Rigid Priests

There is a flip side of the article to which I linked yesterday. I have to admit that I hadn’t yet read the link Fr Blake’s gave to Pope Francis’ “remarks recently about priests of whom he is afraid“.

I was quite surprised. The Pope didn’t seem to be advocating “machine” priests or religious that would have a psychological profile good enough for NASA space training or the Navy SEALS. He seems rather to be underlining the human aspect of the priesthood.

Ideally, a priest would come from a stable Christian family, if such things exist outside the Diocese of Versailles (!). What he really seems to be getting at would be a dis-incarnate image of the priesthood, an “angel” in a cassock, completely perfect in every way. More to the point, it is all in the pinched demeanour of many priests I have come across in France, Italy, England and elsewhere. There is a kind of caricature of priestly manners and recollection, what the French call le balai dans le cul, the broomstick up one’s a***. I have seen this caricature of “holiness”, not only among traditionalist clergy but also in the “conservative” camp.

One might have the impression of neurosis, problems because of sexual repression – or simply the acting out of a caricature. Naturally, the Pope would say that “A priest’s path to holiness begins in the seminary“. Now where have I heard that one before? I think that seminaries are 89% of the problem!

That priests should relate to other human beings in a “normal” way and not as a “rigid authoritarian” would seem to make sense. Traditionalist and conservative priests would seem to see rigidity as a virtue, synonymous with fidelity to truth and a firm moral and doctrinal stand. More often than not, rigidity would seem to betray lack of empathy and humanity. I too have seen too much of that, a kind of cancer that takes over seminaries, any closed community and makes them cult-like, an exercise of power.

Be pastors, not officials“. This would be another clue. If the Pope is really waging war against the spirit of bureaucracy and the very “thing” that closes the gate of knowledge of God, then he is much more subtle than I imagined. The traditionalists are missing the point by saying that these sayings of the Pope promote an elitist notion of the priesthood.

The ideas he expresses of the priesthood are nothing new. They are unsurprisingly  Jesuit and Tridentine. The priesthood is all about selfless devotion and availability to one’s flock. The Bishop should be rarely absent from his diocese, because he is a father and pastor to his priests and all his people.

Then , the Pope comes to the screening process, and this seems to be the most incoherent aspect, since it subjects human beings to what is coldest and most impersonal. The only way to trust a person is to know him. Human intuition is much more accurate than all the scientific testing methods in the world. There have to be standards of physical and psychological health, but Fr Blake made the apposite point that those who do not pass muster for standard parish work might be called, even as priests and / or religious, in different ways. The tendency in the Roman Catholic Church is – if in doubt, throw it out. Tutiorism (follow the safest course) rejects a person if he might present the slightest risk. If the Church is to be risk-free, then it is a first circle of hell like the modern civil service and big corporate business.

When Pope Francis says “When a young man is too rigid, too fundamentalist, I do not trust them [him]”, I fully understand. This rigidity has nothing to do with being staunch and loyal, but rather mean-spirited and lacking in human empathy. I have seen such men at Gricigliano, despite the fact that it was a lot “cooler” in my day than later (as I hear reported). One such priest was caught out in America sexually abusing children, complete with sado-masochism and threats to his victims (keep quiet or else…). Qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête, as Pascal once said. Man is neither an angel nor a beast, and the problem is that whoever wants to act like an angel acts like a beast. The caricature is (or can be) a festering pot of full-blown evil. Things are never what they seem.

I have expressed my ideas about priestly formation. In the Continuing Anglican Churches, we don’t have the resources for seminaries. However, our priests are not ordained raw without any theological knowledge, spiritual formation or discernment. We have our processes which involves accompanying men through their reading, willingness and ability to make themselves useful in a parish and general care for others. Ideally, someone should study at university level, or at least read books on a set list and be examined on the content of their acquired knowledge. Apart from that, they are involved in their parish and we get to know them. About two years is usually enough to discern whether a man can be ordained and whether he is not a flagrant danger to us all. Nothing is without risk, and it is better to be mistaken twenty times than unjust just once. Our process involves consultation with a lot of responsibility being on the Bishop’s shoulders. We in the ACC in England have a Board of Ministry, and I am an examining chaplain with the job of finding out what someone knows, but also of helping him to develop a desire to learn and delve deeper into the treasures of the Church’s tradition and the Fathers.

I would certainly suggest that the Roman Catholic Church could do away with hot-house seminaries, have men study as lay students in universities, and then be initiated gradually into the priesthood in a small community of priests like the Oratory of St Philip Neri or a busy parish with a highly experienced and pastorally-minded parish priest. I have nothing positive to say about the Tridentine seminary such as figured in my own experience. Where I went, there was surprisingly little overt homosexuality, and most of us were level-headed and interested in many things outside clerical and liturgical garb and suchlike. There were some cliques, and something was usually done about it if it went “over the top”. Many aspects of seminary life are plain silly, and we have better things to occupy our precious time!

No Church can ordain just anybody, but more imagination is needed for the diversity of men and women who offer themselves for the priesthood and religious life. I welcome the initiative of the monastery for handicapped women, and men who are “under the bar” can surely be allowed to serve as priests in different kinds of chaplaincies and “niche” ministries. For that, you need a Bishop worthy of his calling in terms of interest in his job and empathy for those he has to look after. It is as simple as that!

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1 Response to Rigid Priests

  1. raitchi2 says:

    “Ideally, someone should study at university level, or at least read books on a set list and be examined on the content of their acquired knowledge. Apart from that, they are involved in their parish and we get to know them. About two years is usually enough to discern whether a man can be ordained and whether he is not a flagrant danger to us all. ”

    This made me chuckle and reflect on my immediate post-university years. I was still a rather “on fire” neo-conservative with traditional leanings Roman Catholic. I thought seminary was the place for me. I was absolutely amazed at the ungodly length of seminary for men with college degrees–6 years! In my case I thought since my undergraduate majors were in philosophy and classics (4 years Latin, Greek and 2 years reading Hebrew), that I would be a shoe-in and certainly have the time reduced. But no I remember the moment the vocations director for a particular diocese told me, “Yeah, when we have candidates in your particular situation, we find it’s just better for them to do the 2 pre-theology years along with everyone else since it gives you more time to discern… and remember the diocese is discerning you too.” That’s when I realized I couldn’t see myself as a vocation in the RCC if it valued both my time and their money (housing and tuition at seminary) at so little. Oh well, on to other adventures as a lay Catholic (aka where can I find a parish that realizes 20-something catholic young adults exist/ where can I find a mass that has even a shred of respect for tradition).

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