Confessions of a Millennial Priest

I shared with a friend that I was weighing the idea of writing an article with this title and he laughed. I am aware of the irony. I don’t wear tight pants. I don’t have debt. I can’t get the tasting notes of craft beers or coffees (my taste buds are unintelligent). I don’t have instantaneous reply to text messages (even to people I’m close to). I’m not the model millennial, but in all honesty, probably not many of us are perfect prototypes.

I write this because I feel with them. The externals might be a little different, but the habits of the heart run fairly parallel. I received a degree in moral theology, and I believe it formed in my heart (strange to say) parallel attitudes and sentiments — not to say the millennial culture is Christianity 2.0. And so in this essay, I hope to shed light on the proposal that maybe millennials are on to something. Maybe they share a large portion of the social criticism that our moral tradition would also offer. For clarity’s sake, I will number a few points. And just so we’re on the same page, I’m not saying everything of my generation is ideal, but perhaps millennials have remembered something about our humanity that has been forgotten.

Attitude toward institutions

Millennials tend not to like rigid, large organizations. For me, even as a Church-loving priest, I don’t like institutionalism. The word “institution” carries around baggage, and we hear it shout “rigid.” The beautiful part about the Church for me is that it is an organism, the hierarchical structure providing the skeletal frame, the laity being the essential flesh, and the Holy Spirit being the source of unifying life. Because our faith is based on invisible realities and the revelation through history, her teachings are a treasure; they’re like clothes on a body that would otherwise be invisible and unseen.

Sometimes people ask me what is the hardest part of being a priest, and it’s easy for me to say that it is the scheduling of meetings and appointments, as well as dealing with the endless flow of emails. This is how I experience the seemingly unavoidable weight of ecclesial institutionalism, and it leaves me asking, how much of that stuff matters? In reality, we probably can all agree that any dimension of Church life that takes from the Church’s nature and mission is dead weight, false forms of institution. It simply requires Spirit-led, intellectual discernment.

Authenticity

Millennials love authenticity. I define authenticity as the virtue that perfects one’s ability to be who he/she is in the eyes of God, and it follows the pattern of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-fulfillment. Unfortunately, the world tends to define it as conforming your exterior self to your inner self (which you get to choose based on what you feel). I love authenticity, too, but only with the first definition. In any case, when someone appears to falsify who they are and put on a façade, that’s bad — being called “fake” is a dreadful insult. One time, someone approached me immediately after Mass and questioned my praying of the Mass as more of acting for the people. It is hard to address a prayer to the Father with words that I did not write and to keep my heart actively engaged and recollected when I have a few hundred people in front of me, and I felt very hurt when my very intention was being questioned. It hurt because it wasn’t my prayer that was questioned, but my very authenticity! Perhaps authenticity is a more primordial virtue even than the cardinal virtues, as it speaks a fundamental orientation towards the good of the self (though it must ultimately be focused outwardly).

Innate skepticism of messages

We have a general attitude of distrust, and who can blame us? Nobody is clueless to the business of advertising, and we have to ask, “What is their goal?” Well, a lot of the time it seems like the goal is to get cash by manipulating us. So we’re on the watch for gimmicks, empty promotions, being used for somebody’s personal gain, and unfortunately this even regards the news media and politicians who might being trying to make us puppets for their purposes. This skepticism quickly leads to tuning out all messaging — that’s why, embarrassingly enough, I almost follow zero news.

Does this include the Church, too? We had a town-hall discussion after the priest abuse scandals, and the sad truth is that nobody under 50 years old came. Have the young people tuned out of the news, even at the risk of losing the relevant news? Or have they lost hope in any fruitful conversation? Maybe they’re just busier. I don’t know, but I do believe there is a hopeful path forward.  I hope my church doesn’t pursue cheap advertising and marketing strategies. Is there a Christian — let alone a priest! — that thinks the proclamation of the Gospel is mass-marketable? Rather, may we simply proclaim the goodness of Jesus Christ and His Death, and the associated truths that He has given to the Church. May my people and I be motivated into action by this simple message. If we hope to be authentic ourselves, so should our message be straightforward and authentic. We’re not trying to get bodies into pews; we’re trying to get souls to the surrender of faith.

