Category Archives: Eucharist

The Scandal of the 2011 Missal


Why exactly did we find ourselves in 2011 suddenly obliged to declare that Jesus as Son of God is ‘consubstantial’ with the Father?  Why had it been supposed that this would clarify what had been meant by ‘of one being with’ the Father – the previous translation of the Creed from the Roman missal, used in Ireland since 1972?

And why in the same prayer were we now saying that ‘For us men and for our salvation’ Jesus had come down from heaven, when ‘for us and our salvation’ would have left half of the human race untroubled by the possibility that only those with male chromosomes could fully enthuse about that event?

As for terms such as ‘oblation’, ‘prevenient grace’ and ‘sustenance’ – and flatly ugly and incomprehensible phrases such as ‘merit to become co-heirs’ – who exactly had supposed that the liturgy had been improved in solemnity and clarity by these?  Had English truly been the vernacular of the person or persons who had delivered these galumphing atrocities?

And why those impossibly long sentences in the Eucharistic Prayers at the centre of the Mass, prayers that so often lead officiating clergy to substitute Eucharistic Prayer II, the most succinct of the four, for any of the other three?

For a truly literate, succinct and quite shocking explanation of these mysteries the curious reader need look no further than ‘Lost in Translation’ by O’Collins and Wilkins.  In just over 100 pages this (for me indispensable) book tells us not only why we are still trying to pronounce the unpronounceable at Mass, but why we should instead be using a far superior translation of the missal prepared by people who could speak and write English – a translation that was shelved in 1998 in the cause of what looks extraordinarily like Roman pique and amour propre.

The timeline at the foot of this review will summarise the complete dreadful tale – of what can only be interpreted as Roman resentment that Vatican II had given Catholic bishops anywhere the strange notion that they could do without Roman supervision when it came to deciding what wordage was to convey the meaning of the liturgy in Ireland, England, New Zealand, The United States, Australia et al.

It was especially interesting to learn here why such luminaries as Evagrius of Antioch, St Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Henry Newman had long ago rejected the practice of translating sacred texts in a simple word-for-word sequence, carrying over even the elaborate structure of complex Latin sentences to a language that still lives.  As brevity, simplicity and clarity are exemplified in, for example, Jesus’s rendition of the Lord’s prayer, it is surely to these ideals and to the meaning of the original that the translator needs to be faithful first of all.  Liturgiam Authenticam – the document that in 2001 mandated that translation take place on the basis of a quite contrary word-for-word method – flew in the face of advice given by St Thomas in the 13th century:

“It is . . . the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning but to adapt the mode of expression, so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.”

Yet this greatest of the medieval theologians was drawing on a far older tradition of paying attention first of all to the sense of the original.  As early as the fourth century Evagrius of Antioch had translated from Greek into Latin a life of St. Antony of Egypt – advising in the preface that “A word-for-word translation from one language into another conceals the meaning and strangles it, even as spreading couch grass [does to] a field of corn… Whatever lack may be in the words, there is none in the meaning. Let others go hunting after letters and syllables; do you seek for the meaning.”

How then could it have happened that in 2011 there would come a translation of the Missal that would flagrantly flout that long-established principle, and inflict the couch grass of ‘oblation’, ‘merit to’ – and the syntax of Cicero – etc upon all of us?  This slim volume cuts to the chase on this admirably.

It does far more than that.  It compares key passages in the 2011 Missal with what we might now be using instead, if the 1998 ICEL translation – the one that had satisfied eleven conferences of anglophone bishops and that is still gathering dust – had been accepted almost two decades ago by the Holy See.  Here, for example are comparable renditions of the prayer over the offerings for the feast of the Immaculate Conception:

1998 rejected ICEL version

In your goodness, Lord, receive the sacrifice of salvation which we offer on the feast of the immaculate conception. We profess in faith that your grace preserved the Virgin Mary from every stain of sin; through her intercession deliver us from all our faults.

2011 Missal version

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice which we offer you, O Lord, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.

