Disunity in the Year of the Priest

Saint John VianneyLike many other organisations, the Vatican gives names to years. This year has been the Year of St Paul; next year is the Year of the Priest. It coincides with the 150th anniversary of the death of John Vianney, a simple French parish priest who spent much of his life in post-Revolutionary France hearing confessions.

Vianney, known popularly as the Cure of Ars, was a compassionate man, and in a rural France where religious practice was part of society, communities were tight-knit and wounds festered, a confessor who made tangible the love of God was much in demand. His priestly ministry, with its focus on individual confession, was part of a credible pastoral strategy.

Australian society differs greatly from that of rural France. So does the challenge facing church ministers, including Catholic priests. The Year of the Priest offers an opportunity to muse on the questions faced by Catholic priests today.

The reflection may be sharpened by the fact that three out of the four priests ordained for the Sydney Archdiocese celebrated their first Mass in Latin. Given the place of the first Mass as a symbolic statement of how a priest views his ministry, this majority choice is of some significance. The concerted choice of Latin suggests that many young priests share a distinctive vision of the Church, of priesthood and of pastoral priorities that older priests would not share.

It would be easy to pass judgment, either to approve or to condemn, on such decisions and on the pastoral strategies that they reflect. But it may be more helpful to reflect on their significance within all the complex relationships that constitute priesthood within the Catholic Church.

Priests are defined by their relationships. They exist within a church, which in turn is defined by its relationship to God through Jesus Christ. So they are disciples of Jesus within the Catholic Church. Their ordination as priests defines further their complex relationships to other Catholics, including bishops and other priests.

In the Catholic view, the relationship between the bishop and the clergy of his diocese is of particular symbolic significance. The image of the clergy gathered around their bishop expresses the unity of the local church. In the same way, the image of the bishops gathered around the Pope expresses the unity of the universal Church.

Images and symbols tend to be taken for granted until the reality they represent is put under pressure. It seems inevitable that the unity of priests under the local bishop will be put under pressure if there are substantial divisions between them about the desirable form of worship, the pastoral needs of their people, their ways of relating to Catholics and the broader society, and about what it means in practice to be a priest. When they gathered around their bishop they would be facing in opposite directions, just as they might do when celebrating the Eucharist.

Of course the image of the clergy gathered around the bishop of the area never fully reflects the reality of any church. Catholics who belong to the Ukrainian or Maronite communities, for example, may well have their own bishop in the same city. Clergy in many religious congregations, too, have a more complex relationship with the local bishop. In the Anglican communion, the clergy and congregations that do not accept women's ordination may be placed with a bishop who works across the territory of many local bishops.

But the co-existence in the same church of priests who have a radically different outlook and preference for forms of worship would pose a more radical challenge to the relationships that define what it means to be a priest. It would affect particularly the critical relationship between priests and the people they are ordained to serve.

Will congregations be subjected to the conflicting styles and preferences of priests who succeed one another? Will there be a settlement by which individual congregations are reserved to Latinophile or Anglophile priests? Will Catholics be encouraged to shop around to find priests and congregations that offer congenial brands of Catholic life and worship?

Such questions illustrate the potential for fracturing the traditional image of the clergy gathered around the bishop as a symbol of church unity. They also distract from the central relationship that gives meaning to priesthood — the relationship to Jesus Christ and to the spreading of the Gospel.

Where there are divisions their effects are rarely effectively addressed by ignoring them. It may be better to name 2009 the year of priests, not the Year of the Priest, thus recognising the divergent approaches to priesthood within the Catholic Church.

The year would then be less concerned to unite priests around a single definition of priesthood than to invite priests to speak to one another of where they find energy and life in the different relationships that being a priest involves.

They can then be invited to test these articulations by the reality of Christ found in the Gospel and in the world. That would embody the encouraging conversational style of ministry commended by John Vianney.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Year of the Priest, John Vianney, pope, bishop



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The Holy Father is quoted as having name this year the Year of the Priest and the Year for Priests - we suspect the difference is in the translation. We have gone with Year FOR Priests as an opportunity to pray for all priests and priestly vocations without whom we cannot be Church.

