Full text of Fr Timothy Radcliffe's second NCP lecture - Part 1

 (This lecture was delivered at the National Conference of priests on 4 September) 'For the joy that was set before him' Yesterday I argued that there is an intrinsic contradiction between being a priest and a preacher and living in a prolonged state of demoralization. We cannot be convincing preachers of the good news if we are stuck in gloom for years. Joy is part of our vocation because it is central to the human vocation. We may find ourselves sorrowful and even angry, but demoralization menaces our very life. Yesterday I looked very briefly at the spirituality of the priesthood as it is lived out with the local community, and I suggested some of the issues that might indeed make priests feel low: the difficulties of leadership, the feebleness of community in the parish, and the fact of dealing day after day with failure and suffering. How can we be joyful faced with all this? Today I wish to glance at another series of issues. The life of the priest may be focused on his local community but to it he also represents the universal Church. This will bring its own challenges and potential causes of demoralization. How can he present the teaching of the Church if it seems remote from the experience of his people? How can he represent the Church faithfully if he finds himself uncomfortable with some of the declarations of the Magisterium? How can he stand up there before the people of God with confidence and joy when he knows that they have all been reading accusations against the Church in the media? I wish to briefly at these issues, in an order of increasing difficulty, and ask how we face them with joy. Wish me luck! Between 'the rock and a hard place' One cause of pain and even demoralization for priests can be finding ourselves in the middle between the local community and the Universal Church. Most priests identify strongly with their local community. We find the meaning of our priesthood in our shared life with these particular people. We share their struggles, rejoice in their victories, are with them in their failures, and we are nourished by their faith. But priest also represents the Universal Church. When we preach, it is not just to flog our particular hobbyhorses and propagate our views. We are called to proclaim the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. And yet we may find that much that we are supposed to teach may seem remote from the experience of our people, incomprehensible and unrealistic. Their eyes sometimes glaze over. This is most obvious in the case of moral and especially sexual teaching. The teaching of the Church on sexual ethics is strong and clear. The difficulty is that many, in some places even most, of the people whose lives we share, either do not accept this teaching, or else find it hard or even impossible to live. In some parts of our society, and in many parts of the world, most people do not live their sexuality in the context of marriage, open to the reproduction of children. Most of the young people that I know are either living with partners, practicing contraception, or are divorced and remarried or are gay. How can we make our priestly lives with people, and build community, when we are seen as the public representatives of a moral vision that so many people either do not accept or find it almost impossible to live? I am not concerned at this point with the truth of this teaching, but just its incomprehensibility for most people. We may love the Church,'s moral teaching, and believe in it deeply, and still find ourselves demoralized by the yawning abyss between the moral vision that we are called upon to proclaim and the actual lives of the people with whom and for whom we live. And let's face it. If we are honest most of us would admit that if we were in their shoes, we might well find ourselves in the same situations as they are. I am sure that I could very well do so! The pain of this dilemma is, in part, that it contradicts the idea of priesthood that we were exploring yesterday. Christ's priesthood was shown in his embrace of those who were on the edge, those in a mess, the sinners, the errant, the weak and the lost. To celebrate the Eucharist and see so many people excluded is not only deeply painful. It appears to contradict that wide embrace of muddled and messy humanity that is the very meaning of the Eucharist. Of course, there is the pastoral solution,, with a wink and a nudge. But when this is seen as the way out, or rather the way in, for vast numbers of people,then it smacks of deceit and a fear to face the issues. Some moral theologians say that this gap between the teaching of the Church and people's ordinary experience has become greater since the Council of Trent. In the Middle Ages, moral theology was seen as a practical wisdom, inseparable from lived experience. In the search for clarity and certainty after the Reformation, it became far more abstract and deductive. It started from general principles to arrive at general conclusions, without much sensitivity to how men and women actually live. For Aquinas, the Natural Law was something that we had to discover not just in revelation but also through experience. After Trent the Natural Law was present as more abstract and evident. This further prized open the gap between the vision and ethereality. This is often blamed on the triumph of Jesuit moral theology, but far be for me, as a good Dominican, to blame our friends the Jesuits! How can we live in that space between this moral vision and what people actually live without demoralization and even with joy? Tony Philpot describes going to a lecture by Cardinal Ratzinger in Cambridge many years ago. It was an excellent and intelligent lecture on general moral principles. But then Tony went back to his parish, back to the housing estates where people struggled to survive, and where what the Cardinal had said made no sense at all. Tony describes this as being in the space between the general and the particular, mediating between the abstract and the concrete, and this is where priests are called to be. 