THE PRIESTHOOD IN AUSTRALIA: Reflections on its future in the light of the Royal Commission
An edited version of articles appearing in Catholic Outlook (Sept/Oct 2017)
The Most Reverend Vincent Long OFM Conv.
Bishop of Parramatta
Part Five: In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model of church. For I hold that this model, which promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of non-ordained, is at the very root of the culture of clericalism. To dismantle this model is not to dismantle the church per se or even the hierarchy (of whom I am a privileged member). Rather, it is to acknowledge and to have the courage to die to the old ways of being church that no longer convey effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.
I am very much of the view that abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered. Until we have abandoned the game of power and control that has been our cultural captivity, until we have put downward mobility front and centre in the Church, which is what Jesus was all about, I doubt we can seriously heal ourselves of this disease.
As we are cut loose from the safe and secur
e moorings of the past and launched into the treacherous waters of the future we realise what needs to die and what needs to rise. The prophets of doom tell us that the priesthood is dying. They are ready to write obituaries for an institution so glorious in the past but now hopelessly riddled with crisis. They say this is the end for us. The sexual abuse crisis will be the final nail in the coffin. I wager that they are right – but only half right. They fail to see the other side of the equation. The Catholic priesthood is only dying to that which is not of Christ. It is dying to worldly trappings, triumphalism, and clericalism; it is rising again to the power of vulnerability, servant-leadership, discipleship of humble service and radical love. The Paschal rhythm summons us to a discipleship of humility, weakness and vulnerability, of dying and rising in Christ.
In the end, though, I firmly believe that we’re on the threshold of renewal and transformation of the priesthood. Like the wedding feast of Cana, the wine of old has served the church well but it is running out. The old way of being a priest has, likewise, well served the church we love. But that model of the exalted, separated and elitist priesthood is drawing its last breaths – at least in many parts of the world including Australia. There is a better wine that the good Lord has prepared for us. May we, like Mary, point out the way forward by cultivating faith and trust in God, who alone can transform the water of our poverty into the new wine of God’s creative power and enduring love.
BREAKING OPEN THE PRIESTHOOD:
I visited Mundelein Seminary in Chicago earlier this month and I noticed an interesting feature of the Seminary Chapel. There were seven steps leading to the high altar and on the side of each step was written the respective name of one of the seven Holy Orders. Each step would create an ever-growing chasm between the candidate and the people. It dawned on me that these vestiges of the Tridentine Model of priesthood are powerful symbols of the clerical class. It is part of the ecclesiology that emphasises the ontological change and separation of the ordained from the faithful. It is a powerful ingredient and ideal condition for the disease of clericalism to fester.
I hold that it is time for this exalted model of priesthood to be consigned to the past. The priesthood cannot be lived fully apart from the community of disciples. This is one of the key insights of the Vatican Council. The church is not the church of the ordained but of all the baptised.
There existed a variety of ministries in the early church. Paul bears witness to this when he lists a number of gifts or charisms that Christ gave to the church for the building up of His body. Yet over the centuries, this richness has been gradually concentrated in the ordained at the expense of the baptised. In effect, the priesthood of the ordained has assumed and usurped the rich and varied ministries of the baptised. It is time, therefore, that the notion of priesthood needs to break open anew, so as to fully honour what Paul says in that same passage in Ephesians 4 “everyone is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”.
If we are to break open the priesthood and allow the ministries of the baptised to flourish, I think we will need to revisit the clerical and patriarchal culture along with its many institutional dynamics such as titles, privileges, customs, structures etc. I am not suggesting that the lines of distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained be erased. Rather, each one should complement, rather than stifle the other. I would hold that those institutional dynamics that breed clerical superiority, elitism and power, over against the non-ordained stifle rather than facilitate the outpouring of grace through the whole body of Christ. Furthermore, it is my conviction that the priesthood “pedestalised” is the priesthood dehumanised. It is bound to lead us into the illusion of a messiah complex and an inability to claim our wounded humanity and to minister in partnership. What we need to do is to humanise the priesthood so as best to equip ourselves with relational power for authentic Gospel living and service.
Part Three: The priesthood is not meant to be a numbers game. The strength of our mission does not depend on a cast of thousands. It is substance and not the size of the group that makes the difference. Hence, this time of diminishment can be a blessing in disguise as it makes us reliant less on ourselves but rather on the power of God. Diminishment allows us the precious opportunity to learn the power of vulnerable trust and to seek the will of God in situations of crisis. No, it is rather a time for deepening our commitment, a time for grounding ourselves in the immensity of God’s love. It is a time of silent hope, discernment and mysticism.