Catholic Vocations Melbourne | 30 July 2009  

Yesterday ....different ways of being Anglican.
Today...different ways of being a priest.
How many sleeps until tomorrow, when we will rejoice in the realisation that there are (and always have been) different ways of being Catholic?
Some of which-dare one hope?-will actually look something like what Jesus had in mind.
Then -and only then-will the gates of Hell not prevail against us.

margaret | 30 July 2009  

GREAT CALL, Margaret! ... and perhaps we accept & applaud different ways of being CHRISTIAN. I’m no theologian, that’s for sure; but to me, it’s a no-brainer that tolerance for the beliefs and practices of others could underpin in Aus a renewed respect among the mob for the Christian ethos – and what a major plus that would be compared with how things are!

The prospect for us to move forward in that direction is strong, perhaps even unique, given a country in the infancy of shaping its own culture.

Let Andrew Hamilton's notion of 'divergent approaches' flourish ... perhaps then no clergyman will feel on-the-outer.

John Warton | 30 July 2009  

I believe that "the relationship to Jesus Christ and the spreading of the Gospel" is not solely the domain of ordained priesthood. I'd like to see a year dedicated to the Priesthood of all Believers where everyone's contribution towards spreading the Gospel is celebrated and where we can all seek ways to enhance, deepen and celebrate our individual and collective relationships with Christ and each other.

Anna | 30 July 2009  

Our Diocese has 6 ordained married deacons and 4 studying. Their presence in parishes has been a wonderful pastoral presence, an acknowledgment of the fullness of ordination [Bishop, Priest & Deacon], and also a wonderful witness to the sanctification of married clergy. I know we need priests, but it would help them if they not only recognized those who are always there to assist their ministry, but it would be helpful to remember that the ordained deacons [increasing annually by 11% worldwide]are there to compliment their priesthood.

Kerry | 30 July 2009  

It is disappointing to see the use of Latin being portrayed as a source of disunity when in reality it is intended to be the very opposite!

John XXIII urged the use of Latin as the patrimony of the Western - yes, it is called Latin rite for a reason - Church, in Veritatem Sapientia. His call was reaffirmed in Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium. So why is it now seen as a sign of bad things?

The reality is that the Church is reviving, not as ageing liberal hoped by tossing out the centuries of tradition, but by rediscovering the treasure that it is. Part of that treasure is about the nature of the sacramental priesthood, with the sacrifice of the mass at its centre. How wonderful to see this new generation of priests uniting around the traditions of the Church.

terra | 30 July 2009  

"In my Father's house are many mansions ..." too often this message of hope is forgotten.

David | 30 July 2009  

For some years I was a [Jesuit] priest in the Roman Catholic Communion and for many years since I have been an Anglican priest in America and in Australia. In practical terms what I have done ine either communion and in either country has been the same in liturgy, in preaching and in hearing confessions, baptising, and all the sacramental rest. For some time in both communions I have been an academic whose formal pastoral work was done on weekends. At other times my work has been that of a parish priest. Priests I know exercise their priesthood in many and vastly different ways. It is hard to pin down in a few words just what their priesthood is but in the church they know that they are priests and people recognise them as priests. Not one of them is perfect. Some are deeply fractured and damaged human beings. Others are, as we say, well integrated. The church is a church of saints and sinners while sects are for saints only. It is good for the church to celebrate both saint and sinner priests.

I once did some research on what trainee priests wanted to do after ordination. The results made me sad. They wanted to provide beautiful liturgy [even in Latin] and to be counsellors. Their social dimension was dead. And my word count is up.

Gerry Costigan | 30 July 2009  

Andrew's article made me read the official translation of the Pope's letter "proclaiming a Year for Priests". It is meant "to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal".

