The year 1967 is remembered as teeming with violence, milestones and setbacks in race relations, and the beginning of a youth culture. The year saw the Summer of Love and germ warfare, the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court and race riots on Buffalo's East Side. Bishop Karol Wojtyla is ordained a cardinal and abortion is legalized in the United Kingdom. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band issued a new progression of popular music, while a group of new priests in the Diocese of Buffalo became the first group to be trained and educated at St. John Vianney Seminary.
Twenty young men graduated from the East Aurora seminary, now known as Christ the King, that year. A few were ordained in Europe, as it was a tradition of sorts to send students to Austria, Belgium or Italy for study. Some have passed on. Others have left the priesthood. In May, seven remaining priests gathered for a 50th reunion at the Brothers of Mercy Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Clarence, home to classmate Father Guy Siracuse since a 1999 stroke. Bishop Richard J. Malone celebrated Mass in the chapel, as Father Mark Wolski, organizer of the event, gave a homily that reflected on entering the priesthood during the implementation of the Second Vatican Council.
"I thought we, celebrating 50 years, are really children of the council," he said. "The Second Vatican Council colored everything that we were trying to learn and be and adjust to. And it was a difficult time for the Church, an interesting time, and I think for us it was so formative, and that our peer groups have such ideals that we have tried very hard to live as Church. And it was a difficult time for the laity to adjust to that as well. I'm sure many of us felt tension that you couldn't be conservative enough for those who were saying goodbye to Latin, and you couldn't be far left enough for those who were strumming guitars and singing, 'Sons of God' and whatever else we were singing. So, it was a time of tension. But it was an incredibly wonderful time, I believe, for us to be trained and to be ordained."
He closed with a tribute to Father Siracuse, who was present,still suffering the effects of the stroke.
"We wanted to do this for Guy. We love him," he said. "You have walked or ridden through a river of tears. You're amazing."
Following Mass, the remainders of the class of 1967 spoke about their feelings and experiences of 50 years in the priesthood, a time span that saw a change from Latin Mass; the increased role of lay people in parish life, and a redesign of the Roman Curia.
"I think about the Church today, and what I thought it was going to be like 50 years ago, were very different," said Father Wolski. "I would never have guessed that the number of vocations to the priesthood would diminish as quickly as they did. In the '70s, it was a real slide downward. We were ordained in classes of 20-some people, which just doesn't exist anymore. I would have been very surprised if someone would have told me in 1967 that nuns would be like an endangered species. The number of religious vocations is almost non-existent, at least in the United States today. I would have never have guessed that the Catholic school system would become so diminished also. Those are things that I did not expect to happen. You have to adapt to those realities in your various ministries."
The seven men realized at that point that all the Catholic grammar schools they attended have closed.
The class of 1967 was the first class to enter St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora. "It wasn't even completed when we went there," recalled Father Henry Orszulak. "It was built for a total of 240 students. When we were there, there were 180, mostly from the Buffalo Diocese. Who'd ever think you would be at the stage today what it is?"
Currently, 31 students study for the priesthood at Christ the King. Four men were ordained June 3 for the class of 2017.
The Second Vatican Council took place in Rome between 1962 and 1965 to address changes in society after World War II. Sixteen documents came from these meetings, allowing for Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin, supporting ecumenism, and increasing the role of laity. The seminaries received mimeographed copies of Vatican documents that these young men read as they were learning to be priests.
"A lot of things happened that didn't seem to have too much guidance, whether it be the liturgy or movements here and there. I got the impression things were being unglued in the Church," said Father Robert Wild, who works with Madonna House, a Catholic community in Combermere, Ontario. "Things were happening that didn't seem to be guided by the bishops or guided by anybody. It is probably one of the things that led me to look for a place like Madonna House. It's kind of like going back to a settled kind of existence that I had known before the seminary. I had a need to find out what was going on in the Church, so I was led to quite a bit of silence and solitude and trying to understand what was going on in the Church."
Father William Bigelow sees it differently. "I think some of the things that happened; some people say no one was controlling it, no one was guiding it. I think the Spirit was. So many things came up in the Church like Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, which was very strong in our diocese, all kinds of renewal movements, the Charismatic Renewal. Those were all things that brought a richness to the faith for so many Catholics, I think," he said.
"Some people might say you had too much of the Holy Spirit going on at first, then it went too much in the other direction where they kind of squelched the Holy Spirit and I think the control did harm to the Church," interjected Father Orszulak.
In the late 1960s, programs such as Cursillo and Charismatic Renewal came into use, drawing people into a deeper prayer life. Marriage Encounter and Engaged Encounter were designed to strengthen the family unit. Programs such as Emmaus helped renew the faith of priests.
What had started out to be a nostalgic look back at the past half-century became a thoughtful discussion on what happened to the Church they remember. Different opinions came to light, but no argument or serious debate occurred.
