Re-membering Beauty – a Reflection on Priesthood in the Year of the Priest
“A priest is not special kind of man; a person is a special kind of priest” noted Tom Bass, the Sydney sculptor, as he reflected on his journey through Christianity some years ago. (Sunday Arts, ABC TV. 19.11.2006)
In the year of the priest this comment reminds me that the primary understanding of priesthood in the Catholic Church begins with that shared by all the baptised. Tom Bass confronts the binaries of doctrinal and theological language that would have us fight over who is the greatest (Mk9/35). Bass encourages us to talk of a deep spirituality born of the imagination, poetry and art as we try to make sense of the mystery of the church and the relationships, ministries, power and status of its members.
I want to explore the notion and place of priesthood as expressed in Lumen Gentium (LG) (Nos 9 - 10), the Second Vatican Council document on the Church. How can we honour the complexity of the two notions of priesthood using a poetic lens? I want to honour the theological notions while situating them in contemporary experience and its consequent questions. I will approach this with a skepticism worthy of our faith and by honouring the mystical nature of the reality these concepts aim to convey. Let’s walk gently and without undue certainty on this sacred ground. My hope is that by exploring this terrain poetically we might address the questions with openness and wonder freeing us to see new ways of understanding the reality of the relationships between the People of God, the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood. Then drawing from my experience, I want to review present trends, signs of hope, some implications and new possibilities.
I want to reflect on ordained priesthood as a way of collaboration for creating a better world rather than a competition for status or a cause for reinstating ordained priesthood as superior or of greater importance.
What is at the heart of the notions of a “common priesthood” and the “ordained priesthood”? The church document notes: “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ordained or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (LG 10). This fails to address the problem faced by those who use and abuse the power of the ordained priesthood over the common priesthood. My approach is to begin with the fears and hopes of the People of God as seen in LG 9: “At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whom so ever fears God and does what is right. God, however, does not make people holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased God to bring all together as one people, a people which acknowledges God in truth and serves God in holiness… …calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God”.
Despair and Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo, offers a poetic exploration of our common fear and our common hope. He begins by asking us to reflect on the beauty-less landscape with which we are so familiar: “How to keep - is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, ... from vanishing away?” and how this has brought us into the pit of despair: “O there’s none; no no no there’s none: Be beginning to despair, to despair, Despair, despair, despair, despair”. (Hopkins, Gerard Manly, Poems and Prose of Gerard Manly Hopkins, WH Gardner editor, Penguin classics 1953, p52-4)
But there is in our memories a hunger for the beauty only just beyond our reach. Hopkins believes we are capable of recalling this beauty not just as backward memory but as a co-creative project with “the one”: “Spare! There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!)” This “one” is the key to the undoing of the haze of despair so that we might in some way re-member beauty: “Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver ….. When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care, Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept”. Hopkins invites us to dare to look beyond our broken dreams in a courageous journey to find an answer: “Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. - Yonder. - What high as that! We follow, now we follow. - Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, Yonder”.
This poem expresses the dark despair we might feel as we gaze upon the world of war, desperation, disadvantage, discrimination, poverty, environmental disarray and endless dispossession and vulnerability. Hopkins calls us to be immersed in the futility and helplessness of the decay of beauty, yet to compel us to find energy to act. But there is one, ‘a golden echo’, still hiding in the dark sun. He calls us to sense that echo of a glorious reality bathed in sunlight and deep-blue sky. Hopkins strains to enkindle in us the energy to recall beauty by literally breathing it back into existence in a kind of emergency resuscitation. We can re-member a world of beauty if we try. There is enough breath to clear the air and make a blue sky appear once more. It is the quality of care that gives back beauty when breathed in concert with ‘the one’. Somewhere within the human heart and the universe hunger there is a memory so sacred that it can restore life into a broken despairing world.
Maybe some of the difficulty of the theological terrain of priesthood in Lumen Gentium could be overcome if we begin with Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem. Then we might read Lumen Gentium as a call to work together as a people of the Spirit, purchased by beauty for the purposes of resuscitating beauty by breathing life into the despair on the faces of a broken people. Read in this way the collaboration would include all, not just Jews and gentiles, but Muslims, Buddhists and environmentalists, those protesting war’s futility and pain, those working to bring people out of the slavery of refugee, war and poverty camps, those seeking equality and human rights for Indigenous people, the disabled, the elderly, the sick, gays and lesbians, the unemployed, the disadvantaged and the exploited.
