The Priests of the Greatest Generation

The 60th anniversary of D-Day turns our attention to what is popularly known as the “greatest generation” — the soldiers and civilians who survived the Depression and won the War. The spirit of service and sacrifice that generation exhibited is now celebrated as a high point of the American character.

The character of the greatest generation did not limit itself to feats of bravery on the battlefield.

When they returned home they did the long, hard work of establishing the peace and prosperity that marked mid-20th-century America. There were big projects to be sure — the interstate highway system at home, the challenge of the Cold War abroad — but for the most part the greatest generation came back, got married, raised children, went to college, bought homes and did the daily work of the postwar economic expansion. In war and peace, they lived the virtues of fidelity, sacrifice and duty that were thought to be lacking from the generation that followed them.

That's popular history.

It rings true, largely because most of us know a member of that greatest generation who seems to embody everything that is written about it.

The man I know is Charles Elmer, a Texan transplanted from Iron Mountain, Mich., who fought at Normandy as a young soldier. He is an old priest now. A member of the greatest generation to be sure, Msgr. Elmer also belongs to a generation of priests who could also be considered a “greatest generation” with a story of their own. They are, like the veterans of D-Day, dying out now, and their service should not go unremarked.

I got to know Msgr. Elmer in the seminary, already past his 75th year. He devoted almost half of his 50-plus years of priesthood to the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Now “retired” from there, he continues to work at the seminary in Houston.

We knew he had fought on D-Day, but he never told us much about it.

Like many World War II veterans, he did not speak easily about his wartime experiences. When we asked him what he thought of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, he told us he had no desire to see it — it was enough to have lived through it.

On the few occasions when he did speak about World War II, it was to make a spiritual point — about how he wore his rosary around his neck, under his uniform, before landing at Normandy.

He returned from the horrors of war with his faith intact and entered the seminary. He was ordained a priest in December 1952. When he celebrated his 50th jubilee in 2002, American Catholics in Rome, led by three cardinals, paid him tribute at his anniversary Mass.

In those 50 years, Msgr. Elmer and the faithful priests of his generation lived through a tumultuous period in the history of the priesthood.

Like the other members of the greatest generation, they came home to begin their long daily work — celebrating Mass, hearing the long lines of Saturday confessions, running parishes, building schools (and then teaching in them) and developing the robust Catholic culture of the 1950s. That's how it started for Msgr. Elmer and his classmates; little did they know that the world was about to change.

Already 10 years ordained when the Second Vatican Council began, the greatest generation of priests likely shared the council's optimism about a great missionary expansion for the Church. By all measures the Church was strong at home, courageous in the face of persecution abroad, and the priest occupied the heights of prestige in popular culture, with fictional ones like Bing Crosby dominating the silver screen while real ones like Fulton Sheen dominated the new medium of television.

It was a great time to be a priest.

But then the greatest generation of priests would have their faith tested, perhaps in ways that even the war had not. The aftermath of the council and the upheavals of the 1960s dealt a body blow to the culture and left the Church reeling. The publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968 was greeted with a wave of dissent — often led by priests.

Within 15 years of the council, the Mass had become for many a politicized battleground, those long lines of confessions were no more, parishes were dismantling the very churches built by their grandparents and the schools were suffering from an exodus of the religious sisters.

Most difficult of all were the defections from the priesthood. Today the news of a priest who has left the priestly life is devastating news for his classmates and brother priests — news greeted with great sadness for the man in question. For the greatest generation the sheer number of their brothers who left provoked not only sadness but also a lack of confidence in their own vocations.

It seemed as though the ones who stayed had to explain to themselves why they were staying. It seemed the thing to do was to leave.

Another member of that greatest generation, Father Joseph Henchey, my old confessor and now “retired” from Rome to continue working at Pope John XXIII seminary in Boston, once related a story from the 1970s when he was a superior in his Stigmatine order. Present for an address by Pope Paul VI to a conference of male religious superiors, Father Henchey related how the discouraged pope raised his head and wondered aloud, “Is anyone listening to me?” It was a difficult time to be a priest.

By his 50th year as a priest, Msgr. Elmer's generation's work was largely done. Yet the sexual-abuse crisis provided him and his brothers with another opportunity to serve, sharing their wisdom with their many sons who had become bishops and encouraging those of us preparing to become priests.

And they prayed for their brothers who had fallen.

The wisdom Msgr. Elmer passed along was simple. So simple, in fact, that it would have seemed trite from anyone whose life had not been sealed with the witness he had given.

“Do you realize how much God loves you?” was the question he put to us repeatedly. It would have been easy enough to mock him — and we occasionally did around the cribbage board! — but his insistence on the basics made me think that St. John the Apostle, as an old man writing his epistles, must have been saying something like this: “God is love. Love one another.”

It is not rare to hear among younger priests and lay people complaints — and even ridicule — of the elderly generation of priests, whether it be their liturgical style or their homilies or their management style. Partly that is understandable, as every generation has the conceit of being superior to those who came before. At the same time, such criticism is unduly harsh toward men who have borne the heat of the battle and remained faithful.

The priesthood into which the greatest generation was ordained has changed in many ways. Yet at its heart, it has remained what is always is, the priesthood of Christ Jesus.

To that, Msgr. Elmer and his brothers have been faithful for many years. They have fought the good fight; they have kept the faith. In the years left to them, they deserve our gratitude.

Father Raymond J. De Souza celebrates the first anniversary of his ordination on July 20.