Category Archives: People of God

The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-sacrifice?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2007

“The specific leadership task of the priest is to foster not just any kind of community but one which embodies Gospel values at both the local and the global levels.” Donal Dorr, Do We Still Need Priests, Doctrine and Life, April 2007

In full agreement with this, I find myself asking the following supplementary question: What was the definitive priestly act of Jesus? Was it his institution of the Eucharist on the night before his crucifixion, or his passion and death the following day on Calvary?

So inextricably connected are these events that the question may seem naive, but it seems to me to go to the heart of our current need to discern the specific Christian priestly role today. As Donal Dorr pointed out, the generally accepted solution is that the priest celebrates Mass and grants absolution. However, neither of these roles need involve their actors in the endurance of suffering on behalf of others – the very heart of the mystery of the Eucharist itself. That is not to say that Catholic priests do not often lead heroic lives, but that we have not, sadly, been taught to see personal sacrifice as the distinctive and necessary characteristic of Catholic priesthood.

We need to make a key distinction here, to separate in our minds the first Eucharist – a symbolic, ritual event – and the crucifixion, the actual endurance of pain on behalf of others – a decidedly real, non-ritual, event. It was the latter alone that gave meaning to the former. Remembering Jesus’ devastating verdict on those who affected to be religious – that in winning a naive admiration they had received their due reward – we need to be especially mindful that if the church existed solely for ritual and symbolic purposes it would exist in vain. So, the actual bearing of pain on behalf of others is the essential core of Christian priesthood: if that does not happen our priestly ritual would essentially be an empty facade, and not Christian at all.

Especially we need to remember this because the essence of Jesus’ priesthood was his integrity – the fact that, unlike the pagan priest, he was also the real victim of the sacrifice that he had ritually celebrated. So how have we come to elevate the performance of ritual and sacrament – what might be called virtual or symbolic ministry – above what is actually more important: actual ministry, the taking of pain on behalf of others?

In stressing the priest’s obligation to provide Christian leadership, in stressing also that Christian leadership is something quite different from control, and in emphasising the need for prophetic witness, Donal Dorr is taking us towards a reintegration of symbolic and actual ministry. It is useful here to reflect upon the historical origins of their separation. The following paragraphs are taken from a standard history of our church:

“The clergy at first were not sharply differentiated from the laity in their lifestyle: The clergy married, raised families, and earned their livelihood at some trade or profession. But as the practice grew of paying them for their clerical work, they withdrew more and more from secular pursuits, until by the fourth century such withdrawal was deemed obligatory.

“An important factor in this change was the increasing stress laid on the cultic and ritualistic aspects of the ministry. At first the Christian presbyter or elder avoided any resemblance to the pagan or Jewish priests and, in fact, even deliberately refused to he called a priest. He saw his primary function as the ministry of the Word. The ritualistic features of his sacramental ministry were kept in a low key. Even as late as the fifth century, John Chrysostom still stressed preaching as the main task of the Christian minister. But the image of the Christian presbyter gradually took on a sacral character.

“This sacralization of the clergy was brought about by various developments – theological, liturgical, and legal. The Old Testament priesthood, for instance, was seen as the type and model for the New Testament priesthood. The more elaborate liturgy of the post-Constantinian era, with its features borrowed from paganism, enhanced the image of the minister as a sacred personage. The ministry of the Word diminished in importance when infant baptism became the rule rather than the exception, for infants could not be preached to. Imperial legislation established the clergy as an independent corporation with its own rights and immunities.”

[From: T. Bokenkotter, ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’, 2004,Pages 53-54]

It is clear from this that the earliest dis-integration of ritual ministry from actual ministry accompanied the growing ‘success’ of the church in the third and fourth centuries, culminating in Christian clergy replacing the pagan religious establishments. The priest who sought to follow and to witness to Christ in an era when this could be deeply dangerous was still likely to become the real victim of the ritual he celebrated. The person who found high position in the post-Constantinian church, on the other hand, had often no similar test of his integrity to pass. In fact, the role now usually guaranteed creature comforts and social status. Nothing else was needed to elevate ritual ministry – the public and theatrical aspect of Christianity – above actual ministry, and to separate the two.

After Constantine, Church leaders quickly became powerful enough to be victimisers themselves – and this deeply disordered situation persisted into the modern era.

Reform movements in the church were often a reaction to this dis-integration of actual and symbolic ministry – as was the Protestant Reformation in its emphasis upon the priesthood of all believers. So was Vatican II in its attempts to involve laity. Now today we are attempting to identify the specifically priestly ministry at the very time we are also attempting to discern what ‘involving the laity’ might mean. These problems are inseparable.

