What Can We Learn from the Year for Priests?
Fr. Richard Schenk, OP
To understand the place of the ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church requires an understanding of the greater whole of which this priesthood is a part. The Year for Priests has provided us a time to reflect anew upon who and what all the faithful are as Church in our own day and situation, and within this context to consider particularly what the ordained priesthood can mean for the Church at this juncture, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. That Council still very much defines our ecclesiological situation. We are still part of an age which is trying to digest this Council, to make the best sense of it, to see if we have taken all of the riches it provided us, to look at how the development of the Church has fared since the Council, to correct what was inadequate in that development, but also to make sure that we didn"t overlook riches that were identified there. That all holds true for the ordained priesthood in particular. It was a council which in many ways was about the Church itself: the Church ad extra, in relationship to the “outside” world, discouraging the temptation to be a sectarian Church turned in upon itself, encouraging us to seek more active relationships to other religions, to other Christian confessions, and to the non-religious world of our time. But the Council was also about the renewal of the ecclesia ad intra, about revitalizing the Church"s inner life, with an eye towards that goal of seeking a more adequate grasp of what the Church is in its very structures, including the ordained priesthood.
As a Constitution, completed in 1964 still well ahead of most of the Conciliar texts, Lumen Gentium provided a matrix for several less comprehensive documents, which looked at the Church not only as a whole, but also in the subgroups that structure and articulate it, reassessing how they relate to one another, looking at ordained priesthood, too, particularly in its relationship to the episcopacy, looking at the relationship of the bishops to the papacy, the relationship of the priesthood and episcopacy to religious orders, and the relationship of all three to the laity. Several of the shorter documents, the “decrees”, took up the theme of one or the other of those subgroups, notably on priests, bishops, religious, and on the laity. The twin goals of the Council, perhaps more easily visible from today"s perspective, were to renew each of these subgroups both in itself and in its relation to the others; which admittedly is not always an easy task. The Council"s interests here were not chiefly doctrinal, certainly not chiefly aimed at refuting particular attacks on any given Church teaching, but were guided by the general hope of revitalizing the Church in our age, of taking the treasures that were the Church"s from her past, making sure that they were truly being received, but also looking for fitting ways to innovate so as to realize the ancient gifts in new ways: a combination of fidelity and creativity. Marking the fiftieth anniversary means asking where this creative fidelity succeeded and where it did not. In that context, the Year for Priests helps us to ask where the priesthood has been renewed, where its renewal has failed, and what roles the priesthood is called to shoulder in the larger Church.
To be Church is to be both a disciple and an apostle: to have personal faith, hope and love, but also, to whatever degree possible, to carry these gifts to others by means of the three great offices of Christ. To be a Christian is to help Christ to continue over time his threefold office as priest, prophet and king: three munera, or offices, each with its own proper burdens and its own blessings, building up the corpus Christi mysticum. “From age to age you gather a people to yourself.” Each of us when baptized receives the sign of the chrism on our head, with a prayer that we might become by the power of the Holy Spirit cooperators in Christ"s work as priest, prophet, and shepherd; simply as Christians, we are called to share in all these responsibilities. The ordained priest is meant in particular to facilitate the ways in which the faithful exercise that common work of prayer, proclamation, and leadership. We see in a paradigmatic way what this calling means in the Holy Eucharist. The sacrifice of the Mass calls us all to share in the intercession of Christ for us, that one great intercession which is his own cross. Something that is not always evident to non-Christians, or even to fellow Catholics, is that “our own” intercession is greater for not being just our own. If each of us were just on our own, our prayers might be rather weak, ineffective, and transitory, wavering between presumption and despair. Our prayers become more important, not less so, when we are praying in such a way that we are joining ourselves to the prayer of Christ; that"s not less, but more, our prayer. Each Christian is called to bring the needs of our day and our time to Christ and to join them to His one sacrifice for us. The role of the ordained priest is to allow Christians to engage the reality that is first and foremost Christ"s sacrifice, as the work of the Other, of a vis-à-vis to the community, so that we don"t end up thinking that the Eucharist is just our own celebration, for it is “our” celebration, only because we are invited to join ourselves to Another, to the unique sacrifice of Christ on his cross. It"s a graced way to be with “Another” than ourselves, to be other than just ourselves, requiring a representation of that which is Other than simply what we ourselves are or produce. That belongs to the heart of being an ordained priest, that one can facilitate this new closeness that the people of God have to Christ in the Eucharist. It is by promoting this proximity that we all grow closer to Christ, as effective apostles, as genuine disciples. It took time for these lessons of the Council to sink in, to overcome an all too facile sense of the community, the common priesthood, or the non-sacerdotal dimensions of the ordained priesthood. The Year for Priests focuses on this subgroup but in relation to the Other and to others, so that the whole Church can move forward towards the goal of renewal.
