With ordination season upon us, the Buffalo News decided to check in with a group of men who were ordained 40 years ago. It’s a fascinating glimpse at “the way we were” as a church — and the way we are.

Take a look:

It took two Buffalo cathedrals and a basilica in Lackawanna to accommodate the ordination Class of 1969. On a bright spring morning 40 years ago this week, 25 young men made solemn vows to serve as Catholic priests in the Diocese of Buffalo.

Afterward, they stood for photos shoulder to shoulder in their pressed white vestments, looking with pious expressions at the camera, as if peering into the future.

Little did they know at the time what was in store.

Most of them ended up as respected pastors and are now approaching retirement. A few left the priesthood and got married. One of them was elevated to bishop and Tuesday will be installed in the Diocese of Syracuse.

The Class of 1969 was one of the largest ever in the Buffalo diocese — and a stark contrast to the state of priestly vocations now. In many ways, it was a class on the cusp.

Its members were called into a whole different priesthood than the one they ended up learning and practicing. Not that they minded.

“We really did think there was going to be a major change in the direction of the church,” said the Rev. George L. Reger, pastor of Blessed Trinity Church.

The country was in upheaval over the Vietnam War, inner-city riots and campus protests, and the Catholic Church in the United States was in the midst of its own drama, adjusting to a new Mass in English, along with other liturgical and philosophical changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council.

“The sands were shifting under our feet in the institution we were committing ourselves to,” said the Rev. John J. Leising, senior associate pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Clarence.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which declared artificial birth control sinful and prompted widespread backlash among most American Catholics, including at St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora, where the Class of 1969 was being educated. Several faculty members were removed because they would not support the decree.

Priests influenced by moral theologians such as the Rev. Bernard Haring and educated in the ideals of Vatican II — which called for a more pastoral style, greater openness to other faiths and more participation by laypeople in the liturgy and life of the church — watched those ideals unravel quickly in early parish assignments.

“Our expectations were so geared up, so wired, that when we hit reality, it was a difficult adjustment to make,” said the Rev. Angelo M. Chimera, former pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which closed in 2008.

In 1969, the diocese had more than 600 active priests working in 272 parishes, and many of the old-school pastors ran their parishes with an iron fist.

“It was oil and water coming together, and we had casualties,” said Chimera, who experienced his own clashes with an older pastor early on.

Some pastors were downright cruel, locking up the rectory refrigerator and prohibiting young associates from visiting parishioners.

The Rev. Daniel J. Palys, pastor of St. Gabriel in Elma, remembers as a young priest being greeted by a new pastor: “His first words to me were, ‘I’m the boss, and you’re not.’ ”

That same pastor refused to give out the rectory phone number to parishioners, and at dinner, “he put your food on your plate for you and told you how much to eat,” Palys said.

In his time as an assistant pastor at Annunciation Church on the West Side, Monsignor Paul J. E. Burkard helped establish Concerned Ecumenical Ministries, working with other religious groups to help the poor.

“The pastor at the time just wanted nothing to do with that. It was foreign territory,” Burkard said.

There were other adjustments.

Leising said that it took him years to build up his social graces.

“My people skills needed a lot of developing. I’d go to a wake, and I wouldn’t know what to do,” he said.

The Rev. Richard S. DiGiulio acknowledged that he struggled early in his priesthood.

“When you get out [of seminary], you’re expected to be an initiator and a motivator, and I had a hard time with that. I expected to be given more guidance. That was uncomfortable for me,” he said.

Check out the News link for the rest of the story.

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