Posted July 14, 2005
Father, How Do You See The Priesthood?
“It’s not over! We are still losing priests ordained 5 to 10 years, and also those in the 40 to 50 age bracket.”
The words are those of a concerned archbishop. When asked what priests say when they leave, he said many fear the loss of intimacy – the camaraderie type intimacy of peer priests or of marriage. They fear going into old age alone.
More startling than this were priests who said that they never saw their priesthood being the way it is. Let’s focus on this latter statement.
Given fewer priests and a growing disillusionment we ask, Father, do you see the crying need for religion that social analysts perceive, and a fortiori, the need for the priesthood? In addition to your personal calling from God, do you hear a concerned society calling for the priesthood?
To answer these questions let’s 1. Examine the nature of society’s call for religion. 2. Society’s suggestions for the priesthood.
Defining Religious Connectiveness
Research often looks for variables that seem to come together. When it finds coalescing it asks what the common denominator is – a common theme?
Over the last few years one theme in particular has surfaced — the need for religion, especially its power to connect individuals with their true self, and communities with the essentials needed for a lasting and wholesome existence. What is the “religious connectiveness” of which we speak?
It is synonymous to spiritual bonding found in the Christian community — koinonia. It is the dynamism in I-thou relationships that are essential to sacramental living; a sense of oneness we experience because of a common belief in the Creed. It is the bridging and bonding reconciliation and forgiveness beget. Finally, it is a unity of purpose in our lives that comes from believing in essential religious truths. In each case, social analysts see religion causing spiritual connections no other social process can reduplicate.
Call for Religious Connectiveness
Where do we find examples of a need for religious connectiveness? It surfaces in family ministry and social justice studies that report an increasing number of people who have lost touch with self or with society. They are searching for bridges – reconciliation or acceptance as a means of generating wholeness.
Connectiveness is called for by religious denominations with dwindling memberships who report that they are reviving their creeds to better connect themselves with a deeper purpose for existing.
The need for connectiveness is found in lay persons affiliating with religious orders and lay volunteer groups like the Jesuit Lay Volunteers.
Connectiveness is urged by social analysts who are beseeching religion to become more central in our culture. They see connectiveness as a power that can form lasting communities – gemeinschafts.
Of special importance are the concerns of analysts who feel that religion is weak in connecting people with the sacred because it has become too assimilated into our secular society. They call for renewal – an increase of religious interpreters who can provide connections between essential questions of life: How do we cope with death? How do we truly celebrate life? How do we best channel our newly found technologies? What virtues in particular does today’s society need? How do we maintain sacredness and avoid the profane, and how do we become our essential self – a self that grows in selflessness?
These analysts see a creed and sacred rituals as historical necessities and call for religion to become more meaningful.
Let’s look even more closely at the need for spiritual connectiveness.
After one of my Sunday Masses a parishioner, who is a doctor, startled me with the words: “You should put in for a grant. You could get a couple of million dollars if you did.”
“A grant for what?” I asked.
The doctor explained that she recently partook in studies on drug addiction and that the data point to a need to re-examine the role religion plays in coping. It was found that many women coping with drugs or who have AIDS find “God represented the only hope and salvation for them. For those particularly religious, confidence in God prepared them for anything that could happen. For others, God gave them the patience to endure the situation, the poverty and the anxieties. It empowered them with perseverance.”
The doctor informed me that the medical field is increasingly seeing the importance of religion as a major variable in studying the epidemic of AIDS. As we spoke it became clear that these studies had identified a principle similar to that on which Alcoholics Anonymous is based, i.e., connection with a supreme being is crucial for making a person whole and maintaining that wholeness.
Weeks later in a talk at The Catholic University of America I referred to these findings and found myself surrounded by young professors who were studying problem children. They confided they also had found that religious upbringing is critical to establishing a youth’s sense of well-being. Let’s pause here and review specifically religion’s role in these instances.
Religious Connectiveness and Coping
One interpretation of the above could be that these victims are now relating their life to the beyond. When that beyond translates into God, it could also be interpreted as fear of the Lord, i.e., reverential awe for the Divine that is the beginning of Wisdom. The awe of which we speak is the total surrender of self to a higher being. Awe is the realization of another’s greatness in comparison to our limitations. It creates a sense of honor in that we feel honored to be a party to greatness.
