In the Gospel for this coming Sunday (Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21) Jesus in the local synagogue reads the following passage from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord; rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him; He said to them, ‘Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’ “. But is it fulfilled in our hearing today?
One might wonder how the institutional church is living out these words in our own day. How does its mode of governance bring glad tidings to the poor when it closes churches in our inner cities and moves them to suburbs? How does it proclaim liberty to captives when it is itself making captives of any who disagree with its formularies? How can it proclaim recovery of sight to the blind when it imposes blindness itself on folk by forbidding them to think or to discuss any number of topics, when it violently (sign this document of submission or else) demands complete assent of intellect and will to pronouncements most folks don’t believe anyway, insisting its decrees take precedence over one’s own conscience? Such is the case with Fr Tony Flannery in Ireland. How can the institutional church claim to let the oppressed go free when it is the one doing the oppressing, as is the case with the LCWR, with any who favor the ordination of women or optional celibacy? It may be proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord by providing an opportunity to the Holy Spirit to raise up folks who question these practices and are willing to pay the price for doing so. It seems to be rewriting the scriptures as its operational values reflect the principle that perfect fear casts out love, that obeying God in the call of one’s conscience is not nearly as important as obeying the church in all its self-serving dicta. It cannot lead with love, so it imposes with fear. It keeps folks in line by threats and punishments. Fewer folks are paying much attention to this, and there is not much the Vatican can do to them.
For priests, however, it is different. The institution and its minions beat priests up over their notion of the vow of obedience made at ordination, and, for religious order priests, at their religious profession. It is difficult to live this vow as one only of slavish and non-thinking obedience, as it is seen by many who have not taken it. The idea of listening prayerfully to the call of one’s conscience seems to the system and its minions to be both a threat to the system and an act of disloyalty. Those who have actually taken the vow might have different ideas about it, who both made the vow and live in deep love of Christ and the Church, and who are learning how difficult and painful this love can be. Obedience involves prayerful dynamic listening, and equally dynamic response. There is nothing slavish about it. It is a challenge that one must meet on one’s own, and which will be misunderstood, criticized, and attacked by others for whom it is merely an intellectual and theoretical exercise. Being a priest these days isn’t easy. The meanest input seems to come from folks who know very little about what it is, but who have their own agenda and expectations.
There seem to be some instances of abusive treatment of priests even on local levels. There is the story of a group of priests who were getting together for lunch and had invited a retired bishop from another diocese to join them and share some thoughts. This visiting bishop called the local ordinary to mention he was coming to town. Very shortly thereafter he called a priest helping to organize the luncheon and asked him “to tell the brothers that he ‘thought it advisable not to come’”. It would seem that the visiting bishop’s conversation with the local ordinary was a key factor in his deciding not to come and join the priests for lunch. I was not privy to the phone call, so I may be way off in my thoughts. But there are questions.
There is not much respectful and honest dialogue in the institutional church these days. In his second inaugural address President Obama said “We cannot treat name-calling as reasoned debate”. Yet this is what many do in criticizing our brothers and sisters whose journeys and stories differ from ours and which we do not understand. There is precious little kindness or respect, and plenty of venomous self-righteousness. We have learned this from “leadership”, and they have taught it well by their own example. The “speaking in the name of God” and “eternal salvation” cards seem to trump a lot of other hands. But, fewer and fewer folks are paying attention. One wonders, though, is the god they claim to represent that same God that Isaiah knew and whom Jesus read about in the Story?
Each of us might ask ourselves how the Story speaks to us in our own setting. We may or may not be able to look to the institution for example or guidance. We may have to act in ways that are perceived as disloyal or as a threat by the system and its minions. The whole idea of following Christ and taking up our own cross every day becomes decreasingly theoretical and increasingly real. The system has various ways to send the message that “we are watching you”. Sometimes its hard to care just what they do. Each of us has to follow our path as we prayerfully discern it. The operative word is “prayerfully”.
Just sayin . . .
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A retired bishop does not feel welcome enough to have lunch and discussion with a group of clergy. And this, after a phone conversation with the clergy’s local ordinary. That’s quite a story. There is a phrase I have heard: “communio episcoporum.” Apparently it describes an agreement bishops have. It is either to preserve unanimity, or maybe just the appearance of unanimity. In either case, the group of clergy missed having a valuable conversation with a shepherd.
In the Vatican II “Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church” (Christus Dominus), it reads: “He (the bishop) should regard them (priests) as sons and friends. He should always be ready to listen to them and cultivate an atmosphere of easy familiarity with them, thus facilitating the pastoral work of the entire diocese.” Paragraph 16.
If the local ordinary understood the pastoral directive in this document, he would be hosting the lunch. He would have a working rapport with his priests. It would be among his highest priorities. But the local clergy felt it necessary to look elsewhere for meaningful conversation.
I hope and pray that the clergy find another way to meet with a bishop who is eager to break bread with them and “facilitate the pastoral work” that is their focus. If the local bishop is otherwise preoccupied, then a bishop nearby. But I urge the clergy to do whatever is necessary to nurture and sustain them. These are hard times. They need to foster a “communio presbyterum” — for our sake as well as their own.
One of my tendencies, inculcated from my Catholic ghetto upbringing, is to expect that I will find leadership or even just no-obstacle in the hierarchy. Sadly the opposite seems frequent. What I do appreciate so much are prophetic laity and clergy who live the compassion of the gospel within and without the constraints of the “official” discipline.
I agree that we need to encourage and support those who do.
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