Breaking open priesthood

Address delivered by Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv at the Manly Reunion Gathering at DOOLEYS Lidcombe Catholic Club, Lidcombe
Reflections on its future in the light of the Royal Commission
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you some of my reflections on the future of the priesthood in Australia. I am conscious that I am a kind of Johnny-come-lately rather than a native born Australian and that many of you here have a breadth of pastoral experience far richer and deeper than mine. Nor do I claim to have better knowledge of this subject. For I am yet to feel any ontological advantage of my episcopacy(!).
There is a story about a black preacher who came back to his poor Afro-American neighbourhood church after earning a degree at Harvard. He tries to show off his newly acquired knowledge by using very sophisticated language. He begins by saying: “Brothers and sisters, I sense in this congregation a certain existential angst”. The people nod their heads partly in approval and partly in bewilderment. “Right on, brother” they mutter. Then he continues: “I see this is caused by a deep seated phenomenological challenge”. “Talk about it” they urge him. So he goes on “And at the bottom of this there is an eschatological depression”. At this point, an old lady at the back gets up and shouts: “Reverend honey! You’d better put those damned cookies on the lower shelf”.
Well, you won’t have to reach for my cookies. I just hope they are worth sharing. Thus, I offer my reflections mindful of my limitations and hopeful of your enrichment.
What a strange time we Catholic clergy are living in! On the one hand, we know we are in a big mess. We are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. We bear the brunt of public anger and distrust in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. It is one of the hardest times to be a priest. Yet paradoxically, it is also one of the most exciting times that we, as ministers and messengers of the Gospel, are privileged to live and to make it known to others. It is precisely in this Kairos that we are given the unique opportunity to accompany our people in a spiritual exodus that I believe will lead to a new dawn for the church.
When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome after the conclave, it came as a shock and a welcome sign to us. He eschewed the usual trappings; he introduced himself as “bishop of Rome” and – surprisingly or prophetically – he bowed and asked the people for their blessing. The image of the Pope bowing in silence before the euphoric, then hushed, crowd at St Peter’s Square was truly the prophetic sign of the century! It signalled not just a new papal style but a whole new era for the church. With that humble gesture, the Pope exemplified a model of ministry which would correspond with the signs of the times, the needs of the people and the creative power of the Spirit. It signalled that the time had come to set aside old wineskins and reach for new. Pope Francis would later say that we are not simply living in an era of change but in a change of era.
By this, I think, he means we cannot go on the way we have, because the ground under our feet has shifted. There needs to be an attitudinal change at every level, a conversion of mind and heart that conforms us to the spirit of the Gospel, a new wine in new wineskins, not a merely cosmetic change or worse a retreat into restorationism.
There is often a disconnect between who we claim to be and how people see us. Perhaps nowhere is this perceived disconnect more obvious, than in the idea of the priest being the icon of Jesus, the Humble Servant.
I recall an occasion where my parish priest came across not as a humble servant but more like a feudal lord. It was my experience of First Reconciliation. We lined up on both sides of the confessional and waited nervously for our turns. I had rehearsed my sins a dozen times, with the help of my fellow penitents. And yet, when I knelt down to confess, in that dark confessional box, I could not utter a word. I was stupefied by a gripping fear. Unimpressed by my silence, the priest promptly got out of his seat, and dragging me by the ear, placed me at the end of the line. For good measure, he even gave me a slap on the face before storming back to his seat. We were in awe of his unfettered power.
In Australia, the priesthood no longer enjoys the prestige and the power it once had. For a lot of young people, it is no longer surrounded with the aura of mystique and fascination. However, this loss of prestige does not always mean that we are seen as icons of Jesus, the Humble Servant. To truly reclaim this essential quality of the priesthood, we must go to the heart of what it means to be a servant-leader.
The servant leadership model is much more than what we do to the people. It is indicative of who we are as humble and vulnerable servants in the likeness of Christ who came to serve and to give his own life for others. Hence, it is a way of being – a modus vivendi before it can be translated into a way of doing – a modus operandi. We, Christian leaders, today are more than ever before challenged to embrace the journey of self-emptying and powerlessness that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
So much of what is wrong with the church today stems from a travesty of Christian leadership and service. As far as I am concerned, the sexual abuse crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, rightly observes, that we can no longer limit our blame to the individuals who offended. We must also look for factors within the very culture of the Church that have contributed to the sexual abuse crisis. We need to explore the deeper issues that lie underneath this phenomenon. Unless we have the courage to see how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus, unless we are prepared to go beyond the symptoms and explore the deeper issues that lurk behind the surface, unless we genuinely repent of our sins and face up to the task of reclaiming the innocence and powerlessness of the servant-leader, we will have failed the test of our integrity, discipleship and mission.
When privilege, power and dominance are more evident than love, humility and servant-hood in the church, then the very Gospel of the servant Jesus is at risk. What we need to reclaim for the church forcefully and unequivocally is the notion of diakonia. To this end, we as leaders need to manifest the diakonia of Christ in who we are and what we do. Until we have reclaimed diakonia, the church will be less than what Christ intends it to be.
It seems to me that we need to recover this fundamental intuition of the Gospel in the face of the human struggle for power, strength and the desire to dominate and control. The church can only be faithful to its mission when it embraces fully and unequivocally the journey into the divine vulnerability. It can only be the conduit of compassion and speak the language of hope to a broken humanity when it truly personifies powerlessness and stands where Christ once stood, that is, firmly on the side of the outcast and the most vulnerable.
Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of status quo and take the risk of going to the peripheries. The church must be the church of the poor and for the poor. The Church must go out of itself, in order to be close to those in need. Conversely, the church that does not go out into the world keeps Jesus imprisoned.
If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from being inward looking to looking outward, from preoccupation with the present status and safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, and learning to convey God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and the church.
Hence, our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. It is to embrace the call of the Vatican Council to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those who are poor and in anyway afflicted. It is to be the bearer of joy to those who are most deprived of it. To do this, we must be able to live in and to bridge the yawning gap between the ideal and the real, between what the church teaches and how the people respond.
Pope Francis challenges all of us to divest ourselves of clericalism and elitism, to return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the Church, to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives. The self-referential church steeped in a culture of splendour is in stark contrast with the church of the poor and for the poor. It is the latter that we must endeavour to serve if we want to pattern ourselves according to Jesus the prophet, who spoke from the margins. The new wine of God’s unconditional love, boundless mercy, radical inclusivity and equality needs to be poured into new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism and supremacy, abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity, are breaking.
It is a vocation of the Christian leader to be with his people in their hopes and struggles, anxieties and fears. He/she is to be a Malcolm in the Middle who occupies liminal, peripheral and precarious places. It is not easy to be in the middle, and to be loyal to both ends of the spectrum, to belong to the Church of orthodoxy and yet also to minister in the world of the unorthodox. It truly involves being, as the saying goes, between a rock and the hard place. Yet, that is the calling of the leader, because we are meant to be at the coalface, in the messiness of it all, faithful always to the Gospel. We are sent to the strong and the weak, the wholesome and the broken, the churched and the unchurched, the pious and the impious, the normal and the bizarre. We are sent to them through the gate, who is Christ. We are sent often from the inside out and not from the outside in. Like Christ in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places.
I have a particular interest in the biblical experience of the exile. My personal story of being a refugee, my struggle for a new life in Australia, coupled with my Franciscan heritage have all contributed to the sense of hope which was the legacy of the Exile of old and which should inform and enlighten our present exile experience. Like the prophets who accompanied their people into exile, who interpreted the signs of the times and led them in the direction of the Kingdom – the arc of salvation history if you like – we must do the same for our people in the context of this new millennium.
The priesthood is not meant to be a numbers game. The strength of our mission does not depend on a cast of thousands. Quality, not quantity, marks our presence. It is substance and not the size of the group that makes the difference. Hence, this time of diminishment can be a blessing in disguise as it makes us reliant less on ourselves but rather on the power of God. Diminishment allows us the precious opportunity to learn the power of vulnerable trust and to seek the will of God in situations of crisis. Diminishment is not a time for activism, cynicism or nostalgia. Diminishment is not a time to apportion blame to certain individuals and groups, or to engage in the battle of ideology: the conservatives versus the liberals, the pre-Vatican versus the post-Vatican, the restorationists versus the “Gaudiem et Spes” generation, those who espouse the hermeneutics of continuity versus those who favour hermeneutics of rupture etc. No, it is rather a time for deepening our commitment, a time for grounding ourselves in the immensity of God’s love. It is a time of silent hope, discernment and mysticism.
The time that we are living in can be likened to Holy Saturday in the Gospel. It is the day of God’s concealment, of the great solitude of Jesus. It is a time of ambiguity, of mourning and yet hoping for good news; it is a liminal interval, a time in which one stands between the old and the new. Mary Magdalene who went to the tomb of Jesus that day is a symbol of the church in mourning. In another way, she also stands for us, who have entered a Holy Saturday of our own. It is our dark night of the soul, as the mystic John of the Cross would call it. We priests, can be a bridge between the old and the new. Our task is to live the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future.
St Paul talks about the hope of the future through the metaphor of childbirth. “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Romans 8:22). In a sense, we priests, have to bear those labour pains. The delivery of new life necessitates the ability to live the creative tenstion between the pain of the present and the hope of the future.
Pope Francis in a recent address stated that he wanted pastors who can “imbue hope” and “have sun and light in their hearts, to lovingly and patiently support the plans which God brings about in His people.” For him, the ability to imbue hope is intimately linked with the stripping of oneself and of beginning anew. In other words, our priestly vocation is the embodiment of the Paschal Mystery. We can only reframe a harsh reality into a vision of hope for our people when we ourselves have the courage to live in that liminal space, that darkness of Holy Saturday, that interim ambiguity that lies between the old and the new.
I visited Mundelein Seminary in Chicago earlier this month and I noticed an interesting feature of the Seminary Chapel. There were seven steps leading to the high altar and on the side of each step was written the respective name of one of the seven Holy Orders. Each step would create an ever-growing chasm between the candidate and the people. It dawned on me that these vestiges of the Tridentine Model of priesthood are powerful symbols of the clerical class. It is part of the ecclesiology that emphasises the ontological change and separation of the ordained from the faithful. It is a powerful ingredient and ideal condition for the disease of clericalism to fester.