For the fact is that lay people already often are involved in actual self-sacrificial as distinct from ritual priestly ministry. I am not simply referring here to the heroic service that many individuals may give in charitable work or activism on issues of justice. I refer to the many critical service occupations that are poorly paid, such as nursing, counselling, teaching, youth ministry and caring for the disabled and the elderly. I refer also to the mundane fact that marriage, parenting and other family obligations, and even close friendships, often involve personal sacrifice to a marked degree. Why do we still suppose that the ordained priest is the model of Christian priesthood when his role does not necessarily involve self-sacrifice on behalf of others, and may in fact insulate the priest from any such obligation?

The reason is, I believe, that with the Constantinian shift something else was in danger of being lost in our understanding of the Calvary event: that Jesus’s integrity required that he accept the very opposite of the elevated social position of the priest of the ancient world, that he accept the social position of the slave. Here again, reform movements such as those of Saints Benedict and Francis of Assisi sought to re-identify Christian ministry with powerlessness, poverty and humility. However, secular clergy tended on the whole to continue to occupy socially elevated positions from which to critique the faults of the people, and this was especially true of those appointed as shepherds.

“I think we need more involvement of the laity,” insisted one secular priest recently when asked by a colleague what he thought needed to happen to reinvigorate the church in his own troubled Irish diocese. “Nonsense!” was the emphatic reply. For the latter ‘the church’ must remain essentially a clerical entity whose clerical proprietors simply mustn’t relinquish the very thing that Jesus did relinquish to become the archetypal Christian priest: the status that goes with exclusivity. The argument appears to be that if ‘vocations to the priesthood’ are to be encouraged at all, young men must continue to be offered an elevated status as an indispensable incentive

But if the ‘the church’ and priesthood have essentially to do with humility, self-sacrifice and service, it is indeed ‘nonsense’ to talk of ‘lay involvement in the church’ as though it wasn’t already a reality. There is a dire need instead for the actual living priesthood of the laity to be formally acknowledged by the clerical church, and for the wisdom that must obviously accompany that living priesthood to be released into the clerical church through structures that allow us to address one another for the first time as equals and collaborators. We need to think not of ‘involving the laity’ but of involving the clergy in the church of service that many of the laity already embody, and to convene the whole church for the first time in many centuries on that understanding.

So of course we still need priests, because all of us are called to the essence of Christian priesthood: actual service of others. Whether we need any longer an ordained elite to celebrate the Eucharist is an entirely different question, because elitism has always been dangerous to Christian priesthood, properly understood. That we should still be tied to an elitist and ritualistic conceptualisation of priesthood in order to continue to celebrate the sacred ritual of the Eucharist, and to receive the body of Christ, is one of the great ironies of the history of our church.

And as we fail this test of grasping fully what Christian priesthood actually means, our younger generations are walking away from our schools, many never to realise that in rejecting (or suffering exclusion from) membership of an historically limited version of priesthood they have not walked away from the essence of Christian priesthood. Male and female, if they retain their Christian idealism, and their spirit of service, they will bring to the secular world the very priesthood it needs for its restoration.

It is time to tell them this, as a matter of real urgency.

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The Greatest Scandal

Sean O’Conaill © Reality June 2002

How do Irish Catholic bishops understand the Catholic Church?  As the whole people of God under their care, or as essentially the ordained ministry, whose public prestige must be paramount?

This question lies at the root not just of the recent resignation of Bishop Comiskey, but of the settled deportment of the leadership of the Irish Church since the onset of a series of scandals a decade ago.  All of these scandals have had a common theme: the discovery and investigation by secular institutions – police, courts and media – of abuses of power and trust within the clerical Church.  This common theme – and the sufferings of hundreds of ordinary Catholic young people at the hands of their own clergy – points to an obvious dysfunction in the Church itself – its inability to give its own most vulnerable members the protection, care, attention and justice they must then seek from the secular state and the media.  Scandalously it declares the moral superiority – even from a Christian perspective, and at a time when some of the bishops have been lamenting the secularisation of Ireland – of secularism itself.

For a Church now being called by the papacy to re-evangelise the West this surely must be the greatest scandal of all.

Modern secularism originated in the ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century, when intellectuals dazzled by Newtonian science jumped to the conclusion that science, rather than faith, was the only reliable source of knowledge and social improvement.  Their scorning of the intellectual claims of Christian clergy put the Catholic clergy in opposition to modernity – a posture that the Irish church especially relished.  This opposition now haunts the church, as its own internal shortcomings continue to feed the incessant hunger of the secular media.

Freedom of the press was a primary principle of the Enlightenment, and of the secular liberalism the hierarchical Church came to detest.  So was the principle of a separation of state powers.  The US constitution, in which power is distributed between the Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court, was the great triumph of the Enlightenment, as US constitution makers in the period after 1783 borrowed freely from the ideas of Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers.  While Montesquieu’s principle made US presidents accountable to Congress and the Supreme Court, the Catholic Church put Montesquieu’s works on its list of demonic literature, the Roman Index.