"It is my firm conviction that one of the tumultuous things that happened was the issuance of 'Humanae Vitae' by Paul VI," offered Father Bigelow. "That created a fissure in the Church, I think, that we're still paying the price for. It was a poorly-timed thing. It was poorly interpreted. Our diocese went through a terrible time with people in the seminary dissenting from 'Humanae Vitae' encyclical, and they were fired. They were purged. They were dismissed. One of them was dismissed with the idea that the bishop at the time couldn't have a heretic teaching in the seminary. So, he assigned him to be pastor of St. Mary's in Batavia. Apparently, you can have a heretic in a parish, not in the seminary. That created all kinds of upset in the Church."
Father Wolski agreed. "That was very polarizing. I was in a suburban parish with lots of young families. That was very divisive."
"Humanae Vitae" or "Of Human Life," Pope Paul VI's encyclical of 1968, dealt with the Church's teaching on married life, parenthood and birth control. It prohibited all forms of artificial contraception, making the document controversial in the wake of the liberated '60s.
"I would submit that by the time that encyclical was published, people had made up their minds. They just thought this was absolutely out of touch with reality, and we struggled with that ever since," Father Bigelow said.
When Father Orszulak asked if "Humane Vitae" led to the decline of renewal groups, the priests generally didn't think so. Father Bigelow said it led to a lack of engagement with the Church. While Father Wolski said those groups had a positive affect, drawing people back to the Church to get what they needed on a short term, they may not have had a lasting influence.
"It was a very creative period too," added Father Wild. "You had all these movements that Bill mentioned. When I was at St. Gerard's I was involved in all of them at the same time. At the parish, Father (Eugene) Selbert, one of the greats of the time (this was met with mass agreement), he allowed me to do things. He didn't understand everything that was happening, like the parish councils. We had one of the first parish councils in Buffalo. He was free enough to allow me to do changes and I found that to be very creative. My four years in Buffalo were very rewarding for me."
It seems creativity in the parishes depended on the pastor or bishop allowing new ideas to flourish.
Msgr. Gallivan, who spent eight years in the Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, suggested the "Church very much turned in on itself without a view to the world outside."
The others agreed. "The suffering that people go through or the politics of what people are putting up with these days in society. There is a lot more concern with Churchy interninment - inside baseball they call it, I guess. So many things that we were concerned about now has to do with Church itself and not people's lives."
"And institutional maintenance mindset," Father Bigelow added.
Although it may seem like they are disappointed with the turns of the Church, they praise the modernization - the inclusion of female altar servers and the increased role of laypeople and women in the Church.
"One positive thing for me, I think there has been a real humanization of the clergy," said Father Wolski. "There was always such a fence around the rectory and priests were very formal and were not very well known by their people. I think we have gotten into a much more casual relationship with the people. That is a good thing. It's very refreshing to me. We still respect one another's roles and all that. It's not a lack of respect. But, I think there is a greater understanding or sense of sharing in the ministry, whether you are ordained or not ordained. Years ago you would never go out without a collar. It was very formal. Today, we're not the same way." He mentioned being spotted without his Roman collar, but in his "play clothes" by a parishioner in a supermarket. "There is a humanizing of the clergy that I think is very healthy," he said.
"I would say one of the great changes now is the role of the laity in the Church, especially the educated laity. It's the most educated lay people in the history of the Church who are involved in every aspect of the community life," added Father Wild.
"When we were ordained, there was never a thought of a layperson distributing Communion. The lector was called a commentator. No altar girls. No women in any leadership positions to speak of. That's been a wonderful development," Father Wolski said.
"There were times when I was the only male in the sanctuary," Father Bigelow added. "We had a female lector, female Eucharistic ministers, but they are not in any position of authority. They're not in the decision-making. They're doing ministry, but I think the big hurdle we have is to involve them in some decision-making capacity. There's nobody outside of clerics who make decisions for the Church."
One voice in the crowd said, "I think we'd be a better Church if we became less clerical."
There are complaints that the Church and individual parishes remain clerically-run organizations, with laypeople have no formal say in Church doctrine.
"The Church moves slowly, but it moves steadily," Father Wolski offered. "Fifty years is one small portion of 2,000 years of the Church." In the past half-century, things have moved in the right direction involving laypeople in a healthy way.
These men have served as priests under five popes. When asked which was a favorite, only Father Bigelow had an answer, saying John XXIII and "This one (meaning Pope Francis)." Technically, St. John XXIII died four years before their ordination.
"When (Pope John XXIII) initiated the movement toward the Vatican Council, he was open to things new, and I think that had a tremendous impact because as we've kind of said, the Church was a closed society. We never had women in the sanctuary. Pope John XXIII set the scene, and then the council took place. He died. It was implemented under Paul VI, and as a bishop said in a talk to retired priests: 'When we were ordained in the 1960s, we had hope because we had John XXIII. Then we had several other popes. And now we have Francis, and we have hope again.' The intervening popes did what they saw was their responsibility, but as Henry said, there was this clamping down, shutting down of any openness to things. As Bob said, the pope can't do that anymore. The Spirit works and there is all kinds of things going on that don't need the approval of a bishop or a pope."
Father Wild doesn't see much point in comparing popes to one another. "We have to believe that the Holy Spirit has chosen this man for this time, and try to understand the grace they have."