When associate pastor Father Stephen Elser, 28, walks into a parish meeting at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith, he has his iPad or computer ready. His homilies are typed up and uploaded to Dropbox, ready to sync to all his devices.
“My pastor and I, Father John (Antony), we joke about how the older generation, they would first come to the assignment and one of the first things they would ask is where is the restroom or this and that whereas these new priests are saying, ‘what’s the Wifi passcode?’” Father Elser laughed.
But young priests are interested in more than just Wifi — they want to meet people where they are.
According to a study of the 2018 ordination class through the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, ordinands considered the priesthood first around 17 years old and were ordained around the age of 35. From the 2017-2018 years, more than half of seminarians are under 30, 58 percent, with one in 10 between 35 and 39.
Out of eight priests ordained in the Diocese of Little Rock last year, five were in their 20s, two early 30s and one 41 years old, bringing down the median age for the diocesan priests to 49 rather than 65.
Millennial priests, born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 to 38) according to Pew Research Center, are finding new ways to evangelize through technology, video games and being present in a world of distractions, while clinging to the examples of revered priests who helped guide them.
Technology and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are part of Father Elser’s world, just as they are for the students he has ministered to the past year at Trinity Junior High in Fort Smith.
“Being in the classroom and talking about, ‘Oh these are the video games I like or the TV shows I watch or the music I listen to.’ To really help them to see yeah priests are different, but on the human side they’re not,” he said. A popular hashtag, #WheresFatherStephen, was started when he started showing up in the choir at Mass, at basketball games or playing keyboard in the cafeteria. “When I’m guest lecturing at Trinity sometimes I’ll say things like TBH (to be honest), stuff like that, and they’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh he knows what that is.’”
Father Patrick Friend, who teaches English, biology and religion at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, said his job is to be an antidote to the culture of staying busy for teen boys.
“In a world where the Twitter feed and the Instagram feed changes with every flick of the thumb, I do think that their hearts are longing for something permanent and real and of course we know that that’s the Lord,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh this generation,’” in a negative way, adding “they’re creative, they’re funny, they’re talented. They are spiritual, they are religious.”
A 2007 graduate of Catholic High, Father Friend at 30 is not far removed from the boys he teaches. While he commands respect, he also is unafraid to don a pair of gloves and help students pull apart a fetal pig carcass during a biology lab dissection.
As an “oh God” slips out from a student, Father Friend reminds his students the only reason to say “Oh God” is when they’re admiring God’s creation. Beyond the classroom, Father Friend attends sports practices, games, esports (competitive multiplayer video gaming) and sits down with the kids in the cafeteria who like juggling or magic.
“I bought an Xbox. I get the demos for games, so whatever is popular I download, I’ll play it for a weekend … I think it’s important to know what they’re interested in,” Father Friend said. “I listen to the radio, whatever is poppin’, whatever is popular now. I just heard about this new show called ‘On My Block,’ on Netflix, and I watched it and it’s OK but especially my Hispanic boys they love that show … Again I’m genuinely interested in them. I don’t think of it as my tactic or my strategy for connecting, it’s just the response of love for my boys.”
Father Jeff Hebert, associate pastor at St. Joseph Church in Conway and at the tail end of the millennial distinction at 36 years old, said the emphasis on personal encounter in seminaries has been brewing since the Second Vatican Council. But today, human formation is equal to the three other spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation pillars while studying for the priesthood.
“(Jesus) was walking the streets, he was walking into the more difficult parts of town. Almost every single time he meets someone with a big encounter, he’s like ‘why don’t I have dinner at your house tonight?’ Which is incredible availability, that’s kind of a buzz word in seminaries — being available and making yourself known as available and always willing to enter into people’s lives at the moment rather than a professional office person. You’re really just part of the family,” Father Hebert said.
Pope Francis has emphasized Jesus’ example to have the “smell of the sheep,” for priests to go out to their flock, but administrative duties can sometimes stifle it. Father Hebert said taking out his cell phone to schedule an appointment right when a parishioner asks makes the difference.
“In the past it’s been like, ‘Oh you can’t talk to the priest’ or you have to have this super special appointment. But no, I’m here to serve you,” he said.
