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Posted October 15, 2004

An excerpt from the Keynote Address of
Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe
Given at the NFPC Annual Convention

Father Radcliffe focused on three challenges that priests face in our identification with the universal church:

The distance between the teaching of the church and the experience of most ordinary Christians with whom we live.

The polarization within the church.

How we might endure in joy at this time when the church is so afflicted by scandals.

On the first point, Radcliffe asks the question: “How can we make our priestly lives with people and build community when we are seen as public representatives of a moral vision that so many people either do not accept, or find it almost impossible to live?”

Radcliffe is not questioning the truth of the teaching just “its incomprehensibility or apparent impossibility for many people.” We may believe deeply in the church’s moral teaching, and still be demoralized by the seeming impossibility of reaching people with that message. Yet, Radcliffe believes this is where we are called to be as priests, “between the orthodox and unorthodox.” A divided heart is a characteristic pain of our vocation, and experiencing that pain is a sign of a good priest. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of those who find themselves in irregular situations, “hear with their ears, see with their eyes, feel with their skin, be them in some sense . . .and then discover with them how to preach the Word of God and the teaching of the church.” He uses the image of priest as midwife, one who listens to the gospel, the church’s teaching, and from within the culture of his own people and with them, “to see how God’s word may be born here and now . . .with God’s eternal newness.” Thus the pain of living in this seeming chasm can be the pain of childbirth, of incarnation. To sustain this tension, he says, there needs to be a strong mutual solidarity among priests. This also means we need to engage our bishops as brothers in the spirit of Presbyterorum Ordinis. If we do not, we either find ourselves as ecclesiastical ‘yes men’ or as permanent rebels, either of which can destroy us as mediators and midwives.

A commentary on these thoughts by Gene Hemrick

I wonder how much time priests have today to study and really know the moral teachings of the church. My experience is that many priests, especially young priests, are now in charge of two or more parishes, and are consumed with duties that allow for little time to read or continue their education. It is not that they can’t connect with people on moral issues, but that they don’t have time to make all the moral connections needed to connect in an inspiring, meaningful manner.

One well-known scripture teacher used to drill into his students: “Study is ministry!” More than ever, it would seem that the priesthood needs to uphold its tradition of continuing education in order to be able to truly minister.

Pope Paul VI was well known for his emphasis on the need for sociology. He repeated it over and over, “sociology, sociology, sociology!” In order to fulfill the role of prophecy as a priest, we need to know our people, and yes, “feel with their skin.” But this implies we take sociology seriously, and this again implies continuing our education. Study means stepping back from daily duties and making reflection time and study a primary duty.