South African Viewpoint: The elephant in the room: The clergy

  • Russell Pollitt SJ

Source: Jesuit Institute South Africa

"It seems the younger priests emerging from seminaries, here and elsewhere, are getting better (or worse!) at demanding full allegiance from the laity," said an email I received this week.

Last Saturday the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale, preached about his woes - and sufferings - as a diocesan bishop at the first profession of a religious sister. He reportedly said that that some priests "regard the money of the parish as their own, like Zuma with state funds, it is their own little piggy bank."

Here is the burgeoning question: When will we deal with the elephant in the room - the clergy? Pope Francis has condemned 'clericalism'. One of the big systemic problems in the Catholic Church is us, the clergy. Yet, this is not being addressed. If anything needs urgent reform it is the current archaic formation system that is failing dismally. Two seminary professors write an article worth reading in Commonweal Magazine entitled "The Reform Seminaries Need".

Many lay people too have bought into the clerical caste and so aid and abet clericalism. Our ecclesiology needs serious rethinking.

People often talk about how they are treated by those in (and those who support) the clerical caste. One priest stopped children from serving at Sunday Mass because he hadn't seen them at Mass the week before. In the sacristy he told them that they could not serve as they had missed Mass and needed to go to confession first. He assumed they had missed Mass - is his the only parish? He assumed they hadn't been to confession - is he the only confessor in town?

A priest refused to say a weekly Mass for a local school and forbade the school from asking another priest to celebrate Mass in 'my territory'. He said he could only celebrate Mass once a month at the school.

Another newly minted priest, starting out in a parish, stopped a religious woman who has been in religious life for over 50 years, from doing a communion service for the sick and infirm (as she had done for many years).

Yet another priest told a woman whose marriage was a real source of unhappiness (for too many reasons to write here), that even if she cried herself to sleep every night and woke up in the same state every morning, she had no choice but to make the marriage work. This was her "cross" in life!

There are many good priests who have given their lives generously and at great cost to the service of others. There are, it seems, a growing number of us priests who would be better off heading-up dictatorial fiefdoms. These pastoral issues don't even begin to address the mismanagement of resources. Priests have, for many people, become the weekly cross they bear.

Unless there is considerable attention given to reforming the way priests are trained and carefully discerning who is put forward for ordained ministry, we are in great danger of becoming more like the Pharisees Jesus was so often at odds with.

The Jesuit Institute now offers a bi-weekly podcast series called 'Expanding Horizons'. Listen to Fr Bryan Massingale talking about racism and reconciliation. Terry Oakley-Smith talks about rape and the Church's response. Visit or subscribe through your preferred podcast provider.

Follow Russell Pollitt SJ on Twitter @rpollittsj

Follow The Jesuit Institute on Twitter @JesuitInstitute

Tags: South African Reflection, Clericalism, Russell Pollitt SJ, Jesuit Institute South Africa

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

Please support our journalism by donating today.