Random Thoughts, December 2018

With the distressing news of current events in the church there is a lot of talk these days about clericalism — the system where celibate male priests/bishops/cardinals who have been and are managing the church — and the damage this system has caused the church by creating an atmosphere that has allowed terrible abuses to happen and then to be covered up. As bad and tragic as the sex abuse and coverup is, what is even worse is whatever in church culture created the atmosphere that allowed this to happen.

Pope Francis is leading, and urging, discussions about this. He feels strongly that this clerical system has to go. Naturally he is facing strong opposition from the members of this clerical system itself who are interested only in protecting their rights and privileges. It seems they really believe they know better than anyone else how folks ought to live their lives, even in the most intimate details. Proper living and doing God’s will means simply following the rules laid down by these celibate males. However, there is also a groundswell of people who agree with and support Pope Francis. There are many and varied schools of thought beginning to make their ideas known in areas where even recently certain topics have been declared closed to discussion, eg, ordaining women, married priests, etc.

When I was ordained 50+ years ago I enjoyed being called “Father” and always wearing the collar, cassock, and biretta. A few years later I went on active duty as an Army Chaplain, rarely wore the collar, learned to be called “Chaplain” and being addressed by my first name. While it took some getting used to, I liked it, and I still do. I spent most of my years as a priest on active duty or connected to the Army. For many of those years as well as after retirement, I have also been called by my street name and call sign, “Frog”, and I enjoy this. It cuts through a lot of protocol. In the Army I had a responsibility just like everyone else in uniform, and “Chaplain” recognized that. I don’t have to be called by a special title to help folks however I can. Crawling through mud and being afraid is a great equalizer. I am on the same journey as everybody else, we are all equal, and we help each other. I have been Jim longer that I have been “Father”, and I have earned “Frog”. I like this.

I don’t think I will ever forget my first week on active duty in a basic training camp in Louisiana. My first night involved having a rifle pointed at me by a guard, being told to drop into the front leaning rest position, and ordered to produce an ID card which I didn’t have. The Thursday of that week I spent the day going through the gas chamber with the trainees. It was not an enjoyable experience. The purpose of the exercise was to show them how to use their gas mask and to trust their equipment and training.

That evening the trainees went through the live fire infiltration course in the dark. Again, not an enjoyable experience. All of us were terrified. Once I had crawled through the course, dodging real explosions and live ammo fired just over my head, I felt very relieved and very scared. One of the soldiers in charge of the training said, “Chaplain, were you afraid? There are some young soldiers out there terrified, and your place is with them, so go out and do your job”. I did for several hours. Being ontologically changed and called “Father” didn’t mean a lot, and I was not wearing a collar (cleric clothes are hard to keep clean in this kind of environment). I did the same things every Thursday for the next six months.

I did everything my soldiers did, to include their training. I wore the same clothes/uniform as they wore. Gradually I learned that my place was with my soldiers whatever they were doing. Much of how I served as a chaplain was described as “curb service” — wherever my soldiers happened to be. We referred to it as ”ministry of presence”.

In Viet Nam the experience of combat became a defining element of my life, something understood by those of us who have been there done that, but not by many others, well meaning though they might be. I felt a closeness to my soldiers and my mission, and a sense of purpose that I really have not felt much since. While there on Christmas Eve the best Commanding Officer I ever had told me after I had chosen not to get involved in a personnel situation because I felt it didn’t concern me, and so had gotten several soldiers killed, “Chaplain, anything that affects your people in any way is your concern, and don’t forget it, get involved and do something to help”.

Also, I don’t think I can ever forget the awful experience of being called “baby killer” by others, including priests, many of whom I knew well. That was a real shock I still feel.

Some traditionalist viewpoints emphasize the alleged “ontological” change ordination makes in a priest. I don’t see it that way. IMHO the only change is the role a priest plays in the church system. It is an important role for the church, but does not involve a change on the level of being. A priest is a man before ordination, and a man after ordination – nothing changes but his role in the church. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will be saying the same thing about women.

A number of these viewpoints push the notion about the power the priest has to change bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. IMHO the priest has no power, only the mission to lead folks in prayer, and it is the the assembled praying believing community that makes Christ present. This is not magic, and the priest is not Harry Potter. It is an act of prayer and faith by a community gathered together for that purpose.

Using titles like we have for priests, bishops, etc, continues to reinforce the male only model of the church institution and set the clergy apart if not above. There is always room as well as a need for questioning and wondering. With the people doing the questioning these days, it is clear the Spirit is alive and well.

I have found that many good folks want to keep calling priests “Father” to reinforce their notion that priests are removed from real life, to keep priests on a pedestal, in other words to keep clericalism alive. Quite often there is a lot of baggage attached to this.

As a retired priest I help out at nearby hospitals and hospices. I am available when needed, but I will come as I am, e.g. if I am doing cardiac rehab when the ER calls, I will come in my gym clothes. I have learned that not wearing black opens conversations with folks who for whatever reason do not want to talk with someone in clericals. Its not good or bad, it just is. IMHO I do not have to wear clericals or have a “title” to help people. There is a time and place for them, and it is not every time and every place.

I don’t see myself as different from other folks, just as someone with a different point of view and different questions.

Jesus called ordinary men and women to be his disciples. He did not ordain anybody, he formed a community of his friends who were willing to spend time with him and learn from him, and then he sent them out to live and learn the kingdom of God. The system/institution we know as church came later.

While we will always need folks to lead communities in prayer, I don’t think we will always need a patriarchal clerical caste. Intentional Eucharistic Communities are doing well with this. The questions are being asked, and the situation is evolving. The Spirit is at work calling us forward, often kicking and screaming.

Just saying . . .