I hold that it is time for this exalted model of priesthood to be consigned to the past. Instead, we must rediscover the specific and full charism of the priesthood within the matrix of the universal priesthood of the faithful. The priesthood cannot be lived fully apart from the community of disciples. This is one of the key insights of the Vatican Council. The church is not the church of the ordained but of all the baptised.
There existed a variety of ministries in the early church. Paul bears witness to this when he lists a number of gifts or charisms that Christ gave to the church for the building up of His body. Yet over the centuries, this richness has been gradually concentrated in the ordained at the expense of the baptised. In effect, the priesthood of the ordained has assumed and usurped the rich and varied ministries of the baptised. It is time, therefore, that the notion of priesthood needs to break open anew, so as to fully honour what Paul says in that same passage in Ephesians 4 “every one is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”.
If we are to break open the priesthood and allow the ministries of the baptised to flourish, I think we will need to revisit the clerical and patriarchal culture along with its many institutional dynamics such as titles, privileges, customs, structures etc. I am not suggesting that the lines of distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained be erased. Rather, each one should complement, rather than stifle the other. I would hold that those institutional dynamics that breed clerical superiority, elitism and power, over against the non-ordained stifle rather than facilitate the outpouring of grace through the whole body of Christ. Furthermore, it is my conviction that the priesthood “pedestalised” is the priesthood dehumanised. It is bound to lead us into the illusion of a messiah complex and an inability to claim our wounded humanity and to minister in partnership. What we need to do is to humanise the priesthood so as best to equip ourselves with relational power for authentic Gospel living and service.
When Jesus sent out his disciples to announce the Good News, he did so in pairs. What I derive from that practice of his is, that Christians can only minister effectively when they recognise their limits as individual and are open to partnership with others. Yet, ironically, the whole culture of priestly formation is often geared towards individual heroism. The Curé d’Ars is probably the patron saint par excellence of the kind of priestly individual heroism. No wonder many of us suffer from ministerial burn out, depression and loneliness. If the priesthood has a better future, it has to find expression in better mutual support, collaboration and partnership. I would especially emphasise the ability to minister with women, because the church is much the poorer without the gift of women. A protestant minister was invited to a house warming party of a Catholic priest. As the host showed him around the magnificent new presbytery, the protestant minister remarked with a wink of his eye: “You Catholic priests might have better quarters. But we have better halves!” Perhaps the joke is on us priests who fail to appreciate the Gospel injunction of ministering in mutuality and partnership.
In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model of church. For I hold that this model, which promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of non-ordained, is at the very root of the culture of clericalism. To dismantle this model is not to dismantle the church per se or even the hierarchy (of whom I am a privileged member). Rather, it is to acknowledge and to have the courage to die to the old ways of being church that no longer convey effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.
I am very much of the view that abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered. Until we have abandoned the game of power and control that has been our cultural captivity, until we have put downward mobility front and centre in the Church, which is what Jesus was all about, I doubt we can seriously heal ourselves of this disease.
As we are cut loose from the safe and secure moorings of the past and launched into the treacherous waters of the future, we grow in the awareness of Paschal rhythm. We realise what needs to die and what needs to rise. The prophets of doom tell us that the priesthood is dying. They are ready to write obituaries for an institution so glorious in the past but now hopelessly riddled with crisis. They say this is the end for us. The sexual abuse crisis will be the final nail in the coffin. I wager that they are right – but only half right. They fail to see the other side of the equation. The Catholic priesthood is only dying to that which is not of Christ. It is dying to worldly trappings, triumphalism, and clericalism; it is rising again to the power of vulnerability, servant-leadership, discipleship of humble service and radical love. The Paschal rhythm summons us to a discipleship of humility, weakness and vulnerability, of dying and rising in Christ.
In the end, though, I firmly believe that we’re on the threshold of renewal and transformation of the priesthood. Like the wedding feast of Cana, the wine of old has served the church well but it is running out. The old way of being a priest has, likewise, well served the church we love. But that model of the exalted, separated and elitist priesthood is drawing its last breaths – at least in many parts of the world including Australia. There is a better wine that the good Lord has prepared for us. May we be like Mary, who recognises the end of the old and the beginning of the new era. Let us, like her, accompany people in the crisis of the emptying of the old wine. Let us, again like her, point out to them the way forward by cultivating faith and trust in God, who alone can transform the water of our poverty into the new wine of God’s creative power and enduring love.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta

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  1. Quite an insightful lecture-worth making more widely available. Prophetic in its suggested direction and I find helpful to priestly ministry. Though Australian based it has world wide application. The reference to, and quote from, Bishop Robinson is brave and accurate.

  2. Add to all the above : Mothball a lot of the vestments and much of canon law. Close down the seminaries and open bible colleges.

  3. Peter Collins says:

    How great to read Bishop
    Vincent being so clear and positive!
    Here is the effect of some of
    our poor priests’ behaviour in the past.
    We have a great need to support
    the good priestz.
    the ” good priests”

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