To compare just these two passages is to see clearly the impact of the translation protocols at work in the 2011 missal.  Obsequious courtly terms such as ‘graciously’ and ‘solemnity’ – and theological power terms such as ‘prevenient’ must clutter up and extend the verbiage, and the passage must also be one long single sentence.  The normal conventions of punctuation, aimed at the needs of the celebrant who must enunciate the text, have been sacrificed in the cause of pomposity.  Most importantly, the meaning of ‘prevenient’ – perfectly rendered in the 1998 translation – has been lost in the 2011 version.

As I obviously cannot go on here with further such comparisons I can only urge those interested to read this book – to be convinced that the cause of the restoration of the discarded 1998 translation needs the most urgent support.

There is an even more important point made by this book:  that in overruling the anglophone bishops’ conferences on the missal this curial interference of the late 1900s was a flouting of a key principle of Vatican II – that key responsibility for church governance belongs to regional conferences of bishops also.  If the bishops of Ireland, England, Wales etc can so easily capitulate to such flagrant and foolish overreach, what kind of precedent has been set for the future, and what conclusions should those bishops now come to regarding other matters critical to the health of their own congregations – under a jurisdiction inclined (for how long?) towards decentralisation?  Those bishops too should read this book – as a warning to seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit (including fortitude) in any such future assault on Vatican II, the only sure gateway to the future – and to pray for those gifts right now also, in urgent consideration of a missal that clearly should not still be in required use.

I chose carefully the word ‘scandal’ for the title of this article.  A scandal is a ‘stumbling block’ – an obstacle to belief.  This short book explains how and why the 2011 missal became a clear obstacle to the belief that common sense, scholarship and wisdom will always guide the leaders of our church – and makes a formidable case for the conclusion that this travesty needs to be cleared out of everyone’s way as speedily as possible.

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Timeline

1963 – Sacrosanctum Concilium – Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – stipulates that responsibility for determining the liturgy would rest with the Holy See and the bishops of different regions.  It allows translation into the vernacular, to be ‘approved’ by regional bishops, and makes no mention of the need to have such translations ‘recognized’ by the Holy See.

1964 – Sacram Liturgiam – a motu proprio or personal edict by Pope Paul VI prescribes submitting translations to the Holy See for an official recognitio or approval.

1972 – ICEL – (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy) – introduces first vernacular translation of the Roman Missal.  This comes into use in 1973, and remains in use until 2011.

1981 – ICEL begins painstaking revision of the 1972 Missal.

1998 – ICEL wins support for new English translation from eleven English-speaking bishops’ conferences and submits this completed translation to Rome.  It is rejected without discussion by Cardinal Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who also then demands radical changes to ICEL which place it under Vatican control.

2001 – A new document, Liturgiam Authenticam, is issued by the CDW, changing the rules for translation of the liturgy and emphasising the need for word-for-word (rather than meaning-for-meaning) translation.

2011 – The 1972 missal is replaced by a new word-by-word translation prepared by a reconstituted ICEL, gifting English-speaking congregations everywhere with e.g. ‘consubstantial’ in place of ‘of one being’ in the Nicene Creed.  Lengthy sentences following the structure of Ciceronian Latin are declared literally ‘unspeakable’ by some priests – and in Ireland some clergy continue to use the 1972 translation.

2016 – Pope Francis appoints a commission to revisit the rules for translation set out in Liturgiam Authenticam .

2017 – (September) Pope Francis in the motu proprio ‘Magnum Principium’ restores to the conferences of English-speaking bishops the authority to translate the liturgy.

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Sexuality, Nature and Justice

How should we Catholics react to the presence of anyone involved in a same-sex marriage in any role of ministry in our church congregation?  Here I presented a very personal view.

Activist ‘forced’ lesbian couple to leave roles in church choir. So reported Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times on September 9th 2016. Less than five hours later, this headline had been replaced with Lesbian couple to retake church roles they were ‘forced’ to leave.

As such brief reports typically summarise and over-simplify a great deal of complexity, and I have no means of verifying the factual statements made in that report, I will refrain from attributing any of the reported ‘facts’ to any named individual. My purpose here is not factual reportage but personal reflection and comment upon a situation which we can regard as entirely hypothetical, as follows:

Person A, described as an ‘activist’, takes exception to the participation in a Catholic church choir, and in Eucharistic ministry, of Persons B and C – on the grounds that their gay civil marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching. Person A makes known this opposition in such a way that Persons B and C at first feel obliged to relinquish their membership of the choir. Sometime later they reverse this decision – influenced, it appears, by an unknown number of other members of the same church community who do not share Person A’s position.

