The Clergy and the People of God

Rev. Peter Timmins

New testament churches such as Jerusalem, Corinth and Rome were essentially organized to assure service to people, not control over people. The apostles were in charge but apparently spent much of their time on the road. Their successors were chosen by the assembly of the entire local church and confirmed in office by the imposition of hands by either the apostles or their successors. Unlike the original apostles, they were residential and fulfilled the function of elders, ensuring that the community funds and property were managed and the people instructed and nourished with Word and Sacrament.

A local church, presided over by a successor to an apostle, was not like a modern day diocese. It was much more like a one parish town. The priesthood, as we have come to know it, did not exist. Though the early church believed that Jesus explicitly established the Eucharist at the Last Supper, it seems that the Christian priesthood can best be said to have been implicitly established at that time. This should not come as a surprise when we remember (see "Rome and the Bishops") that up to the end of the 1st century, Christians considered themselves to be part of a renewal process within Judaism. It was only when they realized that they were part of a new movement growing out of Judaism that they began to think in terms of a specifically Christian priesthood.

The priestly office has always been defined in terms of the offering of sacrifice and so, as in time the Eucharist came more and more to be recognized in its relationship to the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, ordained priest celebrants became the norm.

The priesthood, as we know it, is a fusion of roles and ministries as found in the early communities. In the beginning the Eucharist, or the Breaking of Bread, appears to have been presided over by any man or woman so appointed by the community for the occasion. Very often, it was the host or hostess in whose home the celebration was taking place. With time, growth and complexity came structure with all of its limitations and benefits. By the 2nd century, the community elected bishops from the ranks of ordained priests, although some were elected, ordained priest, and immediately ordained bishop. These bishops were expected to continue the established service of elders and administrators. They, and the priests who had also been approved by the community before being ordained by a bishop were, by then, the sole presiders at the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice.

You might be wondering, at this point, if those early 1st century Eucharists were, in fact, valid in terms of the consecration of the bread and wine. I have no trouble in concluding that they were. But it does not follow that a group of Catholics could gather round the kitchen table today, appoint one as celebrant, and have a valid Eucharist. Determination of the requirements for the validity of any celebration of the sacraments is the sole prerogative of pope and bishops, and current legislation is very clear. However, the practice and experience of the early Church has a great deal to say to the Church of today about possible responses to the severe lack of seminary-trained priests in some parts of the world wherein Catholics are effectively deprived of the sacraments. But I digress...

By the 4th century, the Church, being free from persecution, was growing by leaps and bounds. The bishops were now in charge of larger territories, which encompassed several parish communities, each of which was served by a priest. Constantine was emperor, and everybody who was anybody became a Christian. Constantine himself, in spite of his mother’s protestations, decided to put off Baptism until old age, so as not to impede his social life. A royal edict effectively put the clergy on pedestals and thus was the scene set for future centuries of clerical alienation from the common people.

The bishops took on all the trappings of their newfound wealth, including estates and lands and the right to collect taxes. Titles, such as « My Lord Bishop », « Your Excellency », and « Your Grace » became part of an increasingly secular church with monarchical popes and cardinal princes at the top of the heap. And at the bottom, the people of God, called upon by largely ignorant and illiterate priests, to pray, pay and obey. Bishops lived in palaces and were enthroned in their cathedrals. POWER became the key word: Princely political power for the bishops and cultic power, usually shrouded in mystery, for the parish priests.

By the 12th century, the clerical culture, which so dominated the western churches, became even more estranged from the day-to-day life of the masses. This was done through the imposition of celibacy upon all in Holy Orders. The reasons for this were several and complex and, at this point in history, mostly practical rather than spiritual. The result was to cement the clergy to their pedestals, and to set the scene for scandals of yet another kind.

The imposition of celibacy also lent credibility to the error which attaches greater spiritual value to celibacy than to marriage; an error which has its proponents, even today.

Such, in general, were the conditions until Martin Luther took hammer and nail, and pen and paper, and declared enough to be enough. I think it was rightly said that, to a large extent, the Protestant reformation was: « an honest revolt against corruption and ineptitude in the Church ». (Joseph Martos, "Doors to the Sacred"). But more about this later.

Back in the 5th century when the western empire caved in to the massive incursion of German tribes, it was the lord’s bishop who took charge and brought some order to civil affairs. Eventually when most of the conquerors came to accept Christianity, the bishop’s position was strengthened even more. Thus, later on when the feudal system became the norm, the bishops emerged as a major power in both church and state. With the exception of principal liturgical celebrations, pastoral work was done entirely by priests. The deaconate had pretty well disappeared by the early Middle Ages.

