A Priest in the Family
The same discussion one more time! The ordination of women!
Most at the meeting were in favour. One woman wondered if it happened would it simply produce more clerics only this time with long hair. At this point I suddenly recalled what theologian Anne Thurston said at a talk on the feast of St. Catherine of Sienna more than 30 years ago. The exact words I cannot now quote but the substance of her statement went like this, ‘a day will come when believers gather together for the Eucharist, and on that day the gender or the marital status of the one who presides will not be an issue’.
Reflecting on that statement and concluding that Anne’s prophecy will come true, I decided that I could favour neither the ordination of women nor the ordination of men as formed and trained over the last few centuries.
The seminary type preparation for ordained ministry we all experienced dated from the Council of Trent where strict training and stricter discipline was deemed necessary to deal with the abuses that were widespread. What started then morphed, over the next few centuries, into a highly structured and regimented system.
Huge numbers of young men lived in confined monastery type buildings where they slept, ate, studied, exercised and recreated. Contact even with one’s family was restricted, all ‘worldly’ enterprises were suspect and to be avoided. Women friends or even personal friends were discouraged. So many presented for priesthood in those days that anyone not conforming was expendable and sent home as ‘unfit material’ for such a high vocation! Forgive me if I exaggerate or fail in justice!
Is that kind of training fit for purpose today? Has it outlived whatever virtue it might have had! I have nostalgia and heart glow when I recall seminary days and the day of ordination. The aura of that day, the first blessings, the great pride of parents and siblings to have a priest in the family! Hands consecrated with holy oil and the awesome power to say Mass and make present, mysteriously but really, the Body and Blood of Jesus in his Death and Resurrection. High dignity and high status was given at ordination!
But yesterday and he was one of us
Sharing in the tumult of our boyish ways
And now his is a priest through all this days.
His late-anointed hands
Are wet with sacrifice
His whispered breath
Can summon Christ to mystic death
He is a priest forever.
Let not this glory dim, O Lord
this fervour fade.
Always remember him whom
Thou hast made your own anointed.
Keep his heart from all the dust of earth apart
And in Thy teeming comfort
Ever be strength to his frailty. (John D Sheridan)
The French priest Jean Baptiste Lacordaire was a bookmark in the breviary, a framed picture in sacristy and presbytery – a profound influence in the formation and ministry of priests for a few hundred years.
To live in the midst of the world
without wishing its pleasures:
To be a member of each family
yet belonging to none
To share all suffering
To penetrate all secrets
To heal all wounds
To go from men to God
and offer Him their prayers
To return from God to men
and bring pardon and hope.
To have heart on fire for charity
and a heart of bronze for chastity
To teach and to pardon
console and bless always.
My God, what a life!
and it is yours
O priest of Jesus Christ!
There is a nostalgia for that kind of priest and priesthood and it lingers. But will it stand up to the tough realistic call to serve the People of God in 2020?
The point of departure used to be the sacrament of holy orders; above you could be a Bishop or higher; below you were just one of the laity to ‘obey, pray and pay’. Today theologians, church documents, liturgy instructions insist that the point of departure is the sacrament of baptism. Everyone is priest, prophet and king; each one with different roles and gifts serves the whole People of God. Like Jesus who came not to be served but to serve and give His life for many.
The ordained minister for today and tomorrow will need to have a mind set and attitudes whereby he/she is like the rest of men and women – not a person apart! Deeply prayerful with ‘the bible in one hand and the daily paper in the other’ at the service of all life and all creation!
I wonder what happened in the early church. In the gospel of John we learn that after Jesus, from the cross, committed Mary to his safe keeping, John took her to his own home. Did the others gather there with ‘Mary the mother of Jesus’ to tell the stories of Jesus, break bread and remember Him! Who presided and who decided? As time passed what kind of governance emerged! The professional scripture scholar and historian will provide the most accurate detail available. Meantime we do well to start at the beginning to ask what is the non-negotiable core needed for ordained ministry and what are the additions conditioned by history? Already small groups of believers, mostly woman, come together and tell the stories and break the bread. Are they ploughing a new furrow!
The past is another country. I salute the thousands of deeply spiritual, committed, hard-working priests at home and abroad who served the Kingdom of God as ordained ministers formed in the vision of John D Sheridan and Pere Lacordaire! Theirs is a proud legacy. A hard act to follow for any kind of ordained minister in the future! But different it will and must be for a different time. Gospel men and women! Pastors of the future!
Stan Mellett, Redemptorist