doctrinal foundation. Kunkel analyses the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, of which he has an ambivalent view. He sees it more as a source of conflict and decline than reform; but he does not prevent his subjects from placing faith in its application.
For many readers in these islands much of what is described will be culturally alienating. American Catholicism has had a strong, if adverse, influence on the English-speaking world and it is useful to know how different it is from the rest of the Church. We do not have parishes defined by national congregations where priests have to be multilingual; but we do belong to a Church with polarised attitudes, some of which originate in America. Yet what emerge are not tales of division but of an underlying unity of purpose present in lives of frequently heroic fidelity.
another meeting of priests, this ime in Nashville. Over a convivial meal in a microbrewery, he discovers that morale is better, there has been a decline in licentious headlines, the Pope has made a splash in Central Park. The theme was "Unity Amid Diversity". This book explains why plurifonnity and confidence in the future should be encouraged. Few readers will fail to be impressed by its realism and honesty.