Experience

Oh, millennials loooove experience. Studies show this is where their money goes (when they finish paying off college debt). We millennials have observed that buying stuff weighs people down, and as a result, stuff as a sign of worldly success is no longer as important (yet, nor has it been forgotten). We do suffer from differing degrees of disassociation from our bodies, and extreme experience makes us feel integral, though we also risk falling into the trap of thinking that experience is an end in itself. But common sense says that experience can be good . . . if it helps us towards our ultimate end.

I remember personally falling into the trap of idolatry of experience regarding prayer. I was reading St. Teresa of Avila, a great and dramatic visionary, and I knew this is what being a great saint would have to be like. So naturally, I was waiting to be elevated into mystical ecstasies, and that’s where I erred. God is not an experience, He is Being. He is Love. However, I still do want my people to experience Jesus Christ, to see signs of His Presence, signs of this Love! So much of the Gospel of John focused on “signs,” and I want this for my people so they can arrive at a point of faith that is firm and no longer needing signs (read: no longer needing consoling spiritual experiences as a crutch for their faith). I’ve been there and I get it, and as far as my faith is imperfect, I will also need signs and experiences.

Work

Yikes . . . millennials have a bad rap because of this one. Benjamin Franklin offered us in the U.S. the inheritance of a good work ethic. Hard work is a virtue, but what about overworking? I will grant that my generation might have a hard time differentiating between the two. We’re not clueless, though, to the struggles people have with workaholism, and the negative effects on families, health, career and so on. It doesn’t take a genius to see that there are better things to die and live for than work, and as a priest with tendencies to workaholism, I watch myself. I make sure different projects don’t merge at the same time. I make sure I have a little hobby on the side. I make sure I keep family and friend relationships alive. To be zealous without workaholism, I try to nourish the “Soul of the Apostolate,” intimacy with Jesus Christ through a daily non-negotiable prayer rule of life.

Also, I have done my best to be clear of any accusations of being busy. Some of my parishioners seem to make the comment (from my point of view, accusation) that I am busy, as if it were a praiseworthy way of life, but the result is that it is so praiseworthy that they would never dare to intrude upon my so-important schedule. I strive to not be busy (with varying success) so I can be free to adapt my life to God’s Will! May God save me from the sin of overworking. Don’t we say that leisure is the basis of culture? Should priests be models of it, or should we only insist that others model it? And to keep it all in perspective, one breath of the Spirit can do infinitely more than a lifetime of my ministry void of the Spirit.

Conclusion

To accept what is good among the secular and reject what is not was St. Thomas Aquinas’ great genius, and it again confronts us with new waves of attitudes. While I might like bits and pieces of millennial wisdom, unfortunately, the culture of my generational peers remains largely untouched by the Gospel. To put it simply, it will cause pain in the long run. In most ways I do not associate with millennials because the Gospel takes me in other directions, but I do feel with them in some real ways. Some of the old wisdom maybe wasn’t so wise, and as we know, the pendulum swings. Please God, may the Gospel intervene to bring the pendulum (and our hearts) to rest.

Fr. Sean O'Brien About Fr. Sean O'Brien

Rev. Sean O'Brien is priest of the Diocese of Tulsa. He holds an STL in moral theology and bioethics from the Accademia Alfonsiana, Rome.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr O’Brien,

    Your article touched on some of my life experiences. Born in 1940, I sought authenticity, a spirituality that did not reject God’s creation, and freedom from the institutional ways of being church. I also made the mistake of seeking spiritual experience. In these aspects, I could relate to what you wrote. What I did not read in your article was a passion for social justice, a preferential option for the poor. The Mandate of Mt 25:35-40 became a way of life for me then and now. I wonder what that mandate plays in your life?

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