The Renewal of Priestly Ministry: A Prophetic Challenge
Dudley Plunkett FAITH Magazine May-June 2006
The Catholic priesthood is remarkably stalwart and, in the light of Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church, will surely survive and see new heights of spirituality and sanctity. Looked at from a secular perspective, however, it is widely anticipated that this same priesthood will disappear unless it is rescued by such major changes as voluntary celibacy, women’s ordination and non-permanent commitment. Not only has the view of the priest changed in terms of reverence for his office, but recent events have conspired to diminish public respect for Catholic priests. They have come to be seen in secular society as holdovers from the past: conservative, patriarchal, out of touch with contemporary values and lifestyles - even an eccentricity, as appears innumerous film and television portrayals.
Unfortunately, similar notions have gained a foothold among priests themselves, leading to a wholly unprecedented defection from the priesthood of possibly as many as 100,000 men since the second Vatican Council. More recently the Church’s pride in its priesthood has been severely undermined by the shockwaves of clerical sex-abuse, especially in the Western world. Although the scandal has undoubtedly been exaggerated to a significant extent through the malevolent singling out of priests rather than the members of other offending professions, and the caricaturing of any moral offence by clergy as hypocrisy and justifying generalised contempt and ridicule, priests are none the less faced with a humanly desperate situation. Many have sought to cope by adopting a lower social profile.In some countries of Western Europe priests have abandoned clerical dress and begun to disguise their priesthood in other ways. Many have become apprehensive about how people see them and are inhibited from speaking out in their own defence, while, sadly, there are those who seem unsteady in their faith or half-hearted in their trust in God’s power.
The nature of the problem is spiritual. Many pastors in the West seem more preoccupied with seeking new management strategies to cope with falling numbers of priests than with finding new ways to inspire the spiritual renewal of the baptised and to spread the gospel. Many other factors influence the decline in religious practice among the laity, but the lack of a convincing spiritual leadership from a good number of their bishops and priests is undoubtedly exacerbating it. In his letter on the role of the bishops, John Paul II set them a demanding challenge, that of sustaining hope:
The Bishop is the prophet, witness and servant of this hope, especially where a culture of ''the here and now'' leaves no room for openness to transcendence. Where hope is absent, faith itself is called into question (Pastores Gregis, 2003, para. 3).
It is heartening that one major archdiocese has tackled the whole issue head-on with a yearlong series of Masses, prayer novenas and discussions aimed at revitalising Catholics. The website of the Chicago Archdiocese, has recently reported that Cardinal Francis George himself commissioned Mission Chicago 2006 in response to lower Sunday mass attendance, new allegations of sexual abuse by priests, and fallen-away Catholics who have become hostile to the Church. With the grace of God this initiative, and others which may follow it around the world, will help restore the high view of the priesthood so emphasised by Pope John Paul:
The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant..... Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of priesthood. (Pastores Dabo Vobis - PDV, 1992, para. 12).
The intention here is simply to make the assertion, I trust not unwelcome, that the time has come for a profound spiritual renewal of the priesthood. The Apostles were filled with fear until the day of Pentecost dawned. What the Church needs is a new Pentecost, with priests claiming the grace of their ordination to carry on Christ’s mission, and demonstrating to the Catholic faithful and to the world at large that their calling remains valid and essential to the Church. The gains could be enormous, and not least in increasing the numbers of priests, as Pope John Paul believed:
Particularly in the context of the new evangelization, the people have a right to turn to priests in the hope of "seeing'' Christ in them.... Vocations will certainly not be lacking if our manner of life is truly priestly, if we become more holy, more joyful, more impassioned in the exercise of our ministry. (Letter to Priests, Holy Thursday 2005, para.7.)
How is this renewal going to be initiated? The power of initiative undoubtedly lies with the Holy Spirit, and it is towards the evangelising and renewing Spirit that the Church must turn. However, it is no less indispensable for those priests who most clearly see what has been happening to take a prophetic lead, as is happening in Chicago. More priests need to come together publicly to pray, to make reparation for their fallen confreres, and to prepare for revival in a Church stifled by secularism. This might include prayers for forgiveness of priestly failings of the kind that Pope John Paul offered for past failings of the Church and intercession for the guidance of Church leaders.
With this demonstration of priests’ faith and the example it would provide, I am convinced there would be strong support not only from the Catholic laity but from other Christians and those who are holding back from a full commitment to the faith because they do not see it being lived sufficiently convincingly. If the clergy do not take the lead no one else can, even though many faithful are praying fervently for them. Priests need to see that they cannot merely tough out the situation, which is in any case growing steadily worse. It is time for a movement to ‘strengthen the brethren’, and to restore the integrity and the spiritual power of the Church’s pastors to give the world evidence that they are
... deeply and fully immersed in the mystery of Christ and capable of embodying a new style of pastoral life, marked by a profound communion with the pope, the bishops and other priests, and a fruitful cooperation with the lay faithful.... (PDV, para 18.)
God will surely respond if more priests open their hearts to him anew like the leaders of the People of Israel of old. The great intercessor for priests, the mother of Jesus, will certainly be there to encourage them. Indeed Pope John Paul II ends PDV powerfully and movingly by evoking her role and example in the lives of priests: ‘Mary was called to educate the one eternal priest, who became docile and subject to her motherly authority. With her example and intercession the Blessed Virgin keeps vigilant watch over the growth of vocations and priestly life in the Church.’(para. 82).