One of my readers, who has just sent a fine comment on another post, has recently published these two interesting articles:
This one seems to complement my own posts about liturgists and terrorists. I suppose that the inability of Roman clerics to understand the value of older forms of the liturgy could be compared with the tax authorities in many western countries and people’s need for their own money! Any ruling class ceases to have any understanding or empathy for the middle, working and assisted classes. It happened to the Church. When Church and State were together like in eighteenth-century France, the result was that the guillotine did not discern between the aristocracy and the clergy! The worst the clergy need fear today is indifference and seeing their own sense of vocation slip away. That is the subject of another posting of our reader.
Putting the boot on the other foot, I am considerably older than many who write on the Internet or seek their way as Catholic laity or clergy. I went through my most feverish spiritual searchings in traditional Catholicism in the 1980’s, which is thirty years ago. The youngsters today were born in the 1980’s and 90’s. What is new for them is old for us. We in our 50’s and older do have some historical context, and have lived in an era about which we have but little nostalgia. The tendency is to lose sight of any hope or sense of direction, feeling sorry for the younger generation and doing nothing to encourage them in their freshness and enthusiasm. In my 20’s, I often got the same damper from men born in the 1940’s and who also lost their sense of vocation.
There is a paradox with our generation, that of rebellion against the establishment, but yet the appeal of stability of what has been lost. Just yesterday, I was discussing with my wife the question of generations of priests. The tendency in France is the growth of a conservative elite, but few in numbers. Those clerics are recognised by their wearing clerical suits instead of the older roll-neck sweater and a tiny cross pinned to the lapel. She brushed the latter away as the old 1960’s worker priest model. Actually, the 1960’s were a turning point where people sought meaning rather than simply follow the status quo that had led to World War II. I caught the back end of that current, and it haunted me throughout the bleak and sober years of the 1970’s and 80’s and the swing back to conservative and conformist values. The twentieth century (at least the last third of it) marked me profoundly, deeply alienated me. The temptation is to be counter-cultural, and many of us find ways. I opted for living in the country and as far as possible from the cities. That is an illusion, because we are still using electronic technology (as I’m doing now writing this) and feeding La Gueuse and its welfare state with our money.
From the point of view of someone living in France, I see the RC Church as something quaint and increasingly distant from those of us who live in villages, and even more from those who live and work in cities. The churches are still there. A priest comes from the nearby town to say one mass a month in the village church. My wife and I once attended (I was wearing civil dress) and we observed the sadness and alienation. No one came anywhere near us, and we walked home afterwards. There is no contact, no interest in dialogue with a religious person from another Christian denomination with different views. For me to approach them would amount to some kind of “application” or request for something. I’m not interested. Modernity can removed our capacity to care or express the least curiosity. That is the ultimate pastoral challenge of any priest.
I am involved with music at the music school at Saint-Valéry en Caux. Our choral group and vocal quartet often sing concerts in village churches, and are often well- attended. Often, the Mayor is there, together with some official responsible for culture. But, there is no Christian witness of any kind from the priest (from the next town and responsible for the Pastoral Sector) or the laity. They are just a boxed-in club concerned for their own survival, perhaps their close-down strategy and their pride of being the “last ones”. I’m not sure that such nihilism even enters their minds. The church building is just a corpse, and the only question is who can afford to fork out for restorations and maintenance. Some villages do well and care for their patrimony, especially in Brittany, but others care even less than in the most irreligious days of the Age of Reason.
The other article that struck me was A Sense of Being. Another person who often comments on this blog seriously challenged my vocation. I am one of those people who take themselves so little seriously that the thought came into my mind to ask myself whether he was right. Is what I do as a priest no more than an addiction to eccentric behaviours that have little or no spiritual meaning? It does happen with those who are so desperate to get ordained that they go to vagante bishops. I have to face it that this is what I did myself. The reaction of any institutional church would be to consider me to have forfeited any vocation in the same way as a secular judge condemns a heinous criminal to death. There is no rehabilitation, no pity, and the person concerned has to ask fundamental questions. For example – Would I want to belong to such and such a Church as a layman? If not, I would certainly be very unhappy in it as a priest. Yet, something prevents us from turning away with the firm resolution of never returning.
