Manly Reunion Gathering Address Part 5: Breaking Open the Priesthood

12 October 2017

Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta – Address at the Manly Reunion Gathering at DOOLEYS Lidcombe Catholic Club, Lidcombe, 30 August 2017



Reflections on its future in the light of the Royal Commission



I visited Mundelein Seminary in Chicago earlier this month and I noticed an interesting feature of the Seminary Chapel. There were seven steps leading to the high altar and on the side of each step was written the respective name of one of the seven Holy Orders. Each step would create an ever-growing chasm between the candidate and the people. It dawned on me that these vestiges of the Tridentine Model of priesthood are powerful symbols of the clerical class. It is part of the ecclesiology that emphasises the ontological change and separation of the ordained from the faithful. It is a powerful ingredient and ideal condition for the disease of clericalism to fester.

I hold that it is time for this exalted model of priesthood to be consigned to the past. Instead, we must rediscover the specific and full charism of the priesthood within the matrix of the universal priesthood of the faithful. The priesthood cannot be lived fully apart from the community of disciples. This is one of the key insights of the Vatican Council. The church is not the church of the ordained but of all the baptised.

There existed a variety of ministries in the early church. Paul bears witness to this when he lists a number of gifts or charisms that Christ gave to the church for the building up of His body. Yet over the centuries, this richness has been gradually concentrated in the ordained at the expense of the baptised. In effect, the priesthood of the ordained has assumed and usurped the rich and varied ministries of the baptised. It is time, therefore, that the notion of priesthood needs to break open anew, so as to fully honour what Paul says in that same passage in Ephesians 4 “every one is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”.

If we are to break open the priesthood and allow the ministries of the baptised to flourish, I think we will need to revisit the clerical and patriarchal culture along with its many institutional dynamics such as titles, privileges, customs, structures etc. I am not suggesting that the lines of distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained be erased. Rather, each one should complement, rather than stifle the other. I would hold that those institutional dynamics that breed clerical superiority, elitism and power, over against the non-ordained stifle rather than facilitate the outpouring of grace through the whole body of Christ. Furthermore, it is my conviction that the priesthood “pedestalised” is the priesthood dehumanised. It is bound to lead us into the illusion of a messiah complex and an inability to claim our wounded humanity and to minister in partnership. What we need to do is to humanise the priesthood so as best to equip ourselves with relational power for authentic Gospel living and service.

When Jesus sent out his disciples to announce the Good News, he did so in pairs. What I derive from that practice of his is, that Christians can only minister effectively when they recognise their limits as individual and are open to partnership with others. Yet, ironically, the whole culture of priestly formation is often geared towards individual heroism. The Curé d’Ars is probably the patron saint par excellence of the kind of priestly individual heroism. No wonder many of us suffer from ministerial burn out, depression and loneliness. If the priesthood has a better future, it has to find expression in better mutual support, collaboration and partnership. I would especially emphasise the ability to minister with women, because the church is much the poorer without the gift of women. A protestant minister was invited to a house warming party of a Catholic priest. As the host showed him around the magnificent new presbytery, the protestant minister remarked with a wink of his eye: “You Catholic priests might have better quarters. But we have better halves!” Perhaps the joke is on us priests who fail to appreciate the Gospel injunction of ministering in mutuality and partnership.

In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model of church. For I hold that this model, which promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of non-ordained, is at the very root of the culture of clericalism. To dismantle this model is not to dismantle the church per se or even the hierarchy (of whom I am a privileged member). Rather, it is to acknowledge and to have the courage to die to the old ways of being church that no longer convey effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.

I am very much of the view that abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered. Until we have abandoned the game of power and control that has been our cultural captivity, until we have put downward mobility front and centre in the Church, which is what Jesus was all about, I doubt we can seriously heal ourselves of this disease.

Part 6 will be published tomorrow.

To read Part 4 of Bishop Vincent’s address, click here.


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