When I was still in high school, during the confused years (1965-69) that immediately followed the Council, I was a fairly convinced, if obviously still young, atheist, but I was somewhat rattled in my atheism by some observations made by a high school teacher, an English teacher, a layman, by the way, not a priest. His remarks caught my attention and increasingly made sense to me, though it was only during my first year at the university that I was given the gift of coming to faith. That gift was facilitated by what this man had said, removing some of the most serious objections that had kept me from faith, as I wondered how it could be that a God who could reveal himself and wanted to reveal himself wasn"t already evident. This teacher had said a few things that got me past those objections, drawing my attention more programmatically to the beauty and burdens of human finitude. As my faith began to grow a bit, I felt the urgency to deepen it by prayer, but I also realized that, as I had been helped by this teacher, maybe I should also find a way to be a teacher myself. With at desire to deepen my life of prayer, I thought of a monastic vocation, but I also looked at the possibilities of learning and teaching as a Catholic layman. Thumbing through Butler"s Lives of the Saints one day, and coming to the article on St. Dominic, I realized that to be a religious priest in the Dominican Order was one way of living a life of prayer and service with a sort of primacy of proclamation, the “ministry of the Word”, uniting the priestly with the prophetic office of Christ. The Dominicans had this contemplative dimension, the dimension of prayer, which St. Thomas Aquinas had described as contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere: giving to others what one had been given by God in contemplation. This shorthand formula for the Dominican vocation was included in the Butler"s article on St. Dominic. I had never read or heard this phrase before, and it illuminated my own desires like a flash of lightning. I thought that such a dual task might be something that I might be capable of, and that it could provide a way of paying back something for the gift that I had received.
So I decided to move in that direction, and it all developed in such a way that in fact the greater part of my priesthood has been devoted to trying to understand the faith myself and to help others understand it better. The Council had done much to encourage the Church to look toward others, in both religious and non-religious circles, but only slowly did it become clear that this would be possible and fruitful only from the basis of a profoundly Catholic identity. When I first entered the Order, I thought I would be working mostly with non-Christians or former Christians, helping people who had lost the faith or people who had never had it to find the faith or find it again. In fact, as time went on, both during my studies and in the years since, I found myself more involved in trying to help other Christians, including other Catholics and theologians, struggling to identify what their faith was about. If we are all, as one theologian put it just before the turn of the millenium, in much of our lives “anonymous atheists”, then maybe I had wound up working on my original project, after all. Most of my theological work has involved asking what of the older legacy of the Church can help us to engage the problems of today. In any case, I am very grateful for that dual gift of having the opportunity both to think about my own faith and to help other people think about theirs. It is also a great – if not always a pleasant – privilege to be led more deeply into prayer, often a prayer linked to the call to and apostolate of intellectual compassion. Being a priest keeps one close to the need to pray, because it"s not just a functionary"s office, it"s not just a job; rather, it"s a matter of trying to be the genuine disciple, who alone can be an effective apostle. Being a priest also keeps one in a community of receiving from and giving to those in the other special states of the Church: the lay faithful, bishops, religious, other priests. One lesson of the Council is increasingly evident: that no bishop, priest, religious or layperson can be what he or she is meant to be without receiving with gratitude the gifts that can only come from those in other special states of the Church.