In the above cases, we could be seeing the principle: union with God creates a new world for these persons, and allows them to see a fuller life. In the words of English poet Edmund Waller, “leaving the old, both worlds at once they view, that upon the threshold of the new.” In entering a new world, we have the essence of faith. It is the realization God is acting in our life and that we are to take part in the action. Faith opens mental boundaries and gives us a new set of eyes that enables us to see more options in life.
When the idea of opening mental boundaries is further developed, it translates into opening one’s space. To cope with an addition, or any serious problem, perceptions must be changed and faith restored. Psychologically, debilitating problems smother our space by causing self doubts, fears, guilt, mistrust, and poor self-imaging. Once a troubled person is in this state of mind often he or she fits G.K. Chesterton’s definition of lunacy. The person, like the moon [lunar], is circumscribed.
“There is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.” Worst of all, a circle leaves no openings through which to escape.
Getting in contact with God breaks the circle of lunacy by connecting us with another world – a world capable of expanding the imagination and filling it with such transcendental ideas as: through death comes resurrection; through suffering redemption is won; the act of perseverance is victory in itself; the more we give self to God, the more we become self. Each idea connects with a higher cause. By doing so, we receive the power to understand the shadowy side of self by dwelling on the transcendent. In a very real way we are into logotherapy whereby essential meaning is put into life — a meaning that Dr. Viktor Frankl, the originator of logotherapy, demonstrated can enable us to persevere under unbearable conditions — conditions like a Nazi Dachau.
Are these contributions of religion its ultimate contributions? By no means! Ultimately, religion’s aim is to unite us with a significant other – to create a sacramental union. When we put confidence in God, it is this significant other that generates confidence. “All real living is meeting – an I-thou relationship,” Martin Buber tells us. By turning to God we generate the ultimate I-thou relationship and turn on to life itself. Religion goes beyond coping, and takes its rightful role of keeping Creator and created linked. Moreover, religion provides unity of purpose. All we do and are is connected with an ultimate purpose.
Today, innumerable people cope with problems from chemical dependency and poor self-esteem to broken relationships and disillusionment. Many have lost touch or come from backgrounds with no role model — no significant other upon which to fashion their life. Their memory is devoid of these images and the imagination is incapable of creating one. They are alone – disconnected, social outcast, I without thou, created but orphaned from the Creator.
One meaning of sin is that a person has lost his or her way like a poorly directed arrow missing the mark. One the other hand, many persons have good role models and know sound principles but are detoured. What do they need? A priesthood consisting of the Viktor Frankls, Martin Bubers, Thomas Mertons and Karl Rahners – translators who know how to put religion’s meaning into contemporary life, to create I-thou relationships and setup road signs that point to the main road.
Up to here there has been an attempt to demonstrate how religion can connect coping people with the spiritual and thus give them needed confidence, perseverance, and the power to overcome. It would be incorrect to interpret religion as if it could single-handedly solve all problems. Human problems are never simple. They involve people with different genes, poverty, discrimination, and a myriad of other developmental, psychological, social, economic and political barriers. The point here is that social, medical, and political scientists often have dealt only with these non-religious variables in seeking solutions. More and more they are now looking to religion to provide key variables for better understanding the problems they are researching. Science needs to include questions about God’s place in one’s life if it is to fully understand how coping, therapy and healing can success. It requires theologians who can relate religion to these problems in a meaningful way.
Science and Religion
We need to recall that science and religion often have been suspicious of each other. The Age of Reason ushered in a time in which science and reason were given precedence over faith. This led to belief in an unrestrained self, the unrestricted use of the expressive arts that exploited the sensual and demonic, and a decline in the belief in Heaven and Hell.
On the other hand, theology has always considered itself the supreme wisdom, the queen of all sciences and the principle of a Christian order of culture and knowledge. Unfortunately, poor theology reduced religion to superstition and some theologians forgot humility. In our present situation, we have holy wars that have also abused the use of religion.
Pope John Paul II has never seen science and theology as adversaries. In an important address on this topic he stated:
“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other to a wider world, a world in which both can florish.”
The pope recognized the historical moment.
