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A Calling in Crisis

Conversations with Catholic priests

(Page 2 of 5)

It should come as no surprise that priests themselves are listening hard to the debate. "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, has become a bestseller among priests. In it, Father Cozzens, a priest and a pastoral adviser to other priests for many years, writes: "Caught in the wake of the Church's authority crisis, priests have seen their moral authority, their ability to lead and to offer pastoral guidance, likewise diminished."

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Still, he emphasizes that "most priests are men of high ideals and moral passions ... [and] they struggle with no little courage to serve with integrity and generosity."

* * *

For the Rev. David Orique, part of that struggle is simply learning how to give a good sermon.

In the sacristy at St. Thomas's, (the small room where vestments, altar linens, and other liturgical items are stored), Father Orique is suiting up for mass. Orique – "Father Dave" to parishioners – is relatively new to the church. After college, he worked as a commercial lending officer for Bank of America for eight years before entering the Dominican seminary in Berkeley, Calif. He was ordained just last summer. He's of Portuguese descent, and his dream is to serve in Latin America some day.

The two priests gather in a circle with the laymen and laywomen who will participate in the service. The group holds hands and prays.

During the service, these lay members will read from the Bible (this Sunday, it's Ezekiel and Romans), and they lead the congregation in spontaneous prayers offered for those in need (the people of Afghanistan and the Middle East, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, church members who are ill). Standing behind the priests, they help distribute the wine and bread wafers to those taking Holy Communion.

This Sunday, it's Orique's turn to deliver the homily, or sermon. He takes as his text the story of Lazarus. He talks about how Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha, react differently to the apparent death and then resurrection of their brother by Jesus, likening this to how his own family members reacted when one of his brothers died. He works in quotes from American author Mark Twain and English poet William Wordsworth. He uses a little black humor in the form of a joke to lighten the subject.

"Jesus calls us to leave whatever tomb we are in," he tells parishioners.

The wood-paneled church, simple in design and decoration with its single candle on the altar and stained glass window above, seats about 300. The two Sunday morning services (mass is performed four times over the weekend) are filled with families as well as university students and older parishioners. The happy din of children mixes with the hymns accompanied by guitars and other instruments.

Later, Orique wants to know if the sermon worked. He works hard on his homilies, scans magazines for ideas while working out across the street at the gym, and seeks regular feedback from a couple of parishioners who are retired English professors here. Dominicans (who spend eight years in seminary instead of four years in seminary for most diocesan priests) are known as the "Order of Preachers" dating back to their founding by Spanish priest Dominic de Guzman in the 13th century.

Of those who hear his homilies, he says: "My goal is to see God in them, and for them to see God in me."

* * *

Ever since the mid-1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has been going through an evolution that may ultimately be revolutionary. This doesn't have to do – directly, at least – with basic theological beliefs or the church's position on such issues as abortion, birth control, unmarried priests remaining celibate, the role of women in religious orders, or the authority of the Vatican – all of which remain fixed.

Rather, Vatican Council II, called by Pope John XXIII and held between 1962 to 1965, set the stage for the Catholic laity to become more actively involved in church affairs and services.

Among Vatican II's "distinctive teachings," states the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, is this: "The Church is the whole People of God, not just the hierarchy, clergy, and religious [i.e., those in religious orders]...." Also, according to this source (which is written and edited by Catholic scholars and clergy), the ministry provided by church members who are not ordained "is a direct participation in the mission of the Church, and not simply a sharing in the mission of the hierarchy."