The saintly example of the Cure of Ars is set before all priest if they are to be witnesses to the Good News in today's world.

One condition of society, I think I'm right in saying, that the Cure did not have to deal with, was the presence of a highly educated and articulate laity living in affluent times and with great freedom of political expression.
That's why I was pleases to see the Pope quote Vatican 2. Priests (and Bishops?) should be "sincere in their appreciation and promotion of the dignity of the laity... listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes, acknowledge their experience and competence in different fields of human activity. In this way they will be able with them to discern the signs of the times".

Some recent statements by the Pope, some bishops, and some priests, on a variety of theological, psychological, liturgical and social issues might have been better nuanced had they consulted more widely.

Uncle Pat | 30 July 2009  

I agree with Anna.
A look over the fence further still one could not that the fastest growing churches around the world at the moment are those with that follow that philosophy.The sharing of the pastoral role has allowed expanding the church base faster than growth of ordained personnel.

Stephen Coyle | 30 July 2009  

Thanks Andy. There is a real tension, as you point out, between the need for unity and the need to diversity, which mirrors the commonality and the diversity of the pastoral needs of Catholic congregations. Hopefully most priests experience this as a creative tension.

At the end of the day, it is the needs of the people to whom they minister that should determine the approach of the priest, not their individual preferences for this or that liturgical or spiritual style. Thus the same priest should be able to be a different kind of priest for different kinds of communities.

I thoroughly recommend Fr David Ranson's recent book, "'The Paschal Paradox' to readers interested in the roles and challenges facing priests in the contemporary Australia.

David de Carvalho | 30 July 2009  

What a pity the three new priests said their first mass in latin!

Robert Colquhoun | 30 July 2009  

I do wonder about the yearning for Latin by people too young to remember the place the Latin had in the mass before Vatican II. It came with a theology that separated priest from people. A priest once said to my community that he was pleased that his back was too the people so that he could lovingly focus on the presence of Jesus in the host... I remember the beauty of a high mass, the music, the chanting, the incense, the mystery. However, there was something deeply sad about the way it isolated people from living the mass.

We are part of a Catholic Church that is dominated by Latin America, South East Asia and Africa - in what way will Latin nourish their faith? The young people of the west need priests who can speak to them in a language that responds to their needs. If 3/4 of Sydney's newly ordained prefer Latin then where will our young go to find a listening ear when they need it?

Tina | 30 July 2009  

'in a rural France where religious practice was part of society, communities were tight-knit and wounds festered, a confessor who made tangible the love of God was much in demand. His priestly ministry, with its focus on individual confession, was part of a credible pastoral strategy' is very welcome in this priest's heart I can tell you. Thank you Fr Andrew.

Too often in gatherings of clergy there is time wasted having to survey which groups have the ascendency and what can be talked about openly and which matters must go unheard of or occupy a quieter revelation. If you support one bishop in one idea there is suspicion that you don't support another bishop. So much time is wasted and so many good clergy just want to retreat to their own parishes or ministries and become 'submarines' to the presbyterate.

If only we could be more trusting of each other and acknowledge that different approaches are a 'credible pastoral strategy' being chosen and applied and good luck to each and every one of us.

I too was surprised that three out of the four newest priests in Sydney chose a Latin Mass for their first celebration, but instead of looking for creepies under the Altar cloths, I'm just going to apply Fr Andrew's 'credible pastoral starategies' criteria.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 31 July 2009  

Great idea, Andrew, to rename or at least rethink the restrictive meaning of 'Year of the Priest'. But another glaring omission in the Vatican's dedication of the coming year is the total disregard of women in the priesthood.

The directive by the last Pope that there be no further discussion or action on women's ordination is being followed reverently by Pope Benedict. With so little respect for half of its members, the Church cannot be a full follower of Christ's vision.

