Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Renewing the Church in Australia Step 6: Fixing the priest problem!

Today's prayer in the Holy Ghost Novena is for the gift of understanding:

Come, O Spirit of Understanding, and enlighten our minds, that we may know and believe all the mysteries of salvation; and may merit at last to see the eternal light in Thy light; and in the light of glory to have a clear vision of Thee and the Father and the Son. Amen. 

Knowledge vs understanding

Knowledge, which was the subject of yesterday's novena prayer, and understanding, are of course very closely related.  St Thomas Aquinas differentiated between them as follows:

"...two things are requisite in order that the human intellect may perfectly assent to the truth of the faith: one of these is that he should have a sound grasp of the things that are proposed to be believed, and this pertains to the gift of understanding...while the other is that he should have a sure and right judgment on them, so as to discern what is to be believed, from what is not to be believed, and for this the gift of knowledge is required."

Through the gift of understanding, then, we are able to penetrate to the core of the truths of the faith, see the connections between them, and acquire a sense of certitude in revealed truths.

Yet though understanding is a gift of the Holy Spirit, as is present in all who are in a state of grace, the extent of the gift we receive depends on it being cultivated aright.

Yesterday I looked at some general aspects of the transmission of the faith.  Today I want to look at the priest problem in this regard.

The responsibility of priests

The book of the prophet Hosea provides an indictment against the people of Israel: instead of serving God they have committed adultery, chasing after false gods; instead of cultivating virtue, they have given themselves over to immorality.

Hosea's words are alas, all too pertinent to our own times where few can truly claim to follow the commandments, where killing infants and the old is given polite euphemisms such as abortion and euthanasia; and all too many claiming to be Catholic have become of the world rather than simply living in it.

Hosea warns: a people without understanding shall come to ruin.

But this warning about lack of understanding comes after an extensive treatment on just who is to blame, viz priests for their failure to teach:

"...There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery they break all bounds and murder follows murder...Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest...My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children...And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways, and requite them for their deeds." (RSV)

Our Lord of course, reiterates this theme a number of times, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount and the warnings about wolves in sheep's clothing; and his repeated teaching to the disciples that their role is to serve, not be served.

The sorry state of the priesthood

There are of course some excellent priests in most dioceses, who faithfully teach the faith and serve their people.

They say Mass at times that suit the congregation rather than themselves, sit in the confessional for extended periods, visit the sick on a timely basis and seek out those who need counsel or correction; they teach the actual faith and not some other; maintain a strong prayer life; and live simply and humbly without seeking the applause of the world.

But the reality is that they are relatively few and far between.

And that few are able to live up to the ideal is not entirely their own fault, but in large part a failure of diocesan and other systems.

Let's leave aside for today the problem of those sexually depraved men who preyed on their flocks, who destroyed the lives of God's little ones; and the even worse problem of those who failed to stop them.

Let's focus instead on the much bigger problem of those who have utterly failed to teach the faith, or worse still, actively lead their flocks astray through their false teaching.  Those who fail to inspire their people to aspire to holiness and mission; and those who fail to build effective communities.

What can be done?

Let priests be priests...

The first priority must surely be for bishops to deploy their ever decreasing numbers of priests in ways that ensure that the sacraments - most especially confession - are actually available.  That means co-ordinating across parish boundaries, for example, on things like weekday Mass times, since in cities at least most people have access to transport.

In my own diocese for example, Masses are not readily available near each of the major town centres  of Canberra (and the one place where it is, Civic, the diocese is trying to close it down!).  Nor can confession readily be found anywhere in the city other than on Saturdays.

Yet there are small but powerful things that can be done - in Parramatta for example, Bishop Fisher has appointed five 'Canons Penitentiary', priests designated to hear confessions in the Cathedral to ensure that confession is available daily.

Priests are not meant to be sacramental machines, however, confecting the Eucharist, and then leaving it to the laity to deliver it to the rest of us, whether as the all too ubiquitous 'Special Ministers' or taking the Eucharist to the sick and bedridden.  Rather, priests are meant to be pastors of souls, and that means getting to know their people and supporting them spiritually, sacramentally and in practical ways, especially at times of crisis.