Every feudal lord, whether bishop or layman, was obliged to furnish churches and, from his peasant community, select future priests who were sent to study under a bishop prior to being ordained. Priests were often succeeded by their own sons, if the lord agreed. It was a part-time job. The priest was usually employed by his feudal master as a clerk or steward, and in spite of the regulations to the contrary, he was more than likely to be married. Meanwhile, most of those who joined monastic communities remained celibate for the right reasons, and these men and women were seen as pre-eminent examples of Christian virtue. This put pressure on some of the bishops and priests and so they tended to « opt » for celibacy as well. In other words, their image, by comparison, was suffering, and so they felt they had to do something about it. The monks and sisters preserved that which was best in the Christian tradition in terms of scholarship, charitable works, and liturgical expression. It was missionary monks who first brought the sacrament of private confession to ordinary folk. There is some reason to believe that St. Patrick played a prominent role in this particular matter.

In the meantime, Rome continued to evolve as the centre of authority and unity. It was at this time, that the pastors of the Roman churches evolved into the College of Cardinals, which in turn expanded its membership into key locations in Western Europe. Successive general councils re-enforced the discipline of celibacy for all clerics as a reflection of their primary responsibility to Christ and His church. But the reality, unfortunately, was a continuing decline in morality and integrity amongst the non-monastic clergy, and from bishops to cardinals to popes, the church was a forum for political intrigue and power brokering. The saints were definitely out there, but they were often hard to find. It went from bad to worse. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the leadership of the church fell into a state of unprecedented confusion and immorality. Popes vied with anti-popes and concerned themselves with such matters as ensuring that their illegitimate children married well. Meanwhile one in three Europeans died from the Plague and the butcher’s bill for the Hundred Years War was an on-going horror. Not surprisingly, there was a widespread loss of confidence in the institutional church. Faith was simply focused on personal experience and superstition was rampant. Martin Luther and others called for reform, and it was high time!!

As is the case with many reforms and revolutions, some went too far, and the baby went with the bathwater, but at least they were zealous to purify, and did so in the name of Christ.

Central to the Reformation was the rejection of a much-abused priesthood, but with it went the pearl of great price, the Eucharistic sacrifice. A depleted and wounded church answered the reformation with the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed the priesthood and its cultic and sacramental aspects. The counter-reformation, starring such heroes as Sts. Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales, had much to say about the selection and training of clergy. The religious orders of men and women, such as the Benedictines and the Franciscans, provided scholarship and authentic spiritual enlightenment. Church structure was defined clearly and obedience to God’s will, as expressed through one’s religious superior, became a binding force which produced a period of stability well into the 20th century, when the church of Trent gave way, albeit fitfully, to the church of Vatican II.

But that having been said, I think it can be argued that the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation produced no winners, and a multitude of losers. The effects of the subsequent polarization can still be seen and felt today. The Protestants placed all of their emphasis on the preaching of Scripture and the Catholics, on the Sacraments, and by implication, the priesthood. The Protestants saw no use for the priesthood; Catholics ignored all significant aspects of Baptismally generated ministry, and made the priesthood the focus of all ministry and authority with the Scriptures being but one of the major tools in their sacred hands. This brought into full bloom the modern male, celibate, priestly culture, the total dominance of which, I believe, has seriously inhibited the evolution of the Church.

The Holy Spirit seemed to break through in response to John XXIII’s invitation, characterized by his opening of the windows and concretized by Vatican II. It seems that even the most well-intentioned fathers of the Council did not fully grasp the degree of hope and expectation with which their inspired words were welcomed by so many struggling priests and, as time passed, the priesthood lost many of its most promising members. They could sense the windows closing again, and their despair was seen and heard throughout the world.

Once more the proverbial wagons were put in a circle and though many valuable reforms were enacted, including the essential balancing of word and sacrament, we continue to this day to stumble over the necessary concomitant positioning of the ministerial priesthood within the wider context of that priesthood of all of the baptized, a context within which all are equal in dignity, value, and mission. For this to happen, the clerical culture must die.

I believe the Holy Spirit to be hard at work on this, and that we have here, at least, a partial explanation for the dramatic drop-off in vocations to the priesthood. I think it quite possible that the Church, as it now presents itself, is more and more likely to attract young men who are seeking a brotherhood, which finds comfort in moral and theological rigidity, as well as status in clerical elitism. This may have been, more or less, acceptable in the past but is surely out of step with the Church of tomorrow. Perhaps Divine wisdom is waiting for us. Waiting for us to support a fresh and healthy image with which a broader spectrum of potential candidates will be able to identify.

What I have just written will cause many to grind their teeth and cry foul, but please remember that I have been an active member of this culture for almost half a century, and I know, without a doubt, that many of my confreres and, more importantly, many of the other men and women who are the Church, will breath a long, loud « YES! »

And so to the future. I believe that once local bishops are restored to their rightful place in the scheme of things, (see "Rome and the Bishops") that the best among them will encourage each other and the best of their fellow priests to espouse the hopes and values of the people they are privileged to serve and to accept their expertise and their right to share positions of leadership and authority within a renewed church, which is no longer priest-centred, in the sense that policy and decision-making authority will no longer be the exclusive domain of clergy.