Then in some kind of symbiosis, the priesthood of all believers would work with its co-relative, the ordained priesthood, to enact the renewal of the heart of the world. Only together can these two realities, the second a subset of the first, be a force for engaging Hopkins' ‘the one’, ‘the key’
who partners God’s people in the sacred art of calling humanity back from the brink of despair by gently pointing to the beauty glimpsed by yonder shore. Surely we can together make beauty visible enough, just enough to rekindle a hope, even if still darkly. Any notion of priesthood as power, control or self-claimed authority would break the fragile membrane of a recalled trust, clouding its very beauty and the hope of vulnerable people.
Unmasking the Beauty
The mystical union of Christ and the People of God enables a partnership between humanity and ‘the one’ to continue the task of unmasking the beauty within and without, the divine presence in all things. Only together and as equals can the People of God work towards their calling. Together as one humanity we share Hopkins’ pit of despair. While often frustratingly out of reach, there is only one deep common cause and aching that joins us all. We might therefore seek to enact together a priestly re-membering of beauty.
Let’s have no argument about who is the greatest, who gets called by names of principalities and powers, or more truly, long-dead empires. If our deep Christian tradition is to be honoured we must all be servants and willing to lay down our lives for care and nurture of one another and the earth. Until we are strong enough to lay down titles and honour systems that divide, let’s at least accept that the division of ‘priesthoods’ these create are surely counter to the spirit of unity and service in the gospel. The distinctions within our notions of priesthood must never set us apart and thus cause scandal and cloud the call to beauty, equality, justice and love.
My experience as an ordained priest is littered with examples of honour systems that divide, leaving the People of God in grief and confusion at being cut off from sharing equally in our sacred call to unmask beauty. Poor decisions, negligence, laziness or just having a bad day are human but if this is combined with a deeply ingrained and unhealthy culture of deference to ‘Father’s decision’ members of the ordained priesthood in our present system may deeply fracture the path to beauty.
I recognise that it is not solely the fault of the overworked or stressed ordained priest when we all inhabit an unhealthy culture of ordained priesthood. However, there is a growing awareness and indeed a clarion call from the people of the common priesthood for ordained priests to become aware and take responsibility, indeed co-responsibility, for the sacred trust we all share. It is no longer acceptable for ordained priests to fail to update educationally or ensure appropriate self-care, spiritual direction, consultation and pastoral supervision. These have been seen as essential helps for decades in the helping professions.
All other helping professions require a certain standard of on-going education and self-care. Ordained ministers who lag behind in this betray their partners in the common healing purpose. Human foibles can be forgiven, but not making use of the readily available and proven methods of learning from experience, professional supervision and opportunities to grow holistically must now be considered culpable negligence.
I have had the privilege of many sacred partnerings that express in some ways the common journey of hope. I am deeply aware that in my early months as an ordained priest, sensing the loneliness, the ill-preparedness and dysfunctionality of parish life, I found the parishioners I befriended and with whom I shared personal and professional goals indispensable to a healthy ministry. Together we achieved such things as an ecumenical letterdrop to all homes in the parish; a parish prayer group; a successful partnership in managing the Catholic Youth Organisation, a weekly parish bulletin and a small youth choir, These were real partnerships in gathering the whole People of God in our common sacred co-responsibility.
Another enduring partnership has been in youth ministry . I have enjoyed working with many teachers in the Catholic and State systems. The most enlightening times were when we worked together to create meaningful rituals appropriate to the ages of the children with whom we were working. I also worked for 2 years with the Marist Brothers Retreat Team assisting 15 to 18 year old students to articulate their journey in search of a hope-filled future. It was not just the partnership with the teachers, but also the students that enabled me to reflect on and engage with the reality of our common fear and pain and notice how together we could address their meaning in the search for wonder.
This experience was repeated in a marvellous way at the University of Technology, Sydney where I was chaplain for 14 years. As part of a multifaith team I found the dialogue with ‘every race’ (LG 9) including many creeds a chance to experience the greater call that unites us all in the way of larger service. Partnerships with administration, staff, students and other chaplains proved to be an unmasking of beauty for all involved. It was also a privilege to work cross-culturally with students and chaplains through the International Movement of Catholic Students and the National and Global Chaplains’ Organisations. These stretched my imagination, co-operation and education in the mentoring and journeying-with enquiring and justice-focused minds, hungering hearts and activist bodies.
Rachel’s Vineyard Healing Retreats ease the burden for men and women suffering trauma and pain after an abortion experience. I was encouraged into this ministry by a marvellous woman, Julie Kelly, who has enabled this ministry to spread throughout Australia. It is another example where collaboration has brought tremendous healing and hope to many. The common priesthood of all believers in a dialogue with the ordained ministry is able to reassure these broken people that there is still beauty in our fragile world and they are called to be a part of it.