“What is important – is that dialogue should continue and grow in depth and scope – that each discipline should continue to enrich, nourish, and challenge the other to be more fully what it can be and to contribute to our vision of who we are and who we are becoming.”
A new era of cooperation between science and religion is within our grasp. Let’s continue with other evidence pointing us to the cry for and need of connectiveness.
Religious Connectiveness in True Community
Robert Bellah writes in Habits of the Heart:
“Freedom (in our society) turns out to mean being left alone by others, not having other people’s values, ideas, or styles of life forced upon one, being free of arbitrary authority in work, family and political life. What it is that one might do with that freedom is much more difficult.”
Bellah finds that many Americans in emphasizing freedom are accentuating a selfish enclave mentality. They use freedom to surround themselves with choice groups in privatized environments, or to pursue self-fulfilling impulses that tend to withdraw them from active participation in citizenship. They have become disconnected and disinterested in society.
In 1968, Thomas Luckmann called this disconnectiveness “a secret religion.” Luckman maintains:
“People spend their workdays immersed in the tech-no-scientific procedures of the business world. After work they flee from this environment to their highly privatized and personal world where . . . The major themes of this new ‘sacred cosmos’: are individual autonomy, self-expression, self-realization, the mobility ethos, and sexuality. In such a context traditional institutionalized religions are eroding. They are being replaced by a new “invisible religion” which is both highly privatized and secularized.”
From Bellah and Luckman we learn that the opposite of true spiritual connectedness is a “religion” self-concern that causes a disconnectiveness in society. And why should this be countered?
Because it leads to selfish ambitions on the one hand and to the desire for inordinate domination on the other hand. Religion is seen as a deterrent to ambitions that are aimed at domination. But what would be good ambition? On this subject Bellah echoes Romano Guardini on the virtue of selflessness. Guardini states that the less we think about self the more we become our essential self – a self dedicated to duty without an eye for self-aggrandizement. A self which in acting this way expands its space.
Thus sensing one’s duty and devoting self entirely to it is a noble ambition. Unfortunately, much of society is just the opposite. It is too therapeutically sensitive, i.e., psychologically and physically overly concerned about self, self-reliant, narcissistic, volunteristic, in pursuit of self-fullment, and civically private. Each is a fault because it closes one’s space and causes a person to go inward and thus smother the essential self.
Interestingly, these societal faults are why work is less fulfilling. Devotion, which is a complete commitment of self to the task, is missing. Work should be seen as a calling. However, today work is often seen as what one can get out of it rather than how one can invest it with nobility.
Citing early American history, Bellah depicts the essence of religion’s connecting power and how society might create less selfish-minded communities.
“Kinship provided important imagery for the conception of the religious community. The people wee children of God the Father and brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet Christian community based on a universal obligation of love and concern for others that could be generalized beyond and even take precedence over, actual kinship obligations . . .(unfortunately) religion is undoubtedly less central in providing the basic pattern for our relating than it was earlier in our history.”
Two important points are made here. First, religious connectiveness goes beyond kinship. It is not community for community’s sake – a place of refuge fulfilling only personal needs. If it becomes this it is narcissistic and civically private. It must be based on a love that is connected with the beyond – with a significant otherness. This devotion to significant otherness is its outward driving force.
Second, in disparaging the present state of religion we hear a cry for its need. The same cry comes from other well-known historians and social theorists who extol religion’s power and at the same time decry its shortcomings.
Sociologist, Robert Nisbet observes,
“For if there is one generalization that can be made confidently about the history of the idea of progress, it is that throughout its history the idea has been closely linked with, has depended upon intellectual constructs derived from religions.”
“One of those intellectual constructs derived from religion is exactly the idea of an early American
community based on a “universal obligation of love and concern for others.”
Nisbet decries the present state of religion for failing to provide religious constructs because we have “just enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another – or enough to make us see the flaws and cankers of the society around us.”
Daniel Bell, an English sociologist likewise observes:
“. . . society has always felt the need for simple pieties, direct homilies, reassurances against their own secret impulses, but that until recently these people have been derided by the predominately liberal culture, and more importantly, abandoned by the clergy, who coming from the educated classes and subject to the conformist pressures of the liberal culture had lost their own nerve, and often, as well, their belief in God.”