'It's uncomfortable, occupying the space between the general and the particular, between the rock and the hard place. It is uncomfortable to belong to the world of orthodoxy, and yet spend so much of my time and energy with the unorthodox,and indeed to belong to their world too. I would want to say to men preparing for diocesan priesthood that this divided heart is the characteristic pain of their vocation, and if they experience the pain, it is a sign that they will be good priests.' This is a first and good step, the recognition that we priests belong there. This place between the rock and the hard place is where we are to live our vocation. I would suggest a second step. At the heart of our faith is the Word made flesh. The Word can never remain abstract, general and remote. The Word of the Gospel is always being brought to new birth, whether in Britain, Brazil or Rome. As preachers, we can never just offer an abstract word. We are seeking to bring the word of the gospel to birth now in this community where we live, in its own language, within its own social structures, within its own victories and defeats, its richness and its poverty.The preacher is a midwife in this process. The preacher listens to the gospel and to the teaching of the Church, listens from within the culture of his own people, to see how God,'s word may be born here and now, fresh as baby, with God's eternal newness. So this chasm between the teaching of the Church and the experience of our people is indeed painful. It is here that we are called be, with a divided heart, as Tony says. But we remain there so that a new Word may be born, so that the drama of the Incarnation may happen yet again in us and through us. For this to happen, we have to really identify with those who feel excluded from the Church by, for example, their irregular, situations. We must put ourselves in their shoes ,if we are not there already , hear with their ears, see with their eyes, feel with their skin, be them in some sense. And then discover with them what can be said. God has become human, and we must too. Living in this chasm, between the abstract and the particular, is painful, but it can be the pain of birth. And, as we all know, after the pain comes the joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world, (John 16. 21). To stick it out so as to be there for the birth, we need many things. One thing we urgently need is each other, the support of our fellow priests. We are caught between two strong senses of belonging. We belong to our people, and indeed we are one of them. But we also belong to the Universal Church and represent it. We can be sustained in this tension by a strong sense of belonging to and with each other. One can think of the presbyterate as an ecclesiastical Midwives Union! Often we have been trapped by a highly individualistic sense of the priesthood. - I am the parish priest of this parish; I run it, and I do not want any interference from anyone else, not the neighbouring priests, nor the bishop nor Rome. - Of course the diocesan priest has to be tough enough to cope with much on his own. He is a man who must not fear solitude. I am not sure that I could cope. I need a community or else I would have got married in no time at all! But this aloneness should not consecrate and justify a profound individualism, an untouchable solitude, a macho self-sufficiency. We need each other. Our fraternity with our fellow priests is deeply part of who we are, and it sustains us in that double belonging, to the local congregation and to the universal Church. As Pastores Dabo Vobis said, The ordained ministry has a radical ,communitarian form,, and can only be carried out as a ,Collective work. In the old days, when a child was being born, the women of the village all gathered around the bed together to help the birth. So we too need each other's support in the incarnation of a Word of God now and here. This also implies the acceptance of the bishop as our brother too. In Presbyterorum Ordinis it is written that the Bishop is to regard the priests of his diocese as his brothers and his friends. Tony Philpot underlines that if we are to have a relationship of real brotherhood with the bishop, then this implies not just that he treats us as brothers, but that we treat him as a brother too. Some priests do not want to have the Bishop as a friend or brother. It implies too much closeness. Some want to be the Bishop and others want to avoid him. Some want the bishop as a father who will solve their problems and absolve them of responsibility and whom we can blame if anything goes wrong. Tony writes, If the Council says he must treat his priests as brother and friends, then they too have to enter into the spirit of the thing. Part of having brothers and friends is that you make allowances for their personal limitations, and that mistakes are allowed and reconciliation is always possible. Two-way traffic this. This is where we have to learn leadership in the sense I suggested yesterday, being the one who takes the first step. The fact that the bishop may not reach out to us as a brother and a friend does not prevent us from doing so. We too have a leadership to exercise, a reaching out to the bishop, the daring to take the first step in the offer of fraternity. Living in the Truth I have looked at how we may cope with the pain of living in the inevitable gap between the teaching of the Church and the lived experience of our people, the abstract and the particular. I have claimed that this space can be a place of the birth of the Word, and so the pain can become joy. It becomes