As I reflected on positive partnerings, I noticed the ministry of parish priest conspicuously missing. This is partly because I have been very privileged to minister in so many diverse and authentic ways other than as parish priest. However it also reflects the danger in the parish/hierarchical system which leaves parish priests more like managers and building/maintenance consultants than engaged in a co-operative ministry of healing and hope. When those in traditional parish leadership are saddled with the vestige of hierarchy and submission these can subvert the co-operative and collaborative sharing in the common priestly mission.
Parishes can be a very unsatisfactory way to live the “People of God” dream poetically and with imagination. Where the system denies equal voice to all who participate in parish ministry, this leaves the parish priest the last resort for every problem and question and when decisions are taken, he routinely becomes the final arbiter. If conflict occurs he may become the fulcrum of complaints and stands in a no man’s land either at the mercy of the people or the bishop. A system that lays all responsibility, and thus power, at the feet of the parish priest can become a recipe for failure as it easily breeds distrust and disunity.
However I don’t believe parish ministry is irredeemable. We should reform the system along collaborative lines including more sustainable, equitable and shared power structures. The inclusion of all, irrespective of gender, race or sexual orientation, in all ministries including ordained ministry is essential. While awaiting these developments, there are ways I have experienced a deep and wonderful co-operation in parish ministry.
In my current appointment at Newtown there is a wonderful growth of compassionate ways to be in ministry together. Women minister communion to the sick regularly and compassionately. There is a series of events that foster a more socially just world and a shared ministry offering educational opportunities. There is a regular support group for gay and lesbian Catholics, their families and friends. A community garden is a shared project between parishioners and local residents. These are just a few examples.
Local parish ministry is by no means discounted as a locus for co-operative ministry but it is hampered by an overly hierarchical system that leaves many priests overly tired, bureaucratically exhausted, emotionally wrought, spiritually dry or organisationally suffocated. And for all the bishop’s words of thanks and support, the priest is only too aware that the next phone call could be the bishop or his office with another form to fill in, some charge to answer or other ‘matter of state’, rather than a real support that acts as a pointer to beauty.
Possibilities and Dreams
How might we move forward in these times when imagination and creativity seem swamped by an unhealthy demand for an orthodoxy of enthusiasm which is no orthodoxy at all? How might priestly ministry in its wide meaning negotiate the fragile patterns of relationship in creation? How can we together become facilitators, leaders, co-operators and signs counter-cultural to war, greed, power and destruction maintained by the principalities of the world? How might we better reflect and live the gospel values as an invitation to the world that another way is possible, rather than regurgitate its words packaged in empty lofty worn-out church speak, pietism and dry doctrine?
I find the pre-conscious, intuitive insight and skepticism of youth inspire me and invite me to seek another paradigm in which to engage with the sacred trust of all believers. It is a courage and lightness of being that calls us to be beacons of hope in a despairing world and to seek ways that empower the voiceless and lost to recall and re-member the “beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver. (Hopkins, The Golden Echo)
What some see as signs of fear in our church, I see as signs of hope. The refusal to submit to uninspiring and un-poetic liturgy, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is really a hopeful resistance to a monochrome and deadly view of ritual. The utilitarian approach to church attendance reminds us to take a collaborative approach to ritual that reflects the real issues of people’s lives and the need to imaginatively create ritual space in which people can integrate their questions into their lives. The passion for justice and fairness without reference to stifling Catholic guilt is a hopeful sign where people consider the oppressions and hurtful relationships in the world and take time to address, analyze and consider action.
The refusal to enter priesthood and religious life, especially by the young, when the church refuses to question its understanding of equality, authority, sexuality and gender remains an open challenge to the deeper and broadest nature of priesthood. These questions confront the notion and exercise of authority and hierarchical power that is alien to our world and, many would argue, the gospel. Many are scandalised by these gaping wounds and either completely reject the institutionalised Church, move aside or silently wait in the pews for a more enlightened time when their ‘common priesthood’ is more respected. Meanwhile they maintain their baptismal right to the Sacraments which they hold deeply sacred. I find amongst those who have abandoned the institutional Church because it is too manipulative for their spiritual health, the celebration of the Sacraments are often deeply missed. This is clear when working openly in public institutions as was my experience in university ministry.
Many people across all age groups, cultural backgrounds and sexualities are reassessing their relationship with the institutional Church, but the most healthy hopeful sign is among the youth who do this without regard to destructive Catholic guilt and its authoritarian culture.
Sin, Power and Authority
Some Church leaders like to talk about a ‘return to an appreciation of sin’ as an answer to the disaffected. By this they mean that priestly authority and status might be restored where ‘the sense of sin’ requires ordained priestly forgiveness. They believe that maybe a healthy round of Catholic guilt might kick start a return to traditional church. However I believe that re-membering beauty is precisely in rediscovering a way of seeing sin as the dysfunction of beauty and love. This may be done by pointing, now and then, to the signs of hope enacted by the common human struggle for justice and love rather than a disembodied doctrine that is so disconnected to the reality of people’s lives that they either rile against it or ignore it. It is the manner of communication, the superior tone and the language used that leaves church-speak languishing, rather than the underlying curiosity around the values they seek to address.
