Sunday, 22 November 2009

The identity of the Catholic priest today

What is the identity of the Catholic priest in the secular world of today?

I have been reading a wonderful book these days by Eugene H. Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor in the United States. Peterson says that the job of a pastor is to preach and to pray, to proclaim Christ's word and to witness his Mercy. Peterson makes a very powerful argument for his case, deriding the tendency he finds in his country and his church to package and sell religion, the threat that religion is being swallowed up by the culture of corporate management.

On the other hand, since I am somewhat familiar with Lonergan, I remembered that Lonergan had somewhere an article with the title, "The Jesuit as Priest and Apostle in the Modern World." I found there this very interesting proposal for the ministry of the Jesuit priest in the modern world. The priest, says Lonergan, is leader and teacher. He has to lead and teach in his contemporary context, and this context is marked by modernity, secularism and self-destructiveness. This means that the modern Jesuit has to (1) overcome vestiges of his classicist upbringing; (2) discerningly accept the gains of modernity; and (3) find ways to creatively combat the destructiveness of secularism. To this end, Lonergan proposes that there be worked out a set of ongoing strategies, constantly referred to some central 'clearing house' or coordinating body.

I have the greatest respect for Lonergan, and I am also taken up with Peterson, who is a Presbyterian who is completely at home with the two thousand year old tradtion of the Church and who does not hesitate to draw from all of it with the most amazing results. But there is obviously some conflict between these two trends of thought, at least as far as the identity of the priest is concerned.

Of course, we must keep in mind that Peterson is talking about the ministry of the pastor, whereas the identity of the Catholic priest does not necessarily coincide with the ministry of the parish priest. Again, we must keep in mind that Lonergan is addressing himself to Jesuits, and the identity of the Catholic priest does not necessarily coincide with that of the Jesuit priest.

Still, there is here a creative tension that might be exploited, and that certainly gives food for thought.

I think it would not be wrong to say that the question of the identity of the priest has been in ferment since Second Vatican Council. I think it would also be agreed that we have not yet reached any consensus.

There does seem to be, however, a consensus that the theology of the priesthood must be closely linked with Christology and with ecclesiology. For the priest is at the service of Christ and his Body, the Church. The priest, therefore, shares in the mission of Christ and the Church.

The mission of Christ is to gather togetehr the scattered children of God; it is the reconciliation of all things in himself, so that all might be reconciled to God; it is the redemtpion of the world so as to bring it to the Father. This is also the core mission of the Church, and here lies the core identity and mission of the priest.

If before the council, the sacerdotal or 'cultic' role of the priest was emphasized to the neglect of other aspects, post-conciliar theologians have sometimes called for the abandonment of the cultic role in favour of the priest as prophet, teacher, leader, and builder. Theologians have noted that different conciliar documents contain different explicit and implicit theologies of the priesthood. The Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests, for example, might contain an overly cultic and traditional defintiion; but that has to be read and integrated with the large vision of the mission of the Church laid down in Lumen Gentium. It is becoming clearer, then, that the priest cannot be seen merely as tied to the altar and sacristy; he is the teacher, leader and builder of community; and, as Kunnumpuram points out, not merely of the Christian community, but of the larger community. So the preist is prophet to the world; he is builder of the new communty that is the family of God. And this ample vision of things has been recently reconfirmed by the authoriative voice of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate.

In the light of all this, we might return again to where we began, with peterson and Lonergan.

Clearly the two approaches need to be held together in creative tension. As Lonergan himself has pointed out elsehwere, there are the two dynamics of healing and creating in history, and both are necessary. So the priest of today is called to concern himself with nothing less than the redemption of the world, and here lies the vision of Lonergan. But he is called to do so precisely as a priest, and here is the wisdom of peterson's emphasis: he is called to preach and to pray. But Lonergan would have no difficulty agreeing with that, for he concludes his suggestions with the reminder that the preist is to do all this "in Christ Jesus."

Not every priest is called to be a scholar, visionary or activist; but every priest will recognize this as part of the mission of the Church. Again, not every priest is a parish priest, but every priest will keep in mind that he is also called to preach and to pray, to proclaim Christ's word and to witness his Mercy, whether he is involved in inter-religious dialogue, or in the academic, social, literary, or political fields. For if there are many different gifts and tasks in the Body of Christ, there are many different ways of being a Catholic priest today.

1 comment:

  1. 'Teacher ,leader and builder'....
    I see that in the man Jesus Christ who walked with the community , as one of its members , about 2000 years ago.

    I don't see that in the average catholic priest of today , perhaps because the lay community has become so complex , life has become so hectic , competence is at a premium in tackling the issues of daily life today , good leaders and facilitators are so few... and so forth.

    As a result , the disconnect between the lay community and the religous is getting alarming . Witness the reduction in good vocations , the aversion of the young to the traditional religous practices and rituals , rising materialism , breakdown of marraiges , birth control , etc .

    Teachers , leaders and builders are definitely the need of the hour today . But they need to redefine their role -- after the example of the Great Teacher ( see para 1 above )