In many cases, it seems to me, too much of a priest's time is sucked up on bureaucratic tasks and committees that could reasonably delegated to laypeople, while laypeople are left to undertake the task that should be done by priests.

Formation and ongoing support

Of course, in order to undertake their real role, priests need to be trained properly; they need to  receive ongoing mentoring from an experienced priest; they need ongoing professional development; and they need fatherly support from their bishop.

How do you do this when priests are so scarce?

Diocese, secular institutes and religious orders need, I think, to get quite a bit more creative.

There are plenty of models out there in the secular world, including use of  social networking forums that could help overcome the isolation many priests feel, and provide the resources they need so people do not have to constantly reinvent the wheel.

The Gaudium et Spes generation

The biggest problem facing the Church today though, is surely the legacy of that era when seminaries rejected or weeded out anyone who looked vaguely traditional in their outlook; failed to provide a solid moral and spiritual formation to seminarians; and left their graduates with a thoroughly modernist theological education.

Many of course simply left.  Some kept their heads down but sought out alternative, more solid sources of formation either then or subsequently.  But all too many, alas, are continuing to live out the legacy of that era, with dire consequences both for their own souls and those of their flocks.

There are some who advocate the 'biological solution', viz waiting things out until they are replaced by the younger generation of more conservative priests.

Maybe that is an option in some places where there actually are vocations, but what about those many dioceses where there are few or none?  The hard reality is that even with the recent upsurge in vocations, there are not nearly enough priests coming in to replace those who are dying.  And there are very many more dioceses who, all things being equal, will have to do what Wellington in New Zealand is currently looking at, namely closing literally 50% of its parishes.

More importantly perhaps, I don't think the Church can afford to write off so many of its own people.

What can we do?

The first and most basic thing the laity can do, I think, is to support efforts for priests to reclaim those tasks that are properly theirs, and help them with the things that unnecessarily distract them from their main role.  When asked to take the Eucharist to the home-bound, for example, perhaps we should question the appropriateness of this, and ask if there is some other task we can take on to free up the priest so he can do it himself?

Secondly, I think we have to be prepared to say that there are some situation where no priest is better than the one we have!

I think we need to encourage bishops to take tough action where priests are not teaching the faith or doing the other things necessary to promote it.  And if that means a parish or community has to devote itself to praying for vocations and saying the Office instead of having Mass regularly, well people have survived that in times past.

Where a priest isn't doing what he should, the first option should ideally be an intensive course of professional (re-) education to address the deficiencies of the seminary and post seminary educations of most priests.  Part of that will be about the basics of theology and spirituality.  But equally important will be a fresh push on forming effective communities and focus on how to form the laity to undertake the 'new evangelization'.  And if that means time out from the parish, so be it.

Of course, this requires good, strong committed bishops.

And on that front, our main recourse at the moment is prayer.

You can find the next part of this series here.


Gervase Crouchback said...

AS a result of yuor post on caritas I have stopped my donations to them and instead will be donating to the Latin mass group who Fr Nortin celebrates Mass for at Wangarratta.

Catherine said...

Without the sacraments we wither, so any priest is far better than no priest at all. Thanks be to God for arranging that sacramental grace not depend upon the holiness, or lack thereof, of the priest.

Martin S. said...

It breaks my heart that you've had to describe what a minimally functional Church would look like.

It breaks my heart that decent, sound assessment represents quite clearly superior thought in the Australian church. Understand what I'm saying - with you and the money and resources our deceased in the faith generated for us - we might not be vomited out of Our Lord's mouth.

St. Joseph pray for us. We beg you.

A Canberra Observer said...

I can understand Gervase's concerns.
The problem is for Catholics concerned about the 'official' charity to not in reaction to forget almsgiving / donations that do support charitable works.

Kate Edwards said...

Catherine - But perhaps we have put too much emphasis on the minimalist requirements for validity, and thus allowed heresy to flourish (think South Brisbane for example).

If we are fed poisoned bread in the sermon, for example, or scandalised with a clown mass, can we really cultivate the grace necessary to receive the sacrament to good effect?