Scattering the Proud – Chapter X

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Bridging the Chasm within the Church

The shortest-lived pope of the twentieth century, John Paul I, found time to say the following:

A little more than a hundred years have passed since the decline of the temporal power of the popes; otherwise I too would now be a pope-king, with an army of soldiers and perhaps a police force to protect the goods, the lands and the palaces of the popes. How beautiful it would have been if the pope had himself voluntarily renounced all temporal power! He should have done it first. Let us give thanks to the Lord who has willed it and has done it.1Quoted in Luigi Accattoli, When a Pope asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II, Alba House, 1998, p. 44

This statement has importance for a number of reasons.

First, it is an acknowledgement of the historical significance of the present era for the church, one in which it has lost most of the worldly power which it acquired in the fourth century, and which the world again gradually took from it in the modern era. It is a fundamental repudiation of the Augustinian option in favour of temporal power as a means of building the kingdom of God. Second, it is a joyful acceptance of that disempowerment. Thirdly, it allows us to identify the nature of our own era – one in which the Christian, as Christian, is often as powerless as he was prior to the Constantinian conversion.

Worldly power allows us to command others in the knowledge that we will be obeyed. Powerless, we cannot do so. We are obliged to act in fellowship with one another. It is clear from the gospels that Jesus did not sort the apostles into a hierarchy of importance and esteem, and that this caused them problems: hierarchy of esteem was natural in the ancient world. His command was ‘love one another as I have loved you’. His love was expressed above all in his invitation of his followers into the sonship and daughtership of the Father. That wondrous fellowship should be the chief characteristic of the church, not the pyramid of esteem and power it also became for so long.

Power is Not ‘Good News’

Another implication of the pope’s statement is that the church can no longer develop by wielding worldly power. The era when the conversion of rulers overawed by Christendom was followed automatically by conversion of those they ruled, is long gone. That era spoke also of the worldly power of the church, and it was to this power that many of its converts bowed, rather than to the wondrous fellowship of the church’s founder.

We have arrived, in other words, at a point of supreme vulnerability, for we have lost control of the future. Or rather we have lost the illusion of control.

Augustine seized the moment of worldly empowerment of the church in the fourth century to envisage a global Christian empire. The church spent a millennium following that illusion, and then another half millennium defending it, never giving an inch, as John paul I acknowledged. God clearly does not want the church to control the earth. God’s programme is liberation, not control, so the conscious powerlessness of the Christian is an asset in communicating this truth.

Vulnerability is not Weakness

It is an era of vulnerability, in which the Christian has no option other than to serve, in a world full of lost individuals who have tried and failed to climb the pyramid of esteem. It falls to the church, and to all men of good will who can understand the downward journey, to offer to these what Christ offered – an unearthly dignity in fellowship in which the pyramid of esteem has been banished.

Jesus’ downward journey took him to a position of extreme vulnerability, and it is still essentially this vulnerability that draws us to him. It is, therefore, inappropriate that there should ever be a struggle for power within the church. The power of the Christian is the power that Christ deliberately demonstrated at the last supper – the power to serve. We know from the gospel of St Luke that at that meal there was another of those paroxysms of jealousy among the apostles, another attempt to establish, while Jesus was still with them, a pyramid of esteem. So Jesus’ washing of their feet is likely to have been a deliberate response. Even if not, the passage will have an eternal significance, for as long as we humans continue to build the pyramid.

Resolving the Problem of Clericalism

It is true that, in the Tridentine era, the Catholic clergy was given a virtual monopoly of leadership, liturgy and initiative in the church, and that most Catholics came to identify the church with clergy. The role of the lay Catholic was generally passive and compliant, conditioned to thinking of the cleric as in all ways more competent in the articulation, celebration and application of the faith. It is also true that there are those in the church who wish to maintain this pyramid of esteem and competence, contrary to the spirit of Vatican II. However, the disempowerment of the clerical church continues, compelling us to take thought of how a de-clericalised church can survive.

Careful study reveals that an omnicompetent clergy, responsible for the maintenance and culture of the church, was unknown to the early Christians. Excluded from Temple and synagogue, their ‘sacrifice’, their ‘altar’, their ‘temple’, their ‘priest’ were Christ, and they shared in this priesthood through baptism and the sacrifice of their own lives. They used a non-priestly vocabulary to identify their leading ministers: episcopus, presbyter, deacon. Only in the course of time did the terms bishop and priest come to supplant the first two of these, and to define a clerical elite distinct from the laity.

Two things are clear from this: the need to enhance the spirit of fellowship between priest and people, and to remove the barriers to this that exist; and the need to spread the burden of conscious responsibility more widely, while maintaining continuity with the best aspects of the clerical system. The appointment of lay ministers of the eucharist and lay readers is an important step in this direction, but there is still a heavy and dangerous reliance upon the theological, pastoral, administrative and liturgical expertise of the celibate priest — an endangered species nowadays. This is an important aspect of the crisis that faces the church.

However, in this crisis we are all free to serve in some ways, if not in all. The most important service we can all give, no matter what our rank and education, is to communicate the abiding love of the author of all life for all individuals, no matter what their worldly status, lay or clerical.

It is in the washing of the feet — that is, in service — that the power of God is exercised. We must all aspire to that service, not simply wait for a change of personnel and policy at the summit of the ecclesiastical pyramid. If the word ‘ministry’ means service, every Christian is a minister.

Lay People Must Lead

It follows from all of this that the lay Christian, male and female, living in the world, is at the leading edge of the church’s development in the twenty-first century. Our lives are lived vulnerably in the world, giving us an understanding of its nature and of its general heartlessness. We live among the casualties of the upward journey, and can recognise them as equal children of the Father. These are the lost sheep of the new millennium. There will be many of them — the bitter, the cynical, the disillusioned, the addicted, the uneducated. The church was intended for all of these, and only the laity can effectively communicate this truth.

It is, above all, our privilege to welcome these casualties into a joyful fellowship marked by equal esteem, irrespective of the history of individuals. All of us must take most seriously the parable of the vineyard whose owner pays all of the workers the same at the end of the day. Those who are already joyfully in the kingdom should not mind in the least that their reward is the same as for those who have just entered. The owner is the Lord, whose company they will have known for a little longer; the work they do is the communication of this joy to those outside – and the reward for all at the end of the day is the company of the Lord forever.


  1. Quoted in Luigi Accattoli, When a Pope asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II, Alba House, 1998, p. 44