PrayTell speaks with Fr. Richard Vega, president of the U.S. Catholic National Federation of Priests’ Councils, during the recent lay ecclesial ministry symposium in Collegeville. The NFPC facilitates communication among priests’ councils, provides a discussion forum for priests, and enables priests’ councils to speak with a common voice. The NFPC collaborates with the USCCB and with lay and religious groups. Fr. Vega is a priest of the archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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PrayTell: What is your role as NFPC president?
Fr. Richard Vega: I do a lot of connecting the dots for priests. Are there best practices we can share with one another so we don’t all recreate the wheel? I represent priests’ concerns to the bishops on the USCCB committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations. I also represent the priests’ concerns to other national organizations, such as I did at the LEM meeting in Collegeville. More recently, with international priests increasing as our ranks diminish and grey, we’re looking at the issues involved in this.
PT: What is your sense of the generational differences among U.S. priests?
RV: It’s being talked about in terms of generation, but also in terms of ecclesiology. There are priests with an ecclesiology which is pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II. We all need to be in conversation with each other. We priests share a commonality about many things. But things like wearing cassock, preferring Latin Mass, the desire not to wear clerics, or to have more a servant model rather than a cultic model – this makes the conversation jarring and hard.
PT: Pope Benedict is giving much attention to liturgy. He is implementing some of his own preferences for traditional practices. Do you think his vision is what the Church needs now? Do you see any possible dangers in it?
RV: It shows a dichotomy. We want to retain elements form the past that speak of transcendence, but at the same time, that’s not where people are at. They want God to be more tangible, more palpable. I think a good example of this the Pew study of Hispanics and the numbers of Hispanics leaving the Catholic faith for other denominations. They find our liturgy not animated, not lively, not really putting them in touch with God. And not in their native language! And yet when you talk about Latin or sacred music – they know that’s part of the tradition, but it no longer speaks to them as it did in the past. We have to find a way to bridge that gap so that people can communicate with the transcendent and the incarnate, palpable aspect of God in their lives today.
PT: What is your sense of priests’ attitudes toward the coming English missal?
RV: They are everywhere across the map. We have people who believe NFPC should be very strong in support of the missal and throw our weight completely behind it. Others think we should offer a defiant “we’re not going to use it,” or push for an experimental stage. Part of the difficulty is the whole question of language. We’re translating from Latin to English and yet we don’t have the same subjunctive system, we don’t have an ablative absolute. And so, the translation is sometimes jarring. And difficult to proclaim. It is going to be a challenge. Also, when we invite our international priest to celebrate Mass, they’re going to struggle with the phrasing, proclaimability, and structure of the English language because it’s not the English they’ve studied. It’s going to present a lot of challenges to us.
PT: Do you wish priests had been more involved in the decision making process around the new missal?
RV: Priests were not consulted. There are some bishops who believe it was already a done deal. Many priests believe it was a done deal. But since priests are their closest collaborators, you’d think the bishops would want more input from us about the liturgy which we share with them. The process highlights the breakdown between the Ordinary and his collaborators.
PT: Do you have any predictions about how US priests will receive the new missal?
RV: A small number have already decided not to use it. But most will give it a try. I think if the first attempt with the missal doesn’t go well, priests will stick with the current sacramentary. Depending on their initial experience, they will make a decision. Even though we’re making an effort to do the catechesis for priests, if they don’t feel comfortable with it they’re not going to keep using it. But other priests will use the new missal, no matter what.
Cost will be as issue for some parishes – we hear it’s going to be a 300-dollar book. Especially when we’re closing, twinning, and combining parishes, priests will ask, Is this something I can afford, or do I wait until my current book wears out?
PT: Where do you see liturgical renewal in the US going in the future?
RV: The Hispanic presence is going to make a big difference and shift the liturgy in our country. Popular religiosity is going to impact the liturgy. I’m not sure how, but it will. I look at the various feasts of Our Lady. There is a very different cultural sense that undergirds all those celebrations. As the numbers of Hispanics grow, it’s going to impact our American way of liturgy in ways that we don’t suspect yet. If we keep losing people to the Prot denominations, we’re going to be confronted with some major challenges. We will try to retain not only immigrants, but also 1st and 2nd generation Hispanic populations in the Catholic Church.