Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A New Brand of Clericalism

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This week I would like revisit the theme of the priesthood in the Church. I know, it’s not Good Shepherd Sunday. And yes I know, you don’t want another long apology from the priest defending his own policies and justifying his own quirks and fancies. The fact of the matter is that the readings today have something in common – the theme of shepherds.

Most, if not all, priests are embarrassed to speak about the priesthood because it sounds like an arrogant egoistic attempt at self-aggrandisement. I guess it has become more prevalent these days as the priesthood is often accused of suffering from the sin of clericalism. Clericalism can be defined as a state of affairs in which there is an unnecessary or overly exaggerated importance attributed to clergy, in such a way that the laity relate to them as subjects to be ruled rather than a people to be lovingly pastored. The impression is that all priest revel and grovel for ecclesiastical ambition, status and power – vices condemned by Christ himself in the gospels.

So those who oppose clericalism often end up bashing the clergy. But, the problem here isn’t the priesthood per se or the hierarchy, but rather the identification of the priesthood with clericalism. As in all vocations or professions, there are good shepherds and there are bad shepherds, and we must always be on guard against the contagion of clericalism that can infect everyone, even the best of us. But the solution to clericalism is not the democratisation of the Church nor is it to be found in the abolition of the hierarchical priesthood in favour of the priesthood of the faithful. Eventually, you end up replacing one “shepherd” with another but now under a different guise, a different label, a different form of clericalism. The truth of the matter, a point confirmed by Jesus at the end of today’s gospel, is that the Church is always in need of shepherds.  

Yes, there are good shepherds and bad ones. In the first reading, the Prophet Jeremiah is asked to condemn the bad apples. The shepherd who is all about self-preservation, who allows the flock to be destroyed or scattered is repugnant to the Lord. It doesn’t help to soften the harshness of the words of the Prophet to know that he was referring to the Kings of Israel rather than to priests.  But the Lord also makes a promise through the prophecy of Jeremiah, that He will not allow bad shepherds to destroy his flock. This is a consoling promise that should not be lost on us today. In spite of the scandals that we see plaguing the Church, many of which stems from bad shepherds or bad shepherding, we must firmly believe that the Church will not be abandon to the tyranny of the wolves. The Lord Himself promises to shepherd the flock.

We see the Lord fulfill this prophecy in today’s Gospel. Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a Shepherd. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, sprang into action and brought them back to the fold. Moreover, he had promised in Jeremiah’s prophecy that he would “raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them.” The first wave of these new shepherds were the apostles. The Lord’s first gesture of compassion was inviting them to be with Him, to teach them how to be good sheep, to “come away” with Him and to “rest” in Him. These shepherds need to know the Lord, to love Him, before they can radiate His love contagiously to others who hunger and thirst for the Lord. Without prayer, mission and ministry would easily descend into activism. The second gesture of his compassion was shown to the crowds in teaching them. Jesus reminds us that to impart the truth to someone is a great act of charity. In fact, to “instruct the ignorant,” is one of the greatest spiritual works of mercy and has always inspired those in the Church to pass on the truth of Christ. When priestly ministry is translated into activism, when shepherds abdicate their responsibility to teach, we see the emergence of a new kind of clericalism, one that goes beyond the external trappings – the titles we hold, the garb we wear, the vessels we use in the liturgy. This new brand is more subtle. 

There is a clericalism that does not accentuate but rather blur the lines between clergy and laity. It’s often regarded as the laicisation of priests (not to be confused with the canonical process of releasing priests from their priestly state) and its corollary, the clericalisation of the laity. It’s as if we are telling the laity, your baptismal dignity is not good enough unless you start behaving and doing things like a ministerial priest; or to the priests, you are not inclusive or humble enough unless you behave like the average Joe.

There is another brand of clericalism that comes across as a condescending attitude matched by words and actions. It patronises and denigrates those who disagree and uses ad hominem attacks to belittle. It denies the legitimate rights of the faithful to choose the manner of worship or devotion that is legitimately authorised by the Church. Instead, of submitting to the legitimate authority of the Magisterium, to the disciplines of the Church, such form of clericalism begins to impose its own brand of justice, ideologies, laws, and rubrics on the faithful. Such clericalism often insults the intelligence of the faithful, who wish to be treated as adults.

And finally there is a form of clericalism that has infected the celebration of the liturgy. According to Pope Benedict, when the priest “becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him… his creativity sustains the whole thing… Less and less is God in the picture.” The priest is now pivotal; his personal preferences and creativity (or lack of it) give form to the whole liturgy. This is the essence of clericalism - the person of the cleric as the focal point and centerpiece of the whole act of worship.

Just before leaving my last parish, I shared with the congregation how difficult it was during the first months after my ordination to be addressed as “father.” I was embarrassed because the honorific seems too presumptuous and showy. I was mistaken, of course. Years later, I would come to recognise the importance of that address – what it means to be a father. The title reminds me of the weighty responsibility of being a spiritual parent, a shepherd. More than anything else it reminds me that I no longer live for myself, I do so for others, I do so as an icon, a sacrament of the Heavenly Father, and of His Son, the Good Shepherd. Though clearly a sinner, I stand in the place of God himself. What a privilege? What a challenge?

I came to realise that accepting the title was not arrogance. In fact it was hubris to refuse it. More than anything else, the title “father” depersonalises the priest. Yes, in a world so obsessed with the cult of personality, so obsessed with charismatic personalities who flaunt their unique individualism, the title “father” objectifies the priest, makes him anonymous and undistinctive, separates his personality from his priestly identity as one configured to Christ.  To deny the title “father” and insist on being called by my first name, would indeed be clericalism at its worst. It’s like saying I am more important than my priesthood. Today, let us continue to pray for the Shepherds of the Church. What the Church needs today are not shepherds who behave like wolves or even pretend to be lambs. What we need are shepherds who behave like shepherds and live up to its high demands.

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