In his first day as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis told priest confessors at Saint Mary Major Basilica to “be merciful, the souls of the faithful need your mercy”. We need each other’s mercy, and to be ourselves merciful to all whom grace brings into our life. We do not need threats, judgments, excommunications, silencing. We need to recognize, support, and encourage God’s goodness in each other.
This is true of whomever would see themselves as leaders in the church. Too often leadership at all levels in the church is exercised through threats, sanctions, punishments, excommunications. This is done in the name of the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, but certainly not in his way of living his Father’s love. There is a clear disconnect between the church’s stated values and its operational values.
Many see a parallel between the story of Francis of Assisi being told by Jesus to “go and repair my house, for it is falling into ruin”, and Pope Francis’ choosing his name in our current circumstances. There are some pretty clear parallels. The church is in disrepair. The big thing, though, seems to center on how church authority treats the folks. As long as folks buy totally into the system, mouth the right words, blindly obey the appropriate dictates, do not discuss the undiscussable, and loudly proclaim their loyalty to Holy Mother church, they have no problem. However, if any choose to question the unquestionable, e.g., ordination of women, optional celibacy, etc, the punishments are swift and sure, much more so than with bishops who covered up child abuse. Nothing new here.
We need a church whose leaders are less concerned with their costumes and bling, their power and prerogatives, and more concerned with the total well-being of the folks they claim to lead. Accusing people of serious sin because they are in certain legal categories, or have attractions that are deemed disordered by leadership, is no way to lead people to Jesus, or to point out the good Jesus is doing among them. We need bishops who enter into serious, honest, and open dialogue with folks throughout the painful process of closing or merging parishes, and who are truly willing to listen and pay real attention to what the folks are saying. Using excommunication as a medicinal measure on priests because they don’t toe the line seems to have little to do with Jesus and more to do with being in charge – along the lines of ‘why do I excommunicate? because I can’. Church-wide, and in many local areas, church leaders have lost the confidence of the folks in the pews, and especially of the folks who used to be in the pews but no longer are. Leadership does not seem to care.
We need a leadership that isn’t focused on the past, but is open to the present, and is able to examine the basics of our tradition and bring their values to today. We need leaders who lead by example, who say “do what I do”, not “do what I tell you to do”. Very few folks take seriously the current position on women priests and optional celibacy, to mention just a few issues. We need a leadership who are ready to teach us by how they live, are ready to recognize that folks who don’t agree with them have the right to religious freedom and freedom of conscience too, and do not have to make themselves feel good by imposing their views on everybody through getting civi laws passed that support their ideas.
From one priest’s respective we need church leaders who encourage priests to speak out freely, who do not demand total compliance with their every dictate, do not threaten priests who do speak out or do not correctly mouth the party line, who really listen to the priests who do speak, who are willing and ready to treat priests as mature adults and not indentured servants. We need bishops who are truly spiritual leaders, who lead by their own prayerful and pastoral example, and whom priests would eagerly follow rather than fear or even worse. We need bishops who truly respect the priests, and demonstrate this respect continually and in all their dealings. Some bishops just can’t do this, no matter how hard they try. Maybe it isn’t in their nature. Some have forgotten what it is to be a parish priest, if they ever really knew.
We need to recognize that some bishops are hurting, too. They are not always well-treated either, and are often misunderstood. Like the rest of us priests, after all the show and tell of a day, they, too, go home to an empty room.
We all need the mercy Pope Francis spoke about at Saint Mary Major. We need, each of us, to start living it ourselves. While we have the example of Pope Francis to reflect on, we also need to realize the great movements of the church have not come from the top down. We priests are close to the bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain, so maybe it might start with us, somehow.
Just sayin . . .