The time that we are living in can be likened to Holy Saturday in the Gospel. It is the day of God’s concealment, of the great solitude of Jesus. It is a time of ambiguity, of mourning and yet hoping for good news; it is a liminal interval, a time in which one stands between the old and the new. Mary Magdalene who went to the tomb of Jesus that day is a symbol of the church in mourning. In another way, she also stands for us, who have entered a Holy Saturday of our own. It is our dark night of the soul, as the mystic John of the Cross would call it. We priests can be a bridge between the old and the new. Our task is to live the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future.
St Paul talks about the hope of the future through the metaphor of childbirth. “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Romans 8:22). In a sense, we priests, have to bear those labour pains. The delivery of new life necessitates the ability to live the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future.
Pope Francis in a recent address stated that he wanted pastors who can “imbue hope” and “have sun and light in their hearts, to lovingly and patiently support the plans which God brings about in His people.” For him, the ability to imbue hope is intimately linked with the stripping of oneself and of beginning anew. In other words, our priestly vocation is the embodiment of the Paschal Mystery. We can only reframe a harsh reality into a vision of hope for our people when we ourselves have the courage to live in that liminal space, that darkness of Holy Saturday, that interim ambiguity that lies between the old and the new.
So much of what is wrong with the church today stems from a travesty of Christian leadership and service. As far as I am concerned, the sexual abuse crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, rightly observes, that we can no longer limit our blame to the individuals who offended. We must also look for factors within the very culture of the Church that have contributed to the sexual abuse crisis. We need to explore the deeper issues that lie underneath this phenomenon. Unless we have the courage to see how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus, unless we are prepared to go beyond the symptoms and explore the deeper issues that lurk behind the surface, unless we genuinely repent of our sins and face up to the task of reclaiming the innocence and powerlessness of the servant-leader, we will have failed the test of our integrity, discipleship and mission.
HAVING THE SMELL OF THE SHEEP:
Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of status quo and take the risk of going to the peripheries. The church must be the church of the poor and for the poor. The Church must go out of itself, in order to be close to those in need. Conversely, the church that does not go out into the world keeps Jesus imprisoned.
If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’
pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from being inward looking to looking outward, from preoccupation with the present status and safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, and learning to convey God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and the church.
Hence, our challenge is to embrace the call of the Vatican Council to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those who are poor and in anyway afflicted. It is to be the bearer of joy to those who are most deprived of it. To do this, we must be able to live in and to bridge the yawning gap between the ideal and the real, between what the church teaches and how the people respond.
Pope Francis challenges all of us to divest ourselves of clericalism and elitism, to return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the Church, to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives. The self-referential church steeped in a culture of splendour is in stark contrast with the church of the poor and for the poor.
Part One: Thank you for this opportunity to share with you some of my reflections on the future of the priesthood in Australia. I am conscious that I am a kind of Johnny-come-lately rather than a native born Australian and that many of you here have a breadth of pastoral experience far richer and deeper than mine.
What a strange time we Catholic clergy are living in! On the one hand, we know we are in a big mess. We bear the brunt of public anger and distrust in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. It is one of the hardest times to be a priest. Yet paradoxically, it is also one of the most exciting times that we, as ministers and messengers of the Gospel, are privileged to live and to make it known to others. It is precisely in this that we are given the unique opportunity to accompany our people in a spiritual exodus that I believe will lead to a new dawn for the church.
When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome after the conclave, it came as a shock and a welcome sign to us. He eschewed the usual trappings; he introduced himself as “bishop of Rome” and – surprisingly or prophetically – he bowed and asked the people for their blessing. The image of the Pope bowing in silence before the euphoric, then hushed, crowd at St Peter’s Square was truly the prophetic sign of the century! It signalled not just a new papal style but a whole new era for the church. It signalled that the time had come to set aside old wineskins and reach for new. Pope Francis would later say that we are not simply living in an era of change but in a change of era.
By this, I think, he means we cannot go on the way we have, because the ground under our feet has shifted. There needs to be an attitudinal change at every level, a conversion of mind and heart that conforms us to the spirit of the Gospel, a new wine in new wineskins, not a merely cosmetic change or worse a retreat into restorationism.
In Australia, the priesthood no longer enjoys the prestige and the power it once had.. To truly rebadge what is the essential quality of the priesthood, we must go to the heart of what it means to be a servant-leader. The servant leadership model is much more than what we do to the people. It is indicative of who we are as humble and vulnerable servants in the likeness of Christ - who came to serve and to give his own life for others. Hence, it is a way of being. We, Christian leaders, today are more than ever before challenged to embrace the journey of self-emptying and powerlessness that lies at the heart of the Gospel.