The bishop will still remain the leader of the local church, but his appointment will be subject to the approval of that church. He will be expected to ensure that, through his own ministry and that of the deacons and priests of his diocese, the Gospel is competently preached, and the Sacraments authentically, dutifully and zealously administered. His will be the primary responsibility of making certain that the spiritual good of the community takes precedence over all the desires, demands and reputation of the priests. Problem priests should not be passed from pulpit to pulpit, but should be taken out of service and offered whatever remedial help is available and, if necessary, relieved of all priestly responsibility and helped to find an alternate way of life. The common good of the church must at all times be the main factor in such decisions.

The bishop will be expected to ensure that he and other ministers of the diocese have ample time for prayer and study, and he will support training programs for men and women whose careers will be in various levels of church administration and specialized ministry.

I foresee lay administrators, whether of individual or clustered parishes, whose authority will demand the respect of ministering clergy. I believe we will see well-trained specialists in fields such as liturgical music, marriage preparation, pastoral counseling, spiritual direction and sacramental preparation. I expect these people, as well as parish secretaries and maintenance workers, to be paid wages in keeping with their training and experience. They should have the same medical coverage, pensions, etc. as others in the broader community. There should not be a penalty attached to working for the church, and making your living doing so. Needless to say, adequately trained and motivated volunteers will, as in the past, be the mainstay of our parish communities.

It is easy to dream big dreams but, from a practical point of view, we must accept that our dreams will not be realized overnight. However, that does not mean that we should not share them, entering into open and free discussion of who we are and where we ought to be going.

A major question demanding much soul-searching is: To what extent will the laity accept the re-definition of ministry in the church? For many, the « leave-it-to-Father » policy has worked quite well and they see no need to change it. And needless to say, there are many pastors who will encourage this vote of confidence.

If we are eventually to balance the pastoral authority, responsibility and activity within our communities, it will become necessary to identify countless men and women who are willing to train and prepare for a life or a decade of ministry. This will also cost money. Celibate priests are cheap. That is one of the reasons for celibacy. Are our ecclesial communities prepared to give solid financial support to the reforms about which we dream and which are now all but inevitable?

The priest, as a true pastor, will have a mainly sacramental ministry. He will, however, play a key role in encouraging and motivating all these people, but will not be their superior simply by virtue of ordination. To repeat, the ordination to Holy Orders is to service, not power. These concepts provide real difficulties for many of today’s pastors who have operated within the traditional framework for all of their lives. Pope John Paul has given us an example of humility that must be emulated. He has asked for help in re-defining his role. Can we do less?

By now you will have come to the conclusion that I am anti-clerical. Well, you are right. In a sense, I am. I am also very concerned about the evolving image of priesthood. Many elements are impacting that image. I want so much to be proud. I have been privileged to know, admire and love many truly outstanding priests and bishops whose ministries have been and continue to be a blessing for our communities. I am proud to be a priest and my spirit rejoices in being His instrument. Every day, as I celebrate the Eucharist, I know there is nothing I could be doing which could be more meaningful, significant, or relevant than standing at the altar and pulpit speaking on behalf of the community and, in the name of Christ, to the community. Having said that, I think that I have already made it clear as to what it is that I reject within the ethos of the clerical culture that we have inherited.

Priests will always be central to the life of a church, and this, regardless of gender, or marital status. I suggest to you that before we reach the point of ordaining women to the priesthood, we must prepare a level playing field. I think that several steps will have to be taken to this end. It will take time but we must understand the present in the light of the past and look to the future in the light of the present, holding on to traditions that stand up under the most objective scrutiny and having the courage to discard attitudes and policies, which do not. And this no matter how old and comfortable they may be.

I repeat, what must be dissolved, forever, is the clerical culture which sets us apart and suggests superiority at so many levels; a culture within which our priests have traditionally been nourished and rewarded. The best of pastors will still merit the title, « Father », not in the sense of « Pater Familias », but rather as conduits of Divine life, love and forgiveness. Frankly, it is a title of which I am very proud, and of which I want, more than anything, to become worthy. St. Pius X, when first elected to the papacy, was asked his preference among all the papal titles. « If only I could once again be addressed as « Father », was his nostalgic response.

Nevertheless, I envisage the shedding of that title, along with non-liturgical clerical attire coupled with a fresh, unencumbered approach to the whole question of clerical celibacy to be necessary steps toward establishing that level playing field upon which we can all stand as equals regardless of gender and prayerfully and humbly explore, together, the future of Holy Orders in The Roman Catholic Church.

Some of you will have noticed the narrow focus of this outline. I have, for the sake of brevity, not to mention personal ignorance, said very little about the Religious Orders of men and women without whose members God only knows where we would be today. I hope that you will see fit to fill in the gaps!

The future of ministry in the church lies with the full realization of the potential of the vast number of men and women who are baptized and thus called to Christian ministry within communities ranging from one’s own family to the global family. A ministry not of power but of service. Needless to say, not all will respond. The future lies no less with those in Holy Orders and clearly, not all of those will respond either, but positive responses from both are already being heard. Great things are happening in communities throughout the world, but it amounts to a breeze here and a breeze there. The vision must be shared, enlarged and enriched. That is where you come in. I look forward to your input and interaction.


Your comments are welcome.

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