This is part 2 of Fr Timothy's essay about the morale of Catholic Priests. Click here for Part 1.
Let me make a confession. As the time for me to be ordained drew near, I began to have terrible doubts as to whether I was called to be a priest. I had become deeply repelled by clericalism, and by any hint of priestly superiority. I dreaded the hypocrisy of it, because I knew that I was no better than anyone else. I only accepted ordination in obedience to my brethren. I could identify with St Augustine who wept when he was ordained a priest. The cynics thought that he was weeping because he had not been made a bishop, but in fact it was because he had no desire to be a priest at all. After my ordination I saw with horror my parent's parish priest advancing towards me. Only two years before he had commanded me to leave 'those heretical Dominicans' so that I might save my soul. Now he threw himself down before me and asked for a blessing from my sacred hands. I fled from the reception to my room, to recover my calm. I was only driven back because one of my German brothers followed me upstairs and tried to talk to me about Heidegger! That was even worse.
I finally came to love my priesthood in the confessional box. It was here that I discovered that ordination brings us close to people just when they feel farthest away from God. We are one with them, at their sides, as together we face human frailty, failure and sin, ours and theirs. The trouble with clericalism is not that it made the priest a sacred figure, but rather its understanding of the sacred was derived from the Old Testament rather than for the gospel.
One of the most sacred occasions at which I have ever taken part was the funeral of a man called Benedict, some twenty five years ago. I anointed him just before he died of AIDS, and his last request was that I bury him from Westminster Cathedral. Now that took some negotiation! At the funeral, the coffin was there at the centre of cathedral, and around were gather his friends, many of them also with AIDS. Here at the symbolic centre of Catholic life in Britain was the body of someone who represented so much exclusion, as having AIDS, being gay and dead. In this moment we can see the epiphany of God's radiant holiness.
This vision of the priesthood is essentially missionary, reaching out. It means that serving the Christian community cannot be the ministry of priests to the exclusion of all other ministries. However great the shortage of priests, the diocese must try to free some of us for other forms of outreach, so that those who would never come near a Church can be touched and welcomed. And when one's ministry is to a parish, then the parish community must be in some sense missionary, turned outwards.
This holiness of the priesthood does not mean that we are necessarily morally superior to anyone else. It is the opposite of elitist. It expresses the scandalous outreach of God to those who are on the edge. This implies a certain social dislocation for the ordained priest. We do not have a clear place in the social hierarchy. We are slippery figures who should be equally at home with Dukes or dustmen. We are to embody an inclusiveness that cannot be fully comprehensible to our present society, and summons it beyond all its inclusions and exclusions. I was a student in Paris when Cardinal Danielou died on the staircase on his way to visit a prostitute. The press aired all the expected innuendoes. But, as far as I could see, he was a holy man being a good priest. In way it was the perfect place for a Cardinal die.
It is even fitting that we dress in a rather odd way, and even occasionally wear skirts when other men gave up doing so five hundred years ago. It suggests that we sit askew to the ordinary structures. This reminds me of one of my American brethren. Like many Irish Americans, his Christian names included Mary. He was sounding off in the common room about the people being ordained priests these days, all these weirdoes, homosexuals and God knows what else. And one of the brethren answered him: "Come on. Your name is Mary and you are wearing a white skirt. What makes you think that you are so normal."
This is a dimension that must enter into our discussion about whether priests should be allowed to marry. I think that the arguments in favour of a married clergy are extremely strong, perhaps overwhelming. Perhaps the main regret that I would have is that a married priest might be more evidently part of the social system. There would be a pressure for him to have a lifestyle that clearly placed him somewhere in the social hierarchy, because of the education that his children got, and where they went on holiday and soon. It might be harder for him to represent the inclusivity of the Kingdom. This is not a knockdown argument for retaining celibacy, but it should be borne in mind. Does this vision of priesthood contribute to the debate about the ordination of women? If I may be evasive, I would just say that I was asked to address the topic of men who are depressed because they are priests, and not of women who are depressed because they are not!
I am suggesting that the ordained priest is called to embody in his life and being God's out reach to all of scattered humanity. This takes one beyond the dichotomy of those who see priesthood in terms of being and those who see it in terms of doing. All that we do as ordained priests should express and embody the holiness of God,s being in Christ, transforming the outsider into an insider, death into life, and sorrow into joy.
How is a priest to live this vocation, especially in the face of the crises of our Church and society? Today I will look at some of the challenges that we face in living this role in relationship to the local community. And tomorrow I will look at how we live it in solidarity with the wider Church, with all the crises that it is suffering at the moment.
When Michael Hollings felt called to the priesthood at the end of the war, he went to see the regimental chaplain, who was a Benedictine. The chaplain asked him why he wanted to be a priest. Michael replied: "To help people. He asked if I did not see Mass as being the centre of what a priest is. I simply said I did not, I wanted to help people, The chaplain was deeply shocked. My impression is that the spirituality of the diocesan priesthood is deeply grounded in the life of the laity. Bishop Untenor of the USA wrote that: "Diocesan priests belong to the community of the disciples of Jesus Christ. We face the same struggles as every lay person, and we live in the same world as they do."
It is, in the deepest sense, a lay spirituality, a spirituality with and for the laos, the people. I grew up thinking that the first class priest was a member of a religious order. There seemed to be a bit of a contradiction between the word 'secular' and the word 'Priest' - as if the secular priest did not fully make the grade. But if we accept the theology of Hebrews, then the priesthood is God's embrace of the secular, of what is lay. Our great high priest was in fact a lay person. Being a secular priest, thus expresses what is at the heart of all priesthood. Maybe it is we religious who are the sacerdotal odd balls whose priesthood needs to be explained. It is a bit late for me to discover this after thirty years as a Dominican priest!
If this spirituality is above all geared towards life with the laity, then it is here that secular priests, and often religious priests too, will experience our greatest joy but also our deepest pain and even demoralization. I will glance at just three sensitive areas: the difficulties of leadership, the frequent failure of parishes to be the communities that we dreamed of, and finally the pain of living our priestly life so close to so much human failure and tragedy.
This is part two of an edited version of a speech given at the National Conference of Priests at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, London on 3 September 2002. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 3.