distinctly more difficult if we come to doubt the appropriateness, advisability or even the truth of some declarations of the Church. This was the terrible pain which so many people , laity, priests and bishops - suffered at the proclamation of Humanae Vitae. This threatens us with a far deeper demoralization. How can we remain loyal to the Church, to the experience of our people and to our own integrity? As Donald Cozzens wrote,the challenge for many priests is to be true men of the Church and at the same time their own person. The first priority is never to say what we do not believe to be true. Cardinal Suhard wrote that 'One of the priest's first services to the world is to tell the truth.' This is what the Pope invites us to do in Veritatis Splendour. In a world that hungers for truth and yet doubts its possibility, then the Pope invites us to be truthful, and to value and honour the words that we use. If our words do not ring true, then the people will quickly notice and they will cease to respect us. We will lose our authority to proclaim the gospel. Our credibility will be gone and the authority of the Church undermined. Even worse, we will lose our self-respect and come to despise ourselves, and then be truly demoralized. How we tell the truth will depend upon the context. One always has to ask how it will be heard. How one speaks in a sermon is different from how one can speak in a press conference, or having drinks with friends, or a private discussion with a Vatican official. Two years ago the diaries of Yves Congar for 1946 - 1956 were published. It is one of the most painful books I have ever read. A man of enormous intelligence,sensitivity and honour felt crucified by the Holy Office. He was silenced, humiliated and, worse of all for a Frenchman, sent into exile to England. What sustained him during this dark night? It was the belief that the truth would eventually triumph. He wrote in 1954, in the middle of the crisis: 'To speak the truth. Prudently, without useless or provocative scandal. But remain ,and become more and more , an authentic and pure witness of what is true.' This required immense patience and patience, for Aquinas, is at the heart of hope. We need that patient endurance of those who trust that the truth will emerge. I believe that this truth telling requires of us two things: courage and humility. We need courage because telling the truth will not always be welcome.There is a fear of debate in the Church, and the suspicion that if we really air our disagreements then the authority of the Church will be undermined. But I believe that nothing undermines the authority of the Church so much as the suspicion that we do not say what we believe. Nothing undermines the credibility of our preaching more than a sense that we are timid people, who dare not put a foot wrong. Where is the parrhesia, the bold speaking, of the apostles? But this truth telling also requires of us enormous humility, because we cannot speak as those who have the truth wrapped up, unlike our ignorant and bigoted opponents! We can only contribute to the debate, trusting that the truth will emerge, and we might not turn out to be right. We speak out not because we have the answers but so as to contribute to the discovery of the answers. And it is because we trust that the Holy Spirit has indeed been poured upon the Church,that we need not worry too much if we turn out to be wrong. The people of God will not easily be led astray. I can throw in my two penny worth, confident that if it is wrong, then it will not bring everything tumbling down. We cannot seek the truth unless we dare to play with ideas, try out crazy hypotheses to see where they take us, float a thought, and chance our arm. Unless we enjoy , in every sense of the word enjoy, that freedom, then we can never draw near the mystery of God. There is a priestly way of telling the truth. I suggested yesterday that Chris's ,priesthood consisted in reaching out to embrace that which was distant, other and in contradiction. For St Paul says that Christ is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians2.14). Our truth telling must always be healing in this way, breaking down the walls of division. This is in direct contradiction with the way of telling the truth which we sometimes find in the media, which can be confrontational, aggressive, arrogant, in your face, and divisive. Our truth telling may indeed brings us into conflict with other people, and we shall certainly be misinterpreted. Yet it must always be a reaching out towards with whom we disagree, not dehumanising them, never ridiculing them, giving the best possible interpretation of what they say, seeking to discover the truth in what they say. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that we must always be equally attentive to those with whom we agree and disagree, grateful to both. We must love them both, those who opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. Both have laboured in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it. This priestly truth telling, with courage and humility, will bring us suffering. People will try to either capture us for their bandwagon or denounce us as traitors to the Church. We may find ourselves falsely canonized or vilified. We may be cast as heroes or foes. Rather than listen to what we actually say, our words will often be interpreted in terms of other peoples' prejudices. Is he on the left or the right? Is he one of us or one of them? Is he orthodox or iffy? Is he sound? All this may tempt us to keep quiet. What is the point of taking the risk? Perhaps someone else will speak up instead. But in the Bible the grave is the place of silence, and we must not let ourselves be swallowed up the silence of the tomb. We preach the Risen Lord who broke the silence of the tomb and so we cannot be silent.

Share this story