A gathering of about 80 priests from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee voted Thursday to form an alliance that could be both a support network and an independent voice as they strive to meet the needs of the faithful amid a priest shortage and a changing church.
Details of the alliance's structure, purpose, and activities remained to be worked out, but its formation would place Milwaukee among a handful of dioceses around the nation that have such formal organizations. The organizers will meet Tuesday to begin that process.
"There was an overwhelming yes and show of hands to the idea of some kind of alliance, some kind of structure, some kind of organization," said Father Kenneth Mich, one of 14 organizers who had invited more than 400 diocesan priests in the archdiocese to come to a sharing session led by a professional facilitator.
Mich and others said the group narrowed its concerns to several general issues before breaking into small groups: representation and advocacy for priests; dialogue about optional celibacy; the impact on priests of parish planning to cope with the priest shortage; better communication among themselves; nurturing lay leaders and lay ministries; not letting the priest shortage affect ministries to minorities and small groups; and maintaining Catholic education, especially religious instruction for parishioners who attend public schools.
Many priests were upbeat Thursday afternoon as they left the hall in St. Matthias Church on the city's southwest side, where the four-hour meeting was held. Father Frederick Roensch, a retiree, termed the gathering "inspiring." Others said it was helpful to meet in an unstructured setting where they could share ideas and concerns.
They were quick not to characterize it as a gripe session or rebellion against Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.
"It was just a very positive experience of mutual support," said Father Charles Wester, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Mayville and St. Andrew Parish in Leroy.
Mich, pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Menomonee Falls, said the 80 priests at the meeting were predominantly moderate and representative of the priests as a whole. There were liberal and conservative priests, but few if any who were seen by their peers as being on the extremes to the left or right.
He said many priests could not make the meeting because of schedule conflicts.
The gathering included some priests in significant administrative positions within the archdiocese.
Father Joseph Hornacek, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, favored forming an alliance because "currently there is no other forum for priests in our diocese to adequately express their deepest concerns for the church's future.
"What was very energizing was priests not whining about personal issues, but very deeply, faithfully concerned about the church. How to continue to remain a Eucharistic community, a sacramental community. How we continue to support priests who are very exhausted, tired, who don't feel supported, who don't feel affirmed. And while they are getting this obviously from their parishioners, they don't feel that from the church's (national) leadership, the hierarchy."
Father Mike Erwin, pastor of St. John Evangelist Church in Twin Lakes and one of the organizers, said among the topics discussed was how the new policies adopted by the U.S. bishops for handling allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests has changed the pastoral relationship between a bishop and his priests.
"Whether the issue is big or small, the question is, 'Who is advocating for the priest?' " Erwin said.
One overriding concern is the priest shortage, said Hornacek, who was not one of the meeting's organizers.
"We are fewer in number," he said. "We are older. When we look at the number of priests that will retire in the next 15 years what gives our younger priests hope? Our seminarians hope?"
Mandatory liturgical changes by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were symbolic of the feeling that priests are not being consulted or listened to, Hornacek said.
There was also concern by some priests, he said, that the church is moving away from the changes brought by Vatican II.
"That was expressed in one person saying there is a felt or perceived need to ask 'Are we moving in a different direction than we were as the result of Vatican II, and what is that direction?' " Hornacek said. "No one is stating that there has been a change in direction, and yet it feels that way. Has there been a change in the Vatican II vision in which we were brought up? It seems like there is this erosion in that vision."
He said the emphasis on "rubrics" such as at what points people should kneel during the Mass, rather than broader issues, were of concern to some of the priests in attendance.
An association will empower priests to work through these issues, Hornacek said.
"It's an independent voice that gives the members additional confidence and affirmation that what they are thinking and feeling is good, and they don't have to be apologetic or embarrassed to vocalize those concerns."