Independent Catholic News logo Welcome Visitor
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Text of today's lecture by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP - Part 1
Comment Email Print
 Given at the National Conference of Priests iat Digby Stuart College, Roehampton this morning That your joy may be full - John 16.24 I wish to talk about the joy and sorrow of priesthood today. When I met the Council of the National Conference of Priests to discuss my contribution to this Conference, I was told that many priests in England and Wales feel depressed and demoralized. How widespread this demoralization is I do not know. But regardless of how many priests are actually demoralized, there are many good reasons why we might be: the shortage of vocations, the lack of a clear priestly identity, the loss of respect for our vocation, the scandals of sexual abuse, the disappearance of the young from many parishes, disagreements with some statements by the Church and so on. So I wish to look at some of these issues, and ask how we can face them without being demoralized. This is important because there is a deep contradiction between priesthood and depression. You can be a good and depressed banker or taxi driver, a gloomy but effective accountant or lawyer. But one cannot be a preacher of the gospel and be plunged in gloom. It makes no sense. We can only be credible bearers of the good news if we are fundamentally, if not always, joyful. I am not referring to a happy clappy jollity, going around slapping people on the back and telling them to be happy because Jesus loves them. That sort of thing does make me feel deeply depressed. But there is a deep joy that belongs to our vocation as priests.This joy is deeply linked with sorrow and even with anger. Our vocation summons us to share not just the passion of Christ, but also his passions, his joy and sorrow and anger. These are the passions of those who are alive with the gospel. So I wish to look at some of the issues that might indeed make us feel depressed, to see how we might face them with sorrow and joy and even anger rather than debilitating demoralization. I shall begin by looking at the identity of the priest and see what are the challenges in living out that identity with the local community. Then tomorrow I shall look at some of the issues that might demoralize us in our relationship to the wider Church: our role of proclaiming Church teaching, the scandals which fill the papers, and so on. I am deeply aware that I am not the ideal person to do this. I have lived outside Britain for the last ten years, and so I am not yet back in touch with the Church here. Also I am a religious priest, and though we face the same challenges, sometimes we do so differently. But I console myself by thinking of one of my brethren who gave a lecture in the United States. When he finished the lecture, the applause was rather tepid. He sat down and said to the man beside him: "It was not that bad, was it?" The man replied: "Don't worry about it. I don't blame you. I blame the people who invited you to speak." The Identity of the Priest In The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Donald Cozzens writes: "At the core of the priest's crisis of soul is the search for his unfolding identity as an ordained servant of Jesus Christ. The issue of the priest's identity grips the roots of his soul." While some priests deny concern about their priestly identity, more concede that the issue hangs over their heads like a storm cloud, robbing them of the confidence they once knew, rendering them awkward and self-conscious in certain parish situations. As we all know, before the Vatican Council the priest had a clear identity. He was a sacred cultic figure, who had status and respect just because he was ordained. He was precious because he celebrated Mass and consecrated the body and blood of the Lord, even if he was a dreadful pastor and preacher. That identity was put into question by the Council. There was a rediscovery of the common priesthood of the whole people of God, of the universal call to holiness, and of marriage as a sacred vocation. The priesthood was now seen above all in terms of service and leadership. Most priests were and are enthusiastic about this new identity. In theory at least, it has liberated us from a stifling clericalism; it offers an identity that much more Christ like and evangelical. So what is the problem? Why is it that thirty years after the Council, so many priests are ill at ease and unclear as to who we are? I can think of at least four reasons. The idea of the priest as servant and leader is beautiful, but the words tend to pull in opposite directions. Servants are not usually supposed to lead, like bossy butlers. I reminded of those French waiters who, with immense superiority, try to tell you what you should order from the menu. Remember the Irish bishop who announced at his consecration that he intended to serve the diocese with a rod of iron. The image of the priest in modern theology is so idealized that none of us can live up to it. I read a lot in preparation for this lecture and I was horrified to discover that I had to be a brilliant preacher, an efficient administrator, a creative liturgical genius, a patient listener, an inspiring leader, a spiritual guru, good with the young and with the old. I became profoundly demoralized, and convinced that I was a bad priest who ought to apply for laicisation. You almost lost me! A theology of service tends to focus upon what the priest does rather than who he is. This can lead to a utilitarian view of the priesthood. To be a good priest, one must work incessantly and be effective. But in this secularized world, with diminishing religious practice, priests will often find that we have achieved little and so must be failures. The concept of ministry has expanded enormously. In the USA 80% of people who are ministers in the Church are lay, and 80% of these lay people are women. This has two effects. One is that the priest feels less special. Is all the sacrifice of celibacy and the stress worth it just to be one of these ministers, when most of the other ministers have all