In the words of Marx, Sto nada dielapbt? So what needs to be accomplished after all this has been said? What is it saying to today’s priesthood?
Priest as Pontifex
Jesuit Father, George Ashenbrenner wrote in 1983:
“Besides a growing need for prophets in the church today, there is an equally great need for bridge builders . . . The work of the bridge builder is creative, patient – and very difficult. It is a creativity that prevents community from capitulating to the least common denominator.”
When the theme of spiritual connectiveness is related to the priesthood, it adds new meaning to its nature, which is to be teacher, prophet, mediator, builder of community, configured in Christ, extension of the bishop, one set apart by a special character, and the like. It envisions priest as pontifex. The priest, not as the connection, but the priest as bridge builder – the engineer who causes the connection. It is a post conciliar vision of priest as the one who causes spanning out. In particular, where do studies point to the need for this role? Three areas of special interest are: 1. The marginal, i.e., the separated and divorced, and the growing number of singles, immigrants and people disaffected with the church. 2. The liturgy. 3. The priesthood itself.
Connecting with the Marginal
In October of 1989, I wrote a column titled, “Help for Divorced and Separated Catholics.” It began with questions from a Chicago archdiocesan tribunal pamphlet.
“Are the following statements true or false?
a. May not be sponsors at baptism and confirmation.
b. May not receive the sacraments of Eucharist and penance.
If you answered false to each of the questions, you are correct.”
The column went on to say “The questions are included in a packet offered by Phoenix, an organization of the Archdiocese of Chicago for separated and divorced Catholics.”
Because of the column, Phoenix received 409 inquiries from across the country. The inquiries ranged from divorced or separated persons who felt they were out of the Church to parents who sent letters like the following:
“Dear Father Hemrick,
I’ve just read your article. Our eldest son is divorced (3yrs.) And is raising 2 children – a son, 10, and a daughter 8. Could you let me know how I can get him the booklet ‘A Time for Healing’< or any other pamphlets put out by Phoenix. My son lives in Virginia. Thank you for your help.”
When these letters are studied one gets the feeling of St. Peter as he waded ashore when he recognized it was Christ standing there. He had denies Christ at the moment Christ most needed him. He needed a bridge – something to break the tension and get him back to Christ. Christ spans the distance instantly with the words, “Peter, do you love me?” The perfect bridge – beautifully timed, to the point.
Bridging sometimes can be as spontaneous as this but most often it takes engineering. Creativity and patience are needed. Let’s look at the challenges presented to priests as pontifex.
If 409 persons wrote how many more must be out there who don’t read Catholic newspapers? It would seem we have a bonanza and that the Church needs to better expand its outreach – to build longer bridges – to help those estranged so that they know the post conciliar Church wants to reach out to them. Herein begin the challenges to spiritual connectiveness. Does today’s priesthood see itself as networking engineers – providing not only a bridge for more to inquire, but longer bridges to help those on the periphery get back to shore? With fewer priests, does priesthood dare think about those on the periphery since getting them back will double and triple their work?
In some parishes we are witnessing “Christmas Homecoming”, an invitation to those who want to know more about the Church, or who feel they are out of the Church. The work of bridging involves creating a network of parishioners who will generate enthusiasm for the home-coming. This implies that parish and priests themselves are well networked – that laity and clergy share responsibilities harmoniously.
Further, Homecoming involves selecting magnet topics – interesting topics on divorce, sexism, confession, the Church’s view on birth control and abortion, spiritual renewal, etc. Areas of interest that may have caused a person to leave the Church or may appeal to a person interested in it. There is needed keen minds that can interpret what best speaks to the heart. Let’s stop and reflect on the challenge Nisbet or Bellah allude to when prompting religion to take a stronger role in society.
Do priests see themselves as a pontifex – creating an expansion bridge to reconnect the estranged? Does the priesthood see that in order to accomplish this it must have start by having in place bridges between parishioners and its pastors?
Does it see the historical moment – that this is the role social, political observers and a post-conciliar church are calling for?
