Here is the speech of the secretary of the congregation for Catholic education, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, to the rectors of the pontifical seminaries, published by "L'Osservatore Romano" on June 3, 2009. I include only a few portions because I find it very enlightening about the current state of both the presbyterate and the seminary. The whole text is here and well worth reading.
"On many occasions, I have spoken about generations: about my own, about the one before me, about the future generations. This is, for me, the crucial point of the present situation. Of course, the passage from one generation to another has always posed adjustment problems, but the one we are living through now is absolutely exceptional.
The theme of secularization should help us to understand better, even here. This secularization saw unprecedented acceleration during the 1960's. For the men of my generation, and even more for those who preceded me, who were often born and raised in a Christian environment, it constituted an essential discovery, the great adventure of their lives. They therefore came to interpret the "openness to the world" called for by Vatican Council II as a conversion to secularization.
In this way, in fact, we have experienced or even fostered an extremely powerful self-secularization in most of the Western Churches.
The examples are many. Believers are ready to exert themselves in the service of peace, justice, and humanitarian causes, but do they believe in eternal life? Our Churches have carried out an immense effort to renew catechesis, but does not this catechesis itself tend to overlook the ultimate realities? For the most part, our Churches have embarked upon the ethical debates of the moment, at the urging of public opinion, but how much do they talk about sin, grace, and the divinized life? Our Churches have successfully deployed massive resources in order to improve the participation of the faithful in the liturgy, but has not the liturgy for the most part lost the sense of the sacred? Can anyone deny that our generation, possibly without realizing it, dreamed of a "Church of the pure," a faith purified of any religious manifestation, warning against any manifestation of popular devotion like processions, pilgrimages, etc.?
The collision with the secularization of our societies has profoundly transformed our Churches. We could advance the hypothesis that we have passed from a Church of "belonging," in which the faith was determined by the community of birth, to a Church of "conviction," in which the faith is defined as a personal and courageous choice, often in opposition with the group of origin. This passage has been accompanied by startling numeric variations. Attendance has visibly diminished in the churches, in the courses of catechesis, but also in the seminaries. Years ago, Cardinal Lustiger nonetheless demonstrated, setting out the figures, that in France the relationship between the number of priests and that of practicing Catholics had always remained the same.
Our seminarians, like our young priests, also belong to this Church of "conviction." They don't so much come from rural areas anymore, but rather from the cities, especially from the university cities. They often grow up in divided or "split" families, which leaves them with scars and, sometimes, a sort of emotional immaturity. The social environment to which they belong no longer supports them: they have chosen to be priests out of conviction, and have therefore renounced any social ambition (what I am saying is not true everywhere; I know African communities in which families or villages still nurture the vocations that have arisen within them). For this reason, they offer better-defined profiles, stronger individuality, and more courageous temperaments. In this regard, they have the right to our full esteem.
The difficulty to which I would like to draw your attention therefore goes beyond the boundaries of a simple generational conflict. My generation, I insist, has equated openness to the world with conversion to secularization, and has experienced a certain fascination regarding it. But although the younger men were born in secularization as their natural environment and drank it together with their mother's milk, they still seek to distance themselves from it, and defend their identity and their differences...
...The first leads us to observe that secularization includes values with a strong Christian influence, like equality, freedom, solidarity, responsibility, and that it should be possible to come to terms with this current and identify areas of cooperation.
The second current, on the contrary, calls for keeping distance. It maintains that the differences or points of opposition, above all in the field of ethics, will become increasingly pronounced. It therefore proposes an alternative to the dominant model, and accepts the minority opposition role.
The first current emerged mainly during the period following the council; it provided the ideological framework for the interpretations of Vatican II that were imposed at the end of the 1960's and in the following decade.
Things were reversed beginning in the 1980's, above all - but not exclusively - under the influence of John Paul II. The current of "composition" has aged, but its proponents still hold key positions in the Church. The current of the alternative model has become much stronger, but it has not yet become dominant. This would explain the tensions at the moment in many of the Churches on our continent."
I would be very interested in your opinions. I realize this is a tension that is happening across the U.S. and elsewhere. But I think hearing about what has brought about this divide, so to speak, can help to bridge the gap as well.