I spent the first two decades of my priesthood mostly in Germany, and mostly in academic apostolates, working almost exclusively in German (or with medieval Latin texts), but along with that there were some dimensions of the priesthood which I hadn"t anticipated, but which grew to be quite important to me. I arrived in Germany as a deacon, less than a year before my ordination to the priesthood. My first summer included working as an orderly in a Catholic hospital in Paderborn. The daily work of a hospital orderly comes in waves, intense during meal and bathing times, but during the less intensive hours I was given the tasks that would involve me in conversation with the patients: helping the older men to shave, or wheeling the non-ambulatory for fresh air on the balcony - a unique sort of German language course. Later alongside my studies, research and teaching, I would help out pastorally in a small number of villages, and so I experienced the countryside and learned from the practical wisdom of its people. I was a cityboy, so to speak, and came by these means to experience for the first time people in an agricultural setting, people who had a very different take on life than anything I had known before.
I soon learned that there is a unique blend of give and take, of receiving and giving in being a priest. In the practice of the Catholic Church, the ordained priest is more distant from familial society than those who live directly with their own families, and yet that very distance can allow for greater proximity as well, making the priest closer at times to people than those with whom they live every day. After just a few months in Germany, I came back to California to be ordained, but I then returned immediately to Germany again to continue the program of studies I had just begun. When I returned, I dropped in to visit a family that I had met in those first months abroad. The youthful father of that family with its very young children was dying of cancer. The doctors knew it, the immediate and the wider family knew it, the whole town knew it, but no one had told the man himself, and so he was forced to hope despite what he felt and what he rightly suspected was the case. He felt that he was dying, but, because no one had ever said it to him, he was angry and also unable to discuss with his family what this meant for all of them. I asked if they would like me to communicate that to him. That allowed him — with about two weeks left to live — to talk with his wife openly about what was ahead of them both, to say goodbye, to make some plans for the future of those whom he would leave behind.
I realized already then that there is a special gift of closeness that, amidst all the distance, is given to the priest. Here was a case of it: my German wasn"t all that good yet, I was a visitor from a foreign country on student visum, I was some 26 years old, but, because I represented in a special way the long-established presence of God in their lives, I was able to facilitate this moment of communication among them. That is of course what happens over and over again, in so many ways, so many different situations; it points to one of the great privileges of being sent to serve sacerdotally, a scary privilege at times, and, as we"ve been reminded again this year especially, sometimes an abused privilege, when false liberties are taken with the nearness that destroy first the distance and then the proximity it had allowed. But wherever the appropriate distance is cultivated, which stems from a graced nearness to God, the concomitant gift of nearness to neighbor remains a rich and constant possibility as well. As it happened, I would come to know the people of that village quite well. Beginning the following year, I brought the full celebration of Holy Week to that place for the first time, calling on what I had learned at St. Albert"s to make Holy Week rich for them as well: the combination of amusement, fascination, and reverence in witnessing often for the first time liturgies with prostrations, candle- and fire-light, foot-washings and much more . Eventually I would preside there at the marriage ceremonies of many of them, and I would also bury many of them – by the time I left Germany after 23 years, I had known some family member in virtually every grave at the village cemetery. Those years remain a very special time for me, my only serious exposure to the sort of pastoral work that was not just chiefly academic.
