Retired priests reflect on thought-provoking conference

By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

In 2012, Father Robert McAleer and Father John Hynes (now deceased) attended “A Retreat for Vatican II Priests” at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago that focused on reflection and discussion about the priesthood. The retreat led to formation of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP). “I am one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the organization,” Father McAleer said. This year marked the association’s 10th anniversary.

Fr. McAleer

Father McAleer and Father Walter Helms, retired priests of the Diocese of Davenport, attended the 2021 AUSCP conference June 21-24 in Minneapolis. Father McAleer said the association has brought renewal to his priesthood, new friends and an interesting support group from around the country. “This experience has certainly helped me to see the varieties of priestly ministry meeting challenges throughout the country.”

Father Helms said he belongs for the inspiration, encouragement and education provided. The AUSCP mission statement gives a good reason to belong: “To be an association of U.S. Catholic priests offering mutual support and a collegial voice through dialogue, contemplation and prophetic action on issues affecting Church and society.”

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In its early days, the association appealed to Father Helms “as a group of priests gathered to support one another and to keep alive the spirit of Vatican II. Our lives as priests have been richly blessed by the documents and initiatives of the council.”

The June assembly

A pre-conference retreat by Father Michael Joncas, “Living in Apocalyptic Times,” was a highlight for Father McAleer. Father Joncas covered some of the major events of the church and the world since the start of Vatican II and “spoke of the effects of each with a balance of challenges and blessings.”

Another highlight was a presentation by National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters, who spoke on “The Political-Theological Merger that is shaping the U.S. Catholic Church.” The columnist reported that organized Catholic groups with wealth are shaping the church today. “Powerful rich Catholics have a great deal of power in the church,” Father McAleer said. “I grew up in a church of social justice, caring and empowering the least of all who would shape our living out of the Gospel.”

Fr. Helms

Bishop William A. Wack, CSC, bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, spoke on the topic of pastoral directions going forward. The bishop talked about the division in the church today. “He addressed how we have lost the ability to talk to one another and to understand the backgrounds from where we came both spiritually and educationally. He gave clear respect for each group. Our experiences of the church are different. Our formation in the church is different. Our theological and spiritual formation in the church are different,” Father McAleer said. “We need to grow in respect for each other as we are. As priests we are committed to the same — a life of service in the best way we are trained.”

Racism

Priests were encouraged to learn more about the Black experience and history, Father Helms said. “Pastors need to be more courageous in speaking out against racism, especially in congregations that hear such messages with deaf ears or hostile responsiveness.”
Shannon Dee Williams, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, shared “Why Black History Matters.” She talked about the complicity of the Catholic Church in racist practices, such as bishops and institutions owning slaves and religious orders maintaining a whites-only membership, he said.

Father McAleer said the issue of racism raised many questions, such as, how welcoming are we as a church? Do we ever see the richness of other cultures and let that richness be part of our liturgy? Why do we judge the music of others? Why must church music be only “white?” Would the church be more welcoming by inviting the musical richness of diverse cultures and ethnic groups? How inclusive is a parish when someone of color arrives?

Father Helms concluded, “Meeting with fellow priests from around the country broadens one’s awareness of the scope of our church. We find support in our shared mission and discover the wisdom of the many talents and years of experience represented. I wish more priests would know the blessing of such associations and gatherings.”


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