When about three dozen priests from across the United States gathered at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary five years ago, they wanted to affirm their commitment to the values espoused by the Second Vatican Council and to bring their voices together to encourage the church in the United States to do the same. This year, about 200 members of the Association of U.S. Priests again gathered in the Archdiocese of Chicago, holding their national conference June 27-30 in Rosemont. “We’re mostly older priests who were educated and formed by Vatican II,” said Father Bernard “Bob” Bonnot, the association’s president. He was ordained for the Diocese of Youngstown, in 1967. When the group was founded, he said, members felt that some of the council’s openness to the world was being closed off. “We wanted to stand for it and we wanted to fight for it,” Bonnot said. “We want to move our pilgrim church forward as the Spirit inspires.” Now the independent organization is the largest association of priests in the United States, with about 1,000 members. Many of them feel a kinship with Pope Francis and his pastoral approach, Bonnot said. Father Jay Davidson, one of the 27 “founding fathers” honored at the conference, explained it like this: “There’s a tension between those who want black-and-white answers and those who see there are shades of gray. I think I hear Pope Francis saying we are always growing, always on the journey, and we shouldn’t be condemned because we’re here and not there. We should be encouraged to keep growing.” Father Bernie Survil, a priest of the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, said he encouraged the establishment of the group after ministering for 25 years in Central America and encountering independent priests’ groups there. When he surveyed priests to find out what they thought the focus should be, “the majority said to preserve the values of Vatican II.” Another of the founders, Father Thomas Lumpkin of Detroit, said the work of the association has been more successful in some ways than others. Its members have found support and encouragement for their own ministry, he said. “That’s been effective,” he said. “But we don’t have enough of a persuasive voice in the wider church.” The group heard speakers on topics ranging from “Laudato Si’” and the way Vatican II has unfolded under Pope Francis to migration theology, participated in internal discussions about topics including ministry to the LGBT community, dealing with the priest shortage and clericalism. Members also voted on a variety of resolutions, including one backing Archbishop Cupich’s call to make gun violence a priority for the church and others calling for the end of the death penalty, supporting an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour and petitioning for a change in canon law to permit lay men and women to preach at Mass. Archbishop Cupish celebrated Mass with the group on June 29. The association also announced that it is welcoming its first episcopal moderator, Archbishop John Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Massimo Faggioli, a professor in the theology and religious studied department at Villanova University, told the attendees that Pope Francis is working from Vatican II documents, especially “Gaudium et Spes” (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” which called for supporting families and meeting them where they are in their journeys. In doing so, Pope Francis essentially is taking Vatican II for granted, something that has not yet happened in the U.S. church, Faggioli argued, despite the fact that the church itself has embraced the changes made by the council. Rather, the social and cultural response to Vatican II has reflected the competitive nature of church politics in the U.S., a competition that echoes the American two-party system. But even those who might see themselves as being in opposition to Vatican II – including some of those championing religious freedom – are, in fact, embracing the values of the council. “The U.S. church has been a Vatican II church for the past 50 years,” he said.