Truth to be told, young men often have their ideas about Christianity and the Church that belong in libraries and books on church history. The reality is about as boring as the Civil Service or a large business corporation. The Romantic world-view involves the sacrifice of our chances of success in the establishment, but it was surely the way of Christ who turned conventional ethics upside-down and passed for a madman or a false prophet given to committing blasphemy. This is the greatest paradox with any Church. We sacrifice Christ and the values of the Gospel to the grey conformity of the institution, or we have to accept our own “failure” and condition as drop-outs and marginal people. This is where my Goliard idea came in, from the marginal clerics in the middle ages who challenged establishment conformity and ran the risk of getting into trouble with the Inquisition. I find that I am more a product of the 1960’s than I thought. Fine, I stopped cutting my hair!
The vocation is a sense of being, yes, but it is also our relationship with humanity and our world. That is if we believe in at least some participation of created being in the Divine Essence. Like many from the back end of the 1960’s, we take an interest in ecology and raising awareness about alternative ways of living, the possibility that the Establishment and La Gueuse are not life and beauty. This was the lesson of St Francis of Assisi, the many fools for Christ in history and people who have returned to the land. Most of those people rejected the baby of Christianity with the bathwater of failed establishment religion. Perhaps a priest can go to them in the same way as a worker priest embraced the ways of factory workers in the post-war years. One often hears of “niche ministry”, an idea expressed by independent “vagante” clergy when it is not completely self-illusory.
Traditionally, a vocation is a call from the hierarchical Church, the Diocesan Bishop and the Christian people who need a pastor. We in the ACC have very little, but the essential is there. I have often to remind myself that I do have the call of a bishop. I do all I can to participate in the life of our Diocese, mostly by being on the Bishop’s Council of Advice and potentially responsible for training new priests. For eight years previously, I had been a priest of the TAC’s patrimony of the primate, at a time when it appeared that the former Primate was respected, ratified and called by his brother bishops and had every appearance of legitimacy. Even with all that, I often find it difficult to muster a grain of self-esteem and confidence in this wilderness of western Europe. I answered at my interview the question – What can you offer our Diocese? I answered – Very little, just my prayers and intercessions as an essentially contemplative priest. Even with that, I am married and have to deal with too much noise in my life. I am no monk! It’s not easy…
We read about others on their tortuous paths, struggling with spiritual and emotional illness. Stability is a rare commodity these days. It is best to absolve such people for any “true church” claim and let them find their way as I have to. Most of us burn ourselves out and something comes or it doesn’t. Indeed:
We all have our stories. We have all been shaped by things we largely have no control over. I have known two very good men who truly had a vocation and pursued it. Many more, however, have been caught in mire. Some watched their vocations fade away. Some clung to vocations they may not have had for reasons only they know.
For many of us, if we have been ordained and especially if a bishop somewhere with some legitimacy has called us despite our failings, we have only to persevere in our wilderness and the humility God has imposed on us. If we have not, then it is perhaps best to weigh anchor and go our way, painfully seeking the divine will that seems most of the time to be arbitrary or illusory. Our greatest calling is to rediscover what Christ was really about, and being a fool for his sake, living with the thorn in the side St Paul had to put up with.
In our youth, we seek identity, and most of those who claim they can give it to us have their own agendas and vested interests. In life, we rarely find what we are looking for and the reality is the boring daily grind.
There is something that recently sounded a chord within me, the Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A young lawyer seems to have squandered his life, but yet finds his true meaning by taking the identity of a man whose live he saved and offering his death. The closeness to Christ is plain. See the film:
or read the book.