The reason this happened was that the Catholic hierarchy of the time was dominated by the younger sons of the European landed aristocracy, whose older brothers were most threatened by democratic principles.  Attributing the democratic wave, the French revolution and secular liberalism to Freemasonry, the hierarchical Church went onto the defensive against modernity.  The Church, we were assured, is not a democracy.  And this meant that in an era of growing accountability for all institutions, the Church became unique in preventing the accountability of its own leadership.

The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s might well have ended this anomaly, defining the church as it did – as the whole people of God.  Yet Humanae Vitae of 1968, representing the priority of the principle of papal absolutism in the Church, put an end to this hope.  Support for Humanae Vitae became the litmus test of loyalty and a sine qua non for episcopal appointment and promotion in the long papacy of John Paul II.  This in turn guaranteed that the Irish church would remain a heavily paternalistic and secretive institution at its summit, increasingly out of touch with a rapidly modernising society.  Accountability of clergy to the people of God was never on the programme, and this is an entirely sufficient explanation for the state of affairs we now have.

And this is the greatest scandal now facing the Church in Ireland – that it still cannot prove itself to be an open and caring and adult institution, fully capable of protecting its own weakest members without external pressure.  Where the church in the Middle Ages could be seen as a sanctuary that would protect the lay person from secular violence and injustice, Irish victims of clerical violation today flee in the opposite direction –  to find sanctuary instead in secular institutions – while Irish bishops allow secular lawyers to determine their pastoral response to these victims.  As I write, the survivors of Fr Sean Fortune’s depredations are calling for a public enquiry into the handling of the abuse issue in the diocese of Ferns.  Such an enquiry would represent in Ireland the final  victory of secularism over Catholicism in the matter of vindicating the Church’s own victims.  No greater disgrace could befall our church leadership.

When the Brendan Smyth case hit the news in 1994 I felt sure that this scandal must finally establish principles of openness and accountability for the Irish church, and called for this in an article in Studies.  It never crossed my mind that eight years later we would still be suffering the scandal of paternalistic non-accountability, media pressure – and a serious shortfall in the matter of basic justice to violated young people.

Those wasted eight years will remain the most visible historical monument of the Church’s present leadership – unless they make an unprecedented effort to grasp the meaning of what is happening.  Why should Irish Catholics respect their own leaders, or their own church, if they must look to a state enquiry to explain what went wrong in Ferns – rather than to an enquiry freely and openly initiated by the Church itself?  What would prevent this – other than the failed policy of indicting secularism for all that is wrong with Ireland now?  If it is true that the state cannot constitutionally inquire into the manner in which the church conducts its own disciplinary business, the church leadership must be in no doubt that as members of the church, with families to protect,  Irish lay Catholics (and especially those damaged by this appalling tragedy) are owed such an investigation.

Secularism alone cannot, in fact, heal the wounds in the Irish church.  But the full truth could begin to do so, especially if the Church leadership were to seize this moment for a total revealing of what went wrong – open to full public and expert independent legal scrutiny.  There is at least one precedent for this.   Following the revelation of child abuse in Newfoundland in 1988 the Winter Commission, established by the Catholic Church, investigated abuse at Mount Cashel orphanage in the Newfoundland diocese of St John’s.  Chaired by a highly respected and independent former Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland, the Winter Commission proceeded with such scrupulous concern for the truth that its findings won almost universal acceptance when published in 1990.  (Ironically, these included the conclusions that the traditional non-accountability of Catholic clergy, and the emphasis placed upon the unquestionable authority of clergy, placed Catholic children at unacceptable risk.)

Must Irish Catholics wait yet again for our Church leadership to catch up, in terms of structural reform, with the times, with the demands of elementary justice to our own children, and with the pastoral needs of the church at a time of collapsing vocations to the ordained ministry?

This would make us all complicit in scandal.  Oddly enough, the full meaning of that word – scandal – is ‘stumbling block’, something that trips us up, something we would prefer to remain hidden.  That secular institutions should be still in advance of the church leadership in bringing to light matters of injustice within the church – eight years after the first such revelations – is itself a scandal too far for Irish Catholicism.  It is still within the power of our Church leaders to put an end to it, but their time is rapidly running out.

In the longer term Breda O’Brien’s idea of a Church ombudsman would be a step in the right direction, but given the other major problems of the Church just now, nothing less than a comprehensive structural reform of the church is likely to meet the situation, involving some kind of separation of administrative and pastoral functions.  The safety of Catholic children, and even the continuity of the faith, also demand formal and permanent lay parish structures, together with rights of regular assembly for all the faithful, at parish, diocesan and (eventually) national level.

Will this generation of Church leaders be able to forgive themselves if this opportunity too is missed, and the Irish Catholic Church remains a prime target for secular sensation and criticism?  Dr Comiskey’s resignation turns the media spotlight on the rest of the Irish conference of bishops.  They have little time left to prove they really do believe that the church is the whole people of God, and that they can run the Irish church justly and competently, without the supervision and pressure of the secular media and the secular state.

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