Father Friend said giving young people a personal encounter of Christ, sharing about his suffering, willingness to speak out against injustice and challenging people while caring for the most vulnerable will be credible and lasting.
“We’re not going to argue them into the faith. You look at the Odyssey questions about the problem of evil, you look at the kind of straw man, atheist arguments against God, all of these boys swim in that, they hear it all the time. We can give them the answer, but that’s not what it’s going to be. It’s going to be through authentic relationship and walking the walk,” he said.
On the feast of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, Father Friend found it difficult to face the realities the Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed the day before, detailing more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse of minors. Dioceses throughout the country, including Little Rock, would follow suit, releasing their own clergy disclosure lists. But he told the students it was “not the time to abandon ship, this is the time to jump in and stop the gap” and make sure it never happens again.
“As difficult as it was to put my collar on that first day coming back, I have been overwhelmed by people’s faith, by their mercy and I’ve been so humbled by the fact that they realize this is not the priesthood of Patrick Friend or the priesthood of even those who have abused. This is the priesthood of Jesus Christ,” he said.
The scandal has not only shaken Catholics in the pews, but for first-year priests, it’s a notable tragedy to face.
“It was very tough to hear and see the depth of the problem. As a young priest I felt especially in that moment I had to address it with the community … I preached on it that weekend,” Father Elser said. “Giving that homily was difficult and I’m very grateful to Bishop (Anthony B.) Taylor for writing his letter to the parishes because I used that to kind of form the homily.”
The concept of clericalism is still being discussed as something to eradicate and young priests are moving away from the “priest on a pedestal” mentality, while not diminishing the respect the calling carries.
“That hidden injustice for so long I think when it came out this past summer just really broke my heart. But it’s kind of related to having these priests on a pedestal. It kind of lit a fire under me to really, I want to destroy that idea, that may not be the best word to use, but I hate the understanding of a priest on a pedestal because it really does allow for that and the poor people suffer for it,” Father Hebert said.
He added that if priests cross barriers in simple ways, from behaving like a dictator rather than a shepherd or being awkward and unfair in conversations, it is OK to speak up in a charitable way.
“The priest doesn’t get away with everything just because he’s a priest. I feel like if we keep us accountable on the smaller things it will help protect people in the bigger things,” Father Hebert said.
From hiking to watching Netflix, young priests find a variety of ways to unwind.
Father Elser said he enjoys getting together with fellow priests to bowl, eat dinner or play board games.
“Music has really been a really good de-stresser and a good hobby to have. I bought a piano when I went to Fort Smith, it’s in my room in the rectory ... I’m really into jazz,” Father Elser said. “I like the comedy shows, they’re fun to watch. I know a lot of priests like ‘Stranger Things.’ Netflix recently put on episodes of like ‘Jeopardy!’”
Father Jeff said he enjoys hiking Pinnacle Mountain, Petit Jean and local trails like Woolly Hollow State Park.
“I really enjoy movies, all kinds of movies too. I just enjoy seeing what the director and the writers are trying to say. Usually if I go to a movie, it’s an action one to take in the full visual effects and the sounds, I just saw ‘Avengers’ this past weekend,” he said.
But their priesthood is not something they clock out from.
The spiritual lessons they pass on may be tweaked in the way they are delivered, but for Father Friend and most young priests, they are carrying on the examples of holy priests in their lives.
“I’m not being anything maverick or new, I’m being the model I’ve been given. Msgr. (J. Gaston) Hebert and Msgr. Francis Malone; I remember being in a kindergarten circus at Christ the King and Msgr. Hebert laying down on the ground and I as the elephant trainer in the kindergarten circus let each one of my elephant classmates pretend to step on him, and he’d, ‘Oh’ and grab his belly,” Father Friend said. “Father Erik Pohlmeier, Father John Antony would both come out and play basketball with us in their young priesthood. Father Joe Marconi had this way of just breaking it down on our level. Father Phillip Reaves, I was really young when he was at Christ the King, but I remember him wearing a sombrero and sitting in our class as he talked to us before he left for his immersion to Mexico. This is the priesthood.
“My uncle (Msgr. Scott Friend) always says this is the favorite part of God’s vineyard because you know, what is there prestigious about being a priest in Arkansas?”
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