I spoke with four North American septuagenarian bishops and one former Anglican bishop, two of whom are retired and the other three near retirement age, and asked them to discuss the Church of their youth and how it has changed over the years.
Archbishop Michael Miller, 72, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
I was born in Ottawa. My father was Catholic and my mother was not, so I was the child of a mixed marriage I attended Catholic schools when I was growing up, including a high school run by the Basilian Fathers.
The Basilan Fathers are teachers. I wanted to teach, so I thought it would be a good fit and a good way to serve the Lord. I know a lot of guys today have dramatic stories about how they decided to enter the seminary; [laughing] I guess we were less romantic in those days. It was the early 1960s, and it was commonplace. Lots of guys entered the seminary. I was one of them. The Basilian Fathers had a lot of vocations in those days, and had schools in many cities.
I grew up before the Second Vatican Council. At that time in Canada, most people either attended a Catholic or a Protestant church. Society was based on Christian values. As I look back, it was more “rule bound,” with clear markers of one’s religious identity. The notion of dissent among Catholics was non-existent.
When I entered the novitiate, the Second Vatican Council had just concluded. We first noticed some changes in the liturgy. Huge changes followed, particularly in the period 1965 through 1970. I was an undergraduate seminarian, so I was less affected by the changes. The major changes were with the theologians.
Msgr. Peter Wilkinson, 79, a retired Catholic priest and a former Anglican bishop who is today part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter
[The Anglican Church in British Columbia, Canada] was strong. That was the 1940s and 50s, and many people were active in the Anglican Church. About 75% of the residents were Anglican. As a teenager, I’d go to services at Christ Church Cathedral and the only seats would be in the gallery.
I attended an Anglo-Catholic parish [emphasizing Anglicans’ Catholic heritage] with a beautiful traditional liturgy. It is the liturgy I came to love.
When I graduated from university, I made an arrangement with the Anglican Bishop of Victoria to go to an Anglo-Catholic seminary in England operated by the Community of the Resurrection.
It was while in London that I became interested in religious life. I read a book by an Anglican religious who was a Franciscan friar. I thought, “That’s what life is about, being a Catholic Christian.” I wanted to be a priest and religious and experience the beauty and joy of Catholicism.
[I became a Catholic because] … The 1960s were taking over. People began to drift from sound doctrine. The liturgy was changing. There was a general malaise in the church. I was serving as a priest in England, and it was a difficult time there. The zeitgeist seemed to rule.
Pope Benedict himself has commented that 1968 was an axial year. There was a shift in consciousness. There were Marxist riots in England as well as in the United States; Woodstock followed the following year.
It was an unhappy time. I was a novice in religious life, and I could not remain in that atmosphere. What was going on with the outside world affected the community. I returned to Canada, where the same things were going on, but at least I was home. I thought my home diocese would employ me. However, I was branded as “Catholic” and not accepted.
[The Anglican Communion of today is nothing like the Anglican Church of my youth] … You can be a “partnered gay” and still be a priest in the Anglican church.
Bishop Edward Slattery, 78, retired Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma
The first years after Vatican II brought enormous changes in the structure of the liturgy. Some were mistakes, others were implemented too fast.
But what I see today is that my generation is on the way out. The new generation of high school and college students gives me great hope. In [Tulsa], we have two Catholic high schools … Students go into the chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament and they go to confession regularly. There are three priests involved in the spiritual direction of our high school. They’re very busy.
You really sense a difference there. I talk to other priests and bishops, and they tell me the same thing is happening in their dioceses. I think something good is happening in the new generation, and I have great hope for them. These young people are sensing that they have a great need for prayer, and have many questions about the Church.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, 74, Archbishop of Philadelphia
I don’t think anything really central to the life of the Church has changed in my lifetime. Lots of the externals and incidentals, procedures, disciplines and perceptions are different now, sure, but the essentials are always the same. The deep continuity of the Church, the fundamental serenity of her mission, is the same.
Archbishop Robert Carlson, 74, Archbishop of St. Louis
In the 7th grade, I was called home when one of my sisters died. I remember seeing my mother crying, and our pastor sitting on the couch consoling her. It had a major impact on me. I had planned to be a doctor, but I wound up going to the seminary instead.
When I started out in the seminary, if you left campus, you were kicked out. By the time I left, if you spent all your time on campus, something was wrong. It the era of Vatican II, and there were a lot of changes going on in the Church.