Several years ago I was at a dinner in Florida and a bunch of us were discussing Church history in the 20th century, especially the state of the priesthood. It was a light-hearted discussion about the topic, “What happened to all the good priests in the 20th century?” After typical answers for awhile, an older Polish gentleman chimed in, “Maybe they all died in the World Wars.” The levity departed from the room at the profundity of his answer. Everyone got silent because he seemed to have said something unexpected, but accurate. Even the man who said it seemed surprised at the potential accuracy that had just come out of his mouth.
His answer has haunted me for years. I think it’s too simplistic to say that he solved the entire Church crisis of the 20th century (and he certainly wouldn’t have claimed that) but two World Wars have forever changed the face of fatherhood—both biological fatherhood and spiritual fatherhood. Two of my priestly heroes were killed as chaplains in 20th century wars. The holy Irish Jesuit, Fr. Willy Doyle SJ was a World War I hero (seen in the top left picture.) American-raised Fr. Emil Kapaun (top right picture) was quite nearly the American version of a St. Maximilian Kolbe. But where St. Maximilian died in a German war camp, Fr. Emil Kapaun died in a Korean war camp. Both were holy priests and very courageous men.
Does this mean only the flamboyant duds showed-up at Vatican II? Probably. But I also think it’s more complex than that, considering something started to change the face of the priesthood before Vatican II. Probably more European priests died as chaplains in the two World Wars than American priests. Even today it seems that young men who most believe in Christ’s pre-death phrase, Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends sign up for military chaplaincy. But they are so much fewer.
There’s a rumor that all the weak priests got laicized under Pope Paul VI in the 1970s and married nuns (or later died of AIDS.) There’s certainly some truth to this. But I also keep hearing more and more accounts of the original canceled priests: These are the good men who were ordained long before the Council, but suddenly were ousted from their congregations in 1969 for being Catholic. You would think this were an exaggeration, but I keep hearing stories to prove it’s not. Once again, it seems modernism washes out both the worst priests… and the best priests.
As a 44 year old priest, I clearly don’t have all the answers. I also admit there were a few bad priests before Vatican II. But something happened in the Catholic Church in the 20th century that didn’t just change a few priests, but even changed the entire environment of who would soon be considered worthy. “Charming” and “pastoral” replaced “charitable” and “orthodox” and “strong.” There’s a lot of factors, but I hope we priests and bishops can one day return to recruiting not man-centered men, but rather God-centered men. Indeed, only a God-centered man can love his neighbor in the trenches for God’s sake, in reflection of the dying and rising God-Man Who said, Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.