Projects like Christmas Homecoming reflect a post-conciliar consciousness about the nature and mission of the Church, a church that is more inclusive and worldwide in outlook. Does today’s priesthood see a project like Homecoming as an interplay between First and Third world experiences? At the moment, we have been told that in South Africa alone 6.5 million people have AIDS. As technically advanced as we are, this is not only a tragedy, but also unconscionable. Do we likewise see as unconscionable the thousands who are morally dying to themselves because they have lost their way and don’t know of a post Vatican II Church and its desire for reconciliation, not damnation? Is there a missionary vision that sense the immediacy of the situation as if it were a Third World situation – a vision that is willing to bound parish boundaries and experiment with new means of communication and human networking technology? As scientists use satellites to quadrant specific sections of the earth to more minutely study it, are we scanning our parishes in a similar manner to learn where we might find the estranged? We now can generate personal letters with computers like never before. Are we doing this to make our outreach more effective? Let’s move to another marginal group that needs more connectiveness, immigrants and migrants.
Immigrants and migrants are still marginal in the church. To connect with them Archbishop Pio Laghi once urged bishops to go beyond the promoting of languages and to provide education in cultural differences. The challenges this presents are enormous.
In Guatemala, the Mayan Indians have the custom of incensing the steps of the church because they believe it dispels evil spirits. They also burn candles to the saints because they believe it is food for them.
Many years back when priests from Spain came to cities like Quezaltenango, they labeled these practices pagan. A riot ensued and the Spaniards had to leave. American missionaries came in and connected these practices with our own Catholic tradition.
This incident is similar to the historical Rites Controversy in China during the time of Jesuit Matteo Ricci. It is an old story so well depicted in the book The Ugly American in which Homer Akins goes to Vietnam, not with American know-how, but with a mentality to get Vietnamese to utilize their own know-how based on their culture. It is the same goal of self enabling found in the Champaign for Human Development. The question CCHD, the ugly American and Aschenbrenner raise for the priest as pontifex is: what mentality do priests bring to their work when faced with migrants and immigrants? Is it a melting-pot picture in which everyone must become as we are – in which bridges are built with the purpose of getting other to come to our side? Or, does it see effectiveness best achieved when we bridge cultures, but allow each culture to own its side of the bridge? Is it a mentality that advocates bridge building for the purpose of crossing over to imbibe in the richness of another’s culture? Here we see spanning in yet another way. It has a forward-backward motion to it. The bridge allows for two-way traffic and at times calls on the priesthood to take the first step. For example, many poor immigrants come from countries in which missionaries rode out to their villages to provide the sacraments. The immigrant of today is not familiar with an Irish or Italian neighborhood in which people could be seen walking to church each Sunday. To reach many of our new immigrants is there a realization that we must sometimes first go out to them if ever we expect them to come into a parish? Priest as pontifex means understanding these cultural differences and engineering accordingly.
Realistically, the ideas just proposed are very difficult to carry out. As poor as some immigrants are they can be very assertive and feel they have a right to their own church, their own rites, their own rules. This asserting of rights makes bridge building frustrating because non-immigrants have their own ways and feel this country is theirs. How to overcome these civically privatized tendencies is the challenge that first must be met before a missionary outreach and immigrant reciprocation are achieved.
Liturgy – Connecting with the Sacred
Some time back, the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life surveyed liturgies throughout the country by studying 71 Masses in 36 parishes over a period of 10 weeks. It learned: lay ministers are clearly used, as are the prayers of the faithful and the offertory procession; some music is used at most Masses; the Gospel procession has not caught on; a fifth of the homilies were not based on the readings; and that about 48% of the participants ranged from mechanical to the listless.
These findings define where we might best focus our bridge building in the liturgy. But before we ask for more volunteer readers, or hire a liturgist, we need to ask what is a true liturgical act?
All actions during the Mass can become liturgical acts, Romano Guardini tells us. The way we listen, hear and see, our posture and especially the way we relate in prayer to the community around us. Our attitudes and dispositions transform ordinary, mechanical and individualistic actions into sacred and communal actions. All depends on how deeply we enter into the sacred mysteries and create an I-thou relationship with them and those with whom we worship.
Guardini continues and tells us what we should ultimately look for in our liturgies.