It is presumably not surprising for a Dominican to say this, but I am always moved by the idea of St. Dominic: how he was a preacher out of compassion, compassion particularly with those who no longer could believe aright. Dominic was ordained a priest at the Cathedral near where he was born, living there a sacerdotal life that had a strong monastic side to it. As subprior there, Dominic was a key part of that community and had no reason to suspect that he would do anything else than stay there for the rest of his life. But then his bishop was asked to take on a diplomatic mission, and the bishop in turn asked Dominic to accompany him. On this mission they saw stretches outside of their own territory, particularly in France, where people were looking for something spiritual but seemed no longer able to find it in the Roman Catholic community, so they separated themselves from that community, following a path that didn not seem altogether authentic or promising. They were drifting, and Dominic had great compassion with these people. Together with the bishop, he set up a way to help those people exit that community and reenter the Catholic community, perhaps hoping to revitalize that. They themselves were an example of that revitalization. When the bishop returned home and died shortly after, Dominic faced a choice: whether to remain in his home country and work there, or whether to carry on that mission in a territory foreign to him without the support and the connections of his own bishop – and he chose to do so. From Fanjeaux, the town in France where he was living, he could see the mountains leading to Spain, so every day he was facing this choice: Just over those mountains I"m home again, should I leave here?
Dominic decided to stay. What he developed there with laity, priests, religious, and bishops was in keeping with Church law and traditions, but it was also innovative. It had that “Spannungseinheit”, that necessary unity-in-tension, the hybrid leaven of “creative fidelity” about it. In collaboration with the resources of others, Dominic developed novel ways of living that embraced the spirit of poverty which so many people wanted to see in religion and didn"t see in the then common practice of the Catholic faith, a certain sense of prayer and austerity that these people were looking for. Part of the grace of the moment was that Dominic was also able to find the collaborators he needed to set his own work in motion: bishops like Diego, Fulk, and Bérenger, who knew of their need for the cooperation of Catholics outside their proper jurisdictions; religious, like the conversae at Prouille who chose freely to continue as self-governing religious even after their reconciliation to the Church would have let them pursue marriage; priests, like William Claret and those who joined Dominic in the Holy Preaching; lay persons such as Ermengarde Godoline and her husband, who in the midst of the growing poverty of war-torn Languedoc devoted their goods and themselves to St. Mary"s of Prouille; and popes, like Innocent III and Honorius III, who recognized the need for new forms of contemporary evangelization. Dominic also benefited from his anti-Catholic critics, who had woven admirable aspirations together with far less admirable ones, woven, too, perceptive criticisms of common Catholic practice together with misleading critiques all into one cloth. Without these critics of the Church, without the urgency to share some – but only some – of what was moving them, Dominic could never have founded his Order or been moved to the same degree to support long-overdue reforms within the Church. So, if you ask me here whom I admire most as a priest, I would have to say that it"s still that St. Dominic whom I first discovered in Butler"s in the late 60"s.
The ordained priest is called to facilitate the way in which the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised, as at the Eucharist, where the celebrant enables the rest of us to see our vis-à-vis who is Christ. The priest is asked to represent not just himself or the community, but above all Christ as the Other than ourselves, Christ as having that one eternal sacrifice that is first and foremost his, not ours, until (showing how secondarity can be more than immediacy) we are enabled to join Christ in his prayer for others, for those who take communion and those who don"t, pro vobis et pro multis. The priest is called to use all his powers of reason to preach a Wisdom that is not of his own cunning. That means that the ordained priesthood is there for the common priesthood of the faithful, that it might flourish and thrive. For this very reason, the most important thing that lay faithful can do in turn to support ordained priests is to live fully as Christians, to live as genuine disciples and effective apostles: disciples, by following Christ in their own faith, hope and love; and apostles, by doing what they can to share this life with others: by praying for others, praying at the Eucharist, joining their prayers to Christ"s; by proclaiming the faith, helping us all to understand that faith more fully; and by shepherding, helping us to make a just Church and a just society, admonishing all, ordained priests included, whenever needed, affirming all in faith, ordained priests included, whenever possible. The most important thing that the laity can do to support ordained priests is to live that share in the threefold office of Christ which they received with their baptismal vows.