Today Catholics tend to refuse to be scolded back into the shopping list of sin and generally ignore any form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that requires such thinking. Catholic thinking today is more like the reflection of Rodrigues, the Portuguese priest detained under the Japanese persecution of the Christians in the 1590’s in Endo’s novel. “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind. And then for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart.” (Endo, Shusaku, Silence, translated by William Johnston, Taplinga Publishing New Jersey 1969, p86)
In these times of brutal war crimes of mass murder of women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan by both sides, suicide bombing and “collateral damage”, it is not surprising that ordinary Catholics are far more in tune with Endo’s chilling definition of sin than the pietistic antiseptic form in the return to Confession. Jesus reference to forgiving a brother seventy seven times (Mat. 18/22) seems more in tune with a notion of sin that is about being unaware, than a list of minor transgressions. The seventy seven times is more likely to reflect a lack of awareness of the ways we could invest in restoring beauty. It turns our attention to the strategies of denial and distraction that keep us from owning up to the signs in our physical world and our bodies that are calling us to act justly and compassionately rather than with the apathy of sinful silence. Examples include a refusal to notice our role in wars, global warming, poverty or injustice. It is either beyond our small vision, too painful to include, too time consuming to consider or excluded from our spiritual search.
That many Catholics reject the shopping list notion of sin and the mechanistic forms of Confession and embrace the larger notion explored here might be viewed as a positive call to change and indeed to restore the social forms of the Sacrament. Then this important priestly task would become a collaborative effort to speak bravely to ourselves and our world in a Sacrament of healing and mercy. At the moment it can sometimes more resemble the brutality that is ‘quite oblivious of the wounds … left behind’ (Endo).
Here again we can be mired in a tangle of power relations of the who and when of forgiveness. We might turn our attention to pointing directly to the source of shadowy despair while recognising that lack of awareness of the brutality is at the heart of sin. All are called to share equally in the process, method, ministry, responsibility and sheer joy of being shepherds of liberation. This task is for all to share because it is too much for only a small elite, no matter how much power is unfairly thrust upon them.
This brings us to what continues to bedevil the chance of true collaborative ministry. In the Catholic church’s hierarchical model that is born of the Roman Imperial system and has forgotten its gospel roots we still see power and control enacted by “ordained” edict. Parishioners to this day are told to obey the priest because the Church says so. Even when the priest is ‘right’ this is blatant spiritual abuse. Generally, such manipulative attempts are ignored. Although where a culture of fear and power still exist some parishioners are still unable to act authentically with horrible consequences. If we must retain this language, is there a way to redeem its meaning? How do we stop the toxic mix of obedience and authority being little more than “kings lording it over those beneath them and those who have authority being given names of honour”? (Lk 22/25) We must discover the way of authority and obedience where the chief is like the servant (Lk 22/26) not by sophistry where the reality of domination does not change, but by an honesty that is transparent and promotes genuine collaboration at every level of church life.
Pope Gregory the Great, the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers and prolific writer and liturgical reformer of the sixth century was the Barack Obama of his time. He was known as Gregory the Dialogist for his commitment to dialogue. In his Homilies on Ezechiel he noted: “In Holy Church everybody supports the other and is supported by the other” (Hez II, 1.5(1311). 76,938d – 939c); while in his Commentary on the Book of Job he noted: “Since the Church is founded on a solid platform of humility, she can point out the right path. But to do that she does not use her authority, but rather persuades with reasons, as if to say: tell me whether I am wrong. As if she openly says: do not let authority be the basis of your belief in my words, but let your own reason tell you whether my words are true. Even when she says that human reason must not enquire into what cannot be understood, she uses rational arguments. But when heretics argue, they often become embroiled in fights”. (Mor. 8:2,3 (242), 75, 803cd)
It seems he understood that the practice of authority must be civil and reasoned discourse where the one with power listens and gives reasons for their choices of words that enact their decisions. This is done as a way of mutual support for all and by all. He could have added for future generations that this awareness needs to be multiplied by the extent to which one holds power, an imbalance felt deeply by many, especially women, in the church structures we experience today.
The christian priesthood system continues to need reform in every age. Here I have tried to point towards some places we might begin a conversation about how to be more true to our tradition. I have explored themes using a poetic reading of texts that they might offer a way forward more consistent with the gospel. In this year of the priest may ordained ministry become more married to the hopes and struggles of the people so that we move closer to the collaboration dreamed of by some at Vatican II over 40 years ago and that which Jesus hoped for over 2,000 years ago.