“The liturgical act can be realized by looking. This does not merely mean that the sense of vision takes note of what is going on in front, but it is in itself a living participation in the act. I once experienced this in a Palermo Cathedral when I could sense the attention with which the people were following the blessings on Holy Saturday for hours on end without books or any words of ‘explanation.’ Much of this was, of course, an external ‘gazing’, but basically it was far more. The looking by the people was an act in itself; by looking they participated in the various actions.”
Priest as pontifex takes on a very different meaning than any offered so far. Here it means creating an atmosphere – to remove those distractions that often cause a liturgy to seem as if we were in the middle of a train station. As an engineer needs an eye for balance, is there not needed an eye for creating a proper liturgical atmosphere that fosters looking? Do we know what to look for in looking when it is applied to the Mass, baptisms, marriages and funerals?
A recent study in reconciliation points us to yet another area in liturgy where better religious connecting is needed. It was found that many Catholics are still avoiding confession because of past bad experiences. They are in need of new bridges – a catechesis that teaches a renewed rite of reconciliation.
It is through the sacraments primarily that a connection with the sacred is most fostered. Properly celebrated, they reflect religious connectiveness at its best.
Priesthood Connected with Self
Some time ago a priest friend and I took a long drive. During the trip he fell asleep several times and when he would awake I chided him about always being tired. He replied in Italian, ‘managia vecchiaio!’ Cursed be old age! A discussion ensued in which he felt that it was to work that was making him tired, but that he was doing boring work. He work had a sameness to it. After further discussion, he concluded that it was not the work that was boring, it was he who was boring. He had not taken a sabbatical after 26 years in the priesthood. He wasn’t updating himself, nor had he taken a good vacation. His work and an erratic life style had him so locked in that he didn’t know how to practice the art of leisure. Later, I reread Josef Pieper’s book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture to see if I could better understand what was missing in the work not only of this priest, but of priests in general. Pieper writes:
“God ended his work he had made and behold it was very good. In leisure, man too celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good.”
“To hold a celebration means to affirm the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it, of inclusion within it. In celebrating, in holding festivals upon occasion, man experiences the world in an aspect other than the everyday one.”
Here we have a good insight on how priests can become enduring bridge builders. They need to truly connect with their work. To accomplish this, is to celebrate it – to step back periodically and look for the goodness in it and then to connect that goodness with the Creator. Too often, priests, like so many in the business world, run from one project to another never creating a contemplative moment in which to look and to absorb the goodness and oneness of the work. They have become assimilated into the American way of life. The bridge builder builds bridges for everyone but himself. If he is to connect others with the sacred, he himself needs to know how to create sacred space.
Most priests will tell you that they know their business and feel they are in control of it. But do we have a true knowledge or our work? Knowledge is an acquired illumination in which we grasp what we see, take a view of it, go beyond sense perception of it and ultimately invest it with an idea. Looking is an absorption that causes us to become one with what we look at, to be illuminated by it, and to celebrate it because of our union with it. Whether it be celebrating Mass or a funeral, counseling or visiting the sick is today’s priest able to convert these tasks into celebrations that are ultimately true leisure? Do we know how to connect with what we are doing so that our looking and entering into it becomes a celebration?
We began with the question, Father, do you see the need for religion social analysts perceive, and a fortiori, the need for priesthood? We started by focusing on ordained priests because they come from a community that expects priesthood to be the spiritual builder of community. The role of building is a role of unifier – one who is expected to create a community on the trinitarian model of unity in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together as one in love.
As true as this is of the nature of ordained priesthood, it would be a mistake to see the priest shouldering the total responsibility of community builder, and as the lone responder to the cries of social analysts for providing society with religious connective powers. The responsibility falls likewise on the laity in their role of kingly priesthood. Listen to the council Fathers who remind us of that role:
“From the fact of their union with Christ the head flows the layman’s right and duty to be apostles . . .If they are consecrated a kingly priesthood and a holy nation, it is in order that they may in all their actions offer spiritual sacrifices and bear witness to Christ all the world over.”
When we speak of society needed religion, and a fortiori, the priesthood, it should be interpreted as needing the priesthood in its entirety – the ordained and non ordained. If ever this internal bridge between ordained and non ordained were to be completed in the spirit of Vatican II, the prayers of social analysts calling for religion’s connective powers would be answered, and we just might see priests viewing their priesthood in a much brighter light.