Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta – Address at the Manly Reunion Gathering at DOOLEYS Lidcombe Catholic Club, Lidcombe, 30 August 2017
THE PRIESTHOOD IN AUSTRALIA
Reflections on its future in the light of the Royal Commission
PART 2: RECLAIMING SERVANT-LEADERSHIP
There is often a disconnect between who we claim to be and how people see us. Perhaps nowhere is this perceived disconnect more obvious, than in the idea of the priest being the icon of Jesus, the Humble Servant.
I recall an occasion where my parish priest came across not as a humble servant but more like a feudal lord. It was my experience of First Reconciliation. We lined up on both sides of the confessional and waited nervously for our turns. I had rehearsed my sins a dozen times, with the help of my fellow penitents. And yet, when I knelt down to confess, in that dark confessional box, I could not utter a word. I was stupefied by a gripping fear. Unimpressed by my silence, the priest promptly got out of his seat, and dragging me by the ear, placed me at the end of the line. For good measure, he even gave me a slap on the face before storming back to his seat. We were in awe of his unfettered power.
In Australia, the priesthood no longer enjoys the prestige and the power it once had. For a lot of young people, it is no longer surrounded with the aura of mystique and fascination. However, this loss of prestige does not always mean that we are seen as icons of Jesus, the Humble Servant. To truly reclaim this essential quality of the priesthood, we must go to the heart of what it means to be a servant-leader.
The servant leadership model is much more than what we do to the people. It is indicative of who we are as humble and vulnerable servants in the likeness of Christ who came to serve and to give his own life for others. Hence, it is a way of being – a modus vivendibefore it can be translated into a way of doing – a modus operandi. We, Christian leaders, today are more than ever before challenged to embrace the journey of self-emptying and powerlessness that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
So much of what is wrong with the church today stems from a travesty of Christian leadership and service. As far as I am concerned, the sexual abuse crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, rightly observes, that we can no longer limit our blame to the individuals who offended. We must also look for factors within the very culture of the Church that have contributed to the sexual abuse crisis. We need to explore the deeper issues that lie underneath this phenomenon. Unless we have the courage to see how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus, unless we are prepared to go beyond the symptoms and explore the deeper issues that lurk behind the surface, unless we genuinely repent of our sins and face up to the task of reclaiming the innocence and powerlessness of the servant-leader, we will have failed the test of our integrity, discipleship and mission.
When privilege, power and dominance are more evident than love, humility and servant-hood in the church, then the very Gospel of the servant Jesus is at risk. What we need to reclaim for the church forcefully and unequivocally is the notion of diakonia. To this end, we as leaders need to manifest the diakonia of Christ in who we are and what we do. Until we have reclaimed diakonia, the church will be less than what Christ intends it to be.
It seems to me that we need to recover this fundamental intuition of the Gospel in the face of the human struggle for power, strength and the desire to dominate and control. The church can only be faithful to its mission when it embraces fully and unequivocally the journey into the divine vulnerability. It can only be the conduit of compassion and speak the language of hope to a broken humanity when it truly personifies powerlessness and stands where Christ once stood, that is, firmly on the side of the outcast and the most vulnerable.
Part 3 will be published tomorrow.
To read Part 1 of Bishop Vincent’s address, click here.