Recovering our sense of the real difference between life in Christ, vocation and ecclesial function
The news from the Monastery of Bose fills many of us with sadness – a little beacon of light seems to be dimmed in the face of the ecumenical community’s founder, Enzo Bianchi, who went from being a papally appointed “auditor” at the Synod of Bishops’ 2018 assembly on youth, to one whom the Pope ordered to leave Bose!
But perhaps we should not be surprised. A charismatic leader grows old – the effluxion of time – and a new person must take over leadership.
Then the old leader likes to imagine driving the car from the back seat, while the new leader knows that it is now his or her duty to make the decisions. After all, that was the reason for the change in leadership.
But the old leader becomes the contrarian and brings about a split in loyalties in the group. It is a familiar human story that’s even woven into fairy tales and is played out time and again.
It is currently playing out at Bose between Bianchi and his former “Number 2”, Luciano Manicardi.
And it’s also being played out in Scotland between the older charismatic leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Alex Salmond, and his one-time “Number 2”, Nicola Sturgeon.
In both cases, the scenario is all too human, but it should remind Christians of a more fundamental truth.
The distinction between ministry and vocation
We have always said that we recognised that ministry and vocation within a person’s life are distinct, even if often overlapping. But, in fact, we have not really believed it!
Certainly, until it became common for bishops and parish priests to retire at 75 (some will remember the ructions that caused in the 1960s), the distinction between ministry and vocation was at best notional.
We had de facto identified the individual with his/her role in the community. So we saw aged prioresses whose convents were ill-managed until “Mother was called home” because there was no provision for resignation and retirement.
In these cases, whether male or female, lay or clerical, the role in the group was made identical with her/his vocation. It is an identification we still see, alas, in the job-description of the Vocations’ Director when the task is that of finding suitable candidates for seminary formation for ministry as presbyters.
But the need for Enzo Bianchi to move on, just like the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, brings us back to this fundamental fact: each one of us is unique, wholly distinct in our identity, our gifts, our situation, our foibles, and our weaknesses.
But each of us – and this applies to all the baptised – is also called into participation in the life of the Christ in the service of the Father. Indeed, just as we confess that the Logos came among us not as a generic “man”, but as a distinct historical individual named Jesus of Nazareth, so each of us is unique in the providence of God.
But this uniqueness is always under threat from a variety of sources. From the time we are small children we are put into classes, treated as specimens of a group and expected to fit into pre-existing moulds or become biological machines in some complex production line.
People cannot be reduced to a function
How sad – how blasphemous – when someone describes her/his life as “just a small cog”! Sadly, we want a neat world of round and square holes, and we would (secretly) like all others to be good round or square pegs each in the corresponding holes. As the song expressed it: “little boxes … all the same”.
How does this affect us in our attitudes to ministry?
Tasks in the community such as deacon, presbyter and bishop became, in effect, co-extensive with people. So, men were expected to become so identified in their roles/tasks that one could not distinguish community role and vocation.
Even more, individuality, specific gifts, and all the jagged wonder of humanity was trimmed off to form the biological inhabitants of roles. Life became co-extensive with role.
This created the original “company man” whose individuality and uniqueness was seen as “noise in the system”. And when it became manifest, it was often seen as rebellion, awkwardness, self-promotion or the crime of “wanting to do your own thing”!
Yet ministry to be real, human and effective operates one-to-one, person to person. And we are ill-served when we do not encounter another individual, but simply someone who is chopped down to a function.
Our uniqueness is a tribute to the overflowing goodness and wonder of the creation; to deny it is tantamount to burying our talent and showing we lack trust in God.
It is easy to fall into a role, and when many people treat ministers as simply “spiritual functionaries” it is easy to forget that vocation is individual. It is unique to each of us.
For some, their vocations include ministerial roles – but this is but a part of a larger real whole, and one’s human life is larger than all: a wonder reflecting the wonder of God.
Various levels of failure
Collapsing life into vocation and vocation into a ministry is a failure on several levels.
It turns ministry into a job.
It reduces the uniqueness of the person.
It depersonalises the ministerial encounter.
It ignores the reality of the Spirit working differently in each person.
It is a recipe for workaholism and guilt at perceived failure.
It ignores that all Christians are united, not by functional relationships (as one would find in a corporation), but as sisters and brother in baptism.
Since the Second Vatican Council’s decree Christus Dominus (which led to bishops retiring at age 75) we have been slowly recovering our sense of the real difference between life in Christ, vocation and ecclesial function – but only to a very limited extent.
Moreover, the shortage of young clergy has often exacerbated the problem, as tired greying priests seek to function in ever bigger parishes with less and less real interpersonal contact in their dealing with those to whom they minister.
When Benedict resigned from being Bishop of Rome, he demonstrated that his own vocation as a human being is distinct from his ecclesial role.
This was a far more important demonstration of this forgotten aspect of our theology than if he had written several encyclicals on the presbyterate!
His resignation was a new fact in Catholic experience and its implications need to be internalised by all who hold ecclesial office. As we have seen, it is a very hard lesson for many of us to learn!
The task of being a deacon, presbyter or bishop is not something that replaces an individual or that wholly exploits one’s vocation.
Vocation is personal, individually-sized and as distinctive to each of us as our facial features. It will change and evolve as life changes. It will take on new forms with every new day and with every additional grey hair!
What God called us to be 20, 30 or even 50 years ago is not as important as what God is calling us to do today… and tomorrow.
Thomas O’Loughlin is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.