Jan Coleman | 31 July 2009  

The use (I would say mis-use) of the word "vocation" annoys me greatly. Capital V "Vocations", as used in the general Catholic press, excludes people seeing their work, hobbies, voluntary work etc etc as being "vocated". Then Vocations are given sentimentalist, deferential and pietistic overlays. It's like "the faithful" being used to describe the people other than clergy. Shocking theology! What happened to "the priesthood of ALL believers"?

Frank Bremner | 31 July 2009  

Just to address the confusion about the meaning of 'vocations'- hobbies, voluntary work interests, pursuits or extra-curricula commitments are not vocations.

A vocation is a discerned life choice, around which you order all the rest of your life (including hobbies & work & other interests). So yes, we should all be praying for vocations to marriage, religious & ordained life.

(I believe the jury's still out on whether 'singledom"' is an actual vocation... as a 'single' myself, I'm not quite sure!)

But praying especially for vocations to the ordained priesthood is a wonderful and much needed thing - and a great task for all of us in the "priesthood of believers" to take on, in thanks to all those who give their lives in service to the Church.

Margaret K | 31 July 2009  

Our parish has had a number of priests (all different) who challenged me and led me to be an active and committed member of the Church and to support the liturgy and pastoral activities. In the Year of the Priest, the new/old vision of priesthood has now caught up with us. We have a solo performer whose main message is the need for us all to spend more time in the confessional. I read the writing on the wall. I wouldn't dream of bucking the system. I'm leaving them to it. They won't even notice that I'm gone.

Clownfish | 31 July 2009  

Remembering that the Roman tradition of the Christian religion is called Catholic to reflect a catholicity of perspective and approach to God, why must we continue with anachronistic interpretations of the word 'unity'?

A church which depends for its unity on the minute details, or even the language, of its major ritual can hardly be called catholic, small 'c' intended.

If the unity of the Catholic Church, indeed of the whole Christian religion, is dependent on an organic unity as required of a sports team, a business corporation or a military corps, then we have missed Christ's essential message.

Our essential unity is the spiritual unity of people searching for, or living, their relationship with God. And in this global village which is the contracted modern world, that search or living relationship is expressed in thousands, perhaps millions, of different ways.

Paraphrasing one of Andrew's closing sentences, it would be better to recognise the divergent approaches to God within the Catholic Church.

Some may demand to know what then would define us as Catholics. My somewhat catholic reply is, 'Does it matter?'

Ian Fraser | 01 August 2009  

I attend both the Latin and English Masses. I don't see it as a source of division at all. I prefer the priest to have his back to the people because he is supposed to be leading us to heaven. When I play 'follow the leader' with my grandchildren, I'm not separating myself from them. And frankly, too many priests are 'showmen' doing a liturgical soft shoe when they face the people. We are ALL supposed to be facing God which doesn't mean we exclude the relationship we have with each other. The cross has both a vertical and cross beam. We need both.

It is great that these young priests will have the ability to say both forms of the Latin rite. Thanks be to God!

Mary Ann Kreitzer | 05 August 2009  

This division you are talking about and the 'shopping around' for a mass that suits you is already happening and has been happening for the past 40 years since Vatican II.

It has even gone beyond liturgy and into the very faith itself. Now you have to shop around to find a priest that won't distort the Gospel in his homily or make excuses for your sins in the confessional.

If priests are returning to Latin it is a symbol of unity with not only the whole Catholic world but the Catholic past as well.

Scott | 05 August 2009  

God bless the passage of time. At least priests and faithful who are attached to Latin these days can't be accused of simply pining for the good old days. Those days — whether good or bad — are unknown to most traditionalists today!

Dare we hope the traditionalist case will finally be assessed on its merits, rather than dismissed as reactionary yearning.

Language can speak to us whether we know the words or not. Though this writer at least knows enough Latin to recognise that Pope Benedict's "Annus Sacerdotalis" translates into YEAR FOR PRIESTS — precisely embodying Fr Andy's hope for the occasion.

Hythloday | 28 October 2009  

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