the pleasures of marriage? And secondly, the priesthood is the focus of much aggression by those who feel excluded from it, e.g. married men and women. So the pries' as a minister may feel himself to be both devalued and yet envied, which is the worst of all situations - "How dare you exclude me from this rather unimportant role that you have?' So it is understandable that some priests, often younger men, are attracted by a return to ,the good old days, when the priest was a cultic figure with sacred hands. Other priests dread this as a return to clerical elitism, and delight in a theology of service, but some will admit that they are unsure as to who we are and what it means to be a priest today. Is there a way forward? I believe that there is, and it is to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews, the only document of the New Testament that develops a theology of priesthood. There we have a vision of Christ the High Priest who is a sacred figure, who celebrates the heavenly cult. But his holiness does not separate him from other people but weds him to us. This offers us a profound vision of priesthood which I have not the time to develop here, but which carries us beyond the polarisation of those who see the priesthood in terms of service and those who are nostalgic for the priesthood as a sacred figure. The Old Testament understanding of holiness implied the separation of the priest from all that was impure and imperfect.The high priest could not go near a corpse, and if you wanted to stop a rival becoming high priest then a nifty move was to bite off his ears! But in Hebrews we find this vision of holiness is turned upon its head. Christ's holiness is shown in his embrace of us in all our sinful imperfection. His holiness is displayed not by distance from us but by closeness. And the culmination of his sacred ministry was when he embraced death, that most impure thing, and became himself a corpse. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his blood. 'Let us therefore then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.' (Hebrews 12.12). The gospels never speak directly of Christ as a priest, but we find this same theology of holiness. He embraces the untouchable, the lepers; he eats and drinks with sinners; he is sacrificial lamb who dies on the altar of the cross. So the whole people of God is a holy and priestly people, because it embodies Christ's embrace of us all in our messy lives, with all their weakness and failures. And the sacrament of that holiness is the Eucharist, in which Christ gave his body to us all, including to the disciples who would betray and deny him. The holiness of the Church is shown in its inclusion of sinners, not their exclusion. As James Joyce said of the Church: "Here comes everyone." It also offers us ordained ministers a vision of our priesthood which is utterly free of clericalist elitism, and which is founded upon our intimacy and identification with people in their struggles and failures. Let me make a confession. As the time for me to be ordained drew near, I began to have terrible doubts as to whether I was called to be a priest. I had become deeply repelled by clericalism, and by any hint of priestly superiority. I dreaded the hypocrisy of it, because I knew that I was no better than anyone else. I only accepted ordination in obedience to my brethren. I could identify with St Augustine who wept when he was ordained a priest. The cynics thought that he was weeping because he had not been made a bishop, but in fact it was because he had no desire to be a priest at all. After my ordination I saw with horror my parent's parish priest advancing towards me. Only two years before he had commanded me to leave 'those heretical Dominicans' so that I might save my soul. Now he threw himself down before me and asked for a blessing from my sacred hands. I fled from the reception to my room, to recover my calm. I was only driven back because one of my German brothers followed me upstairs and tried to talk to me about Heidegger! That was even worse. I finally came to love my priesthood in the confessional box. It was here that I discovered that ordination brings us close to people just when they feel farthest away from God. We are one with them, at their sides, as together we face human frailty, failure and sin, ours and theirs. The trouble with clericalism is not that it made the priest a sacred figure, but rather its understanding of the sacred was derived from the Old Testament rather than for the gospel. One of the most sacred occasions at which I have ever taken part was the funeral of a man called Benedict, some twenty five years ago. I anointed him just before he died of AIDS, and his last request was that I bury him from Westminster Cathedral. Now that took some negotiation! At the funeral, the coffin was there at the centre of cathedral, and around were gather his friends, many of them also with AIDS. Here at the symbolic centre of Catholic life in Britain was the body of someone who represented so much exclusion, as having AIDS, being gay and dead. In this moment we can see the epiphany of God's radiant holiness. This vision of the priesthood is essentially missionary, reaching out. It means that serving the Christian community cannot be the ministry of priests to the exclusion of all other ministries. However great the shortage of priests, the diocese must try to free some of us for other forms of outreach, so that those who would never come near a Church can be touched and welcomed. And when one's ministry is to a parish, then the parish community must be in some sense missionary, turned outwards. This holiness of the priesthood does not mean that we are necessarily morally superior to anyone else. It is the opposite of elitist. It expresses the scandalous outreach of God to those who are on the edge. This implies a certain social dislocation for the ordained priest. We do not have a clear place in the social hierarchy. We are slippery figures who should be equally at home with Dukes or dustmen. We are to embody an inclusiveness that cannot be fully comprehensible to our present society, and summons it beyond all its inclusions and