The story is of interest to Catholics generally for the obvious reason that this situation could occur anywhere, posing (possibly) a clear challenge. We will all naturally ask ourselves ‘how would / will I respond in that same situation?’

Asking myself that same question, I place myself in the situation firstly of Person A, who becomes aware of the personal relationship of Persons B and C and their membership of the church choir in my own local church. What, if anything, do I feel compelled to do about this circumstance?

Yes, Persons B and C do appear to be in breach of a disciplinary position advised to us by the official leadership of the church – but is it not possible, even likely, that other members of the same congregation (and perhaps even I myself) are in breach of one or more other rules of the church, and that these other infractions could well be known to others present? As it is most unusual for anyone to take express exception to the presence of someone else in a church gathering, for whatever reason – even if that person is in some kind of ‘leadership’ role  – is this particular circumstance exceptional to a degree that obliges me to behave in an exceptional way?

On balance I strongly think not. For one thing, the official leadership of my church in Ireland has signally failed even to try to convince me that it has understood human sexuality as fully as this particular situation requires. No one yet has convinced me that the church’s ‘take’ on ‘natural law’ requirements regarding sexuality and marriage is binding in conscience – and none has ever entered into dialogue with me or anyone I know on the matter. (At 73, I have been a Mass-goer in Ireland all of my life.)

Furthermore, when it came to church management of other issues of sexual morality in the church – specifically clerical sexual abuse of children – huge injustices followed that have not yet been fully explained or healed. Had the principles of natural justice been followed in those circumstances, rather than the comparatively trivial matter of protecting popular trust in priestly celibacy, thousands of Catholic families throughout the Catholic world would have been saved from long-lasting trauma.

So the central question for me now in regard to all issues of sexual relationships is: ‘what are the requirements of justice here?’ Until the Catholic episcopal magisterium has also systematically addressed issues of sexuality and marriage under that criterion I will remain unconvinced by ‘natural law’ argumentation on matters of sex. (Instead, a US Catholic theologian who has systematically pursued that very line of inquiry has been censured – without any discussion, as usual – by the Holy See. That is in no way convincing either. * )

And knowing that the same bishops allowed priests guilty of clerical child abuse to continue to celebrate the Eucharist – without ever warning even the parents of those children who served on the altar – on what grounds would I feel compelled to complain about the presence of anyone in a same-sex marriage in the choir or in the role of a Eucharistic minister? How, in justice, could I do that? The question answers itself.

So, next, how would I react if someone else in my church community took such an action, leading to a decision by others to resign from any ministry open to lay people?

I honestly hope I would have reacted as others appear to have done in the case cited above: taken the trouble, firstly, to express disagreement with the action of Person A, and, secondly, to show solidarity with Persons B and C – for the reasons given above. I hope I would also take the opportunity to protest the total lack of opportunity to discuss such issues with clergy during the whole of my adult life – and to point out that this clear moratorium on dialogue has done untold damage to the faith and trust of so many families in Ireland, as well as to confidence in the said magisterium. For me, no ‘New Evangelisation’ can be effective in Ireland until that truly disastrous dialogical deficit is remedied.

Finally, I hope I would also take the trouble to oppose any move to ostracise or pressurise Person A into leaving my church community either, and to make known that opposition to Person A. When it comes to celebrating our central Eucharistic and penitential rite, all of us deeply need to embrace fully the principles of both mercy and inclusion – and to seize such ‘learning moments’ as a God-sent opportunity to begin the deep discussion that has been so disastrously delayed for so long. Person A also needs a hearing, and compassion – and this Year of Mercy surely requires of all of us a supreme effort to bear with one another as imperfect beings who are called, above all, to love.

* Margaret A Farley: ‘Just Love: A Framework for Sexual Ethics’ (Continuum, NY, 2006)

Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.

Notes:

  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007

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.