exclusions. I was a student in Paris when Cardinal Danielou died on the staircase on his way to visit a prostitute. The press aired all the expected innuendoes. But, as far as I could see, he was a holy man being a good priest. In way it was the perfect place for a Cardinal die. It is even fitting that we dress in a rather odd way, and even occasionally wear skirts when other men gave up doing so five hundred years ago. It suggests that we sit askew to the ordinary structures. This reminds me of one of my American brethren. Like many Irish Americans, his Christian names included Mary. He was sounding off in the common room about the people being ordained priests these days, all these weirdoes, homosexuals and God knows what else. And one of the brethren answered him: "Come on. Your name is Mary and you are wearing a white skirt. What makes you think that you are so normal." This is a dimension that must enter into our discussion about whether priests should be allowed to marry. I think that the arguments in favour of a married clergy are extremely strong, perhaps overwhelming. Perhaps the main regret that I would have is that a married priest might be more evidently part of the social system. There would be a pressure for him to have a lifestyle that clearly placed him somewhere in the social hierarchy, because of the education that his children got, and where they went on holiday and soon. It might be harder for him to represent the inclusivity of the Kingdom. This is not a knockdown argument for retaining celibacy, but it should be borne in mind. Does this vision of priesthood contribute to the debate about the ordination of women? If I may be evasive, I would just say that I was asked to address the topic of men who are depressed because they are priests, and not of women who are depressed because they are not! I am suggesting that the ordained priest is called to embody in his life and being God's out reach to all of scattered humanity. This takes one beyond the dichotomy of those who see priesthood in terms of being and those who see it in terms of doing. All that we do as ordained priests should express and embody the holiness of God,s being in Christ, transforming the outsider into an insider, death into life, and sorrow into joy. How is a priest to live this vocation, especially in the face of the crises of our Church and society? Today I will look at some of the challenges that we face in living this role in relationship to the local community. And tomorrow I will look at how we live it in solidarity with the wider Church, with all the crises that it is suffering at the moment. When Michael Hollings felt called to the priesthood at the end of the war, he went to see the regimental chaplain, who was a Benedictine. The chaplain asked him why he wanted to be a priest. Michael replied: "To help people. He asked if I did not see Mass as being the centre of what a priest is. I simply said I did not, I wanted to help people, The chaplain was deeply shocked. My impression is that the spirituality of the diocesan priesthood is deeply grounded in the life of the laity. Bishop Untenor of the USA wrote that: "Diocesan priests belong to the community of the disciples of Jesus Christ. We face the same struggles as every lay person, and we live in the same world as they do." It is, in the deepest sense, a lay spirituality, a spirituality with and for the laos, the people. I grew up thinking that the first class priest was a member of a religious order. There seemed to be a bit of a contradiction between the word 'secular' and the word 'Priest' - as if the secular priest did not fully make the grade. But if we accept the theology of Hebrews, then the priesthood is God's embrace of the secular, of what is lay. Our great high priest was in fact a lay person. Being a secular priest, thus expresses what is at the heart of all priesthood. Maybe it is we religious who are the sacerdotal odd balls whose priesthood needs to be explained. It is a bit late for me to discover this after thirty years as a Dominican priest! If this spirituality is above all geared towards life with the laity, then it is here that secular priests, and often religious priests too, will experience our greatest joy but also our deepest pain and even demoralization. I will glance at just three sensitive areas: the difficulties of leadership, the frequent failure of parishes to be the communities that we dreamed of, and finally the pain of living our priestly life so close to so much human failure and tragedy. Leadership Much modern theological literature talks about the priest as leader. I must confess to unease with this. First of all because, as I said earlier, I think that it sits uneasily with the idea of service. How can one fit together being a servant and a leader of the people of God? This tension can confuse our relationships with those with whom we collaborate. They are delighted with the idea that the priest is there to serve and may be a bit surprised that this usually means telling them what to do! More fundamentally the word suggests to me the world of business management. The leader is expected to be competent and decisive, not showing his weakness or hesitations, taking bold decisions. Above all leadership is usually evaluated in terms of success and achievement, the meeting of goals. But priesthood is not about success and achievement. We often find that we have not achieved much. If we think of ourselves as leaders, then we will probably feel that we are failures. And our people, who often live and work in the world of business management, if they are lucky enough to have a job, do not come to us hoping to find in the parish the same values that they live in the office. Yet the word has become very popular in the Church, even in religious life. I am always being asked how long I was 'in leadership'. I usually reply: 'Never until now.'
Share:  Bookmark and Share
Tags: None


Powered by Bondware
News Publishing Software

The browser you are using is outdated!

You may not be getting all you can out of your browsing experience
and may be open to security risks!

Consider upgrading to the latest version of your browser or choose on below: