Saturday, July 21, 2012

You Cannot Separate the Munera

Priest, Prophet, and King

In baptism, each Christian rises to new life in Christ and is anointed priest, prophet, and king.  To this threefold sharing in the identity of Christ correspond three munera, or aspects of his saving mission: the priest sanctifies, the prophet preaches, and the king governs.  The ontological change brought about in baptism therefore also enacts a commissioning in which the Christian receives the grace and the responsibility to exercise these munera in union with the risen Lord.  I remember well the lesson that our venerable canon law professor, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, drilled into our heads again and again when speaking of this commissioning: you cannot separate the munera.  Authentic Christian discipleship requires a continuity and harmony among the three: a Christian cannot authentically preach the faith without offering prayer and sacrifice, cannot offer sacrifice without serving others as Christ has served us, cannot serve others without telling them of the great gift we have received in Christ. 

The way in which the munera are exercised undergoes a transformation in the man who receives the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Christ’s example shows us that this ministry is profoundly human and relational, also entailing the full breadth and scope of the munera: one united action of teaching, sanctifying, and governing.  How many of the events in the life of Christ clearly demonstrate this three-fold harmony in his ministry.  We need only to look to the Last Supper, where Christ first arranged for the upper room to be made available, then taught his disciples and prayed for them, then bent to wash their feet before finally rising to break the bread and offer the chalice.  Every element of the last supper was important and was part of Christ’s ministry – not only the breaking of the bread.  Jesus is not only the one who offers the Eucharist – he is also our teacher and our Lord.  And likewise, a bishop or priest cannot only be the one who sanctifies – he must also be one who teaches and who governs.  Thus, from the earliest days of the Church, it has been clear that a bishop cannot authentically preside over the Eucharist while at the same time abdicating his duty to teach the faith or govern the local church. 

In recent years, however, an understanding of this necessary unity of the munera has been undermined, and particularly in the ministry of priests.  In the common understanding, and even among many members of the clergy, it is often either explicitly or implicitly held that priests are ordained as ministers who share only in Christ’s ministry of sanctification.  Often one hears “Father, if only you did not have to worry about the practical concerns of the parish and could just focus on the spiritual matters.”  And it is common today to speak of the priest and of priestly ministry in a way that resembles the work of a magic man – of one who whisks into the room, waves his hands and makes something holy, and then moves on to the next place.  But clearly such an understanding of the priest cannot be reconciled with the actual priestly ministry of Christ, who did not just sweep in and sanctify.  This mistaken notion that focuses the identity and ministry of the priest almost exclusively on the work of sanctification has had widespread negative repercussions in the Church. 

Reticence in the Laity to Follow the Teaching and Governance of Church Leaders.

How many conversations in recent years among priests have unfolded something like this: “Did you read the editorial page this morning?”  “Yes, I assume you’re referring to Betsy’s letter to the editor?” “Can you believe that?  And she is a daily communicant!  I just don’t understand how she could really believe that.”

Today we often find faithfully practicing Catholics who either blatantly dissent from the Church’s teaching or who openly oppose the leadership and authority of their priests or bishop.  It is an everyday occurrence.  Many of us assume that such dissent and disobedience are the signs of a lack of faith – that if the person just had more faith they would believe what the Church teaches and be more respectful of the clergy.  While faith certainly plays a role, I think it is important to also recognize how an impoverished understanding of priestly ministry has also fed into this problem.  If I believe that the priest shares only in Christ’s ministry of sanctification, or at least only fully in this aspect of his ministry, whereas I believe that Christ’s ministry of teaching and governing are not intrinsic or at least not entrusted in their fullness to those who have receive holy orders, then it seems perfectly logical that I could go to Mass and yet at the same time reject the teachings and the authority of my bishop and his priests.  I would say to myself “Well he is out of his element.  He should stick to what God has given him to do: which is to sanctify.”  And I would be more inclined to resent the bishop or priest for attempting to teach or govern with authority, because I would see such authority not as having come from God by virtue of his sharing in the Christ’s ministry, but instead as coming from his own desire for power and control.  Why would I follow someone who is trying to push me around or tell me what to think of his own authority? 

Diminishment in the Number of Priestly Vocations.

Vocations to the priesthood have been growing throughout the United States in the last decade, and yet this growth has not been even.  Some diocese have had an incredible boom in the number of men entering the seminary, whereas others have seen anemic growth.  Why?  People opine continually, and clearly there are many factors that affect the overall number of vocations.  Yet a critical factor that I do not believe is given nearly enough attention is the extent to which the understanding of priestly identity and ministry operative in a diocese or religious community affects its ability to attract vocations. 

Men do not have a vocation to be a magic man, particularly a celibate magic man.  If the understanding and exercise of priesthood and priestly ministry are impoverished to entail sacramental ministry alone, it is very possible that men who have an authentic vocation to priestly ministry will not feel called.  And this is particularly the case for men who are intelligent and have leadership ability.  Articulate and intelligent men know that God would not call them to a vocation that did not allow them to use the intellectual gifts that he had given them in service to the Church.  And so if they do not understand that the ministry of preaching and teaching is intrinsic and essential and defining of priestly ministry, they will be less inclined to be open to a priestly vocation.  Similarly, those men who possess strong leadership ability and administrative skills will be less likely to consider a vocation to the priesthood if their understanding of priestly ministry either does not include or includes an impoverished sense of the ministry of service and governance exercised by the priest.

Damage to Community

The priest is ordained to ministry in the Church in persona Christi… capitis.  This last word is often left out, particularly among those who promote an impoverished notion of the priesthood.  The priest is called to act in the person of Christ the head.  Jesus is not the big toe of the body.  He is the head who shows his humility precisely in that as head he bows low and serves, even to the point of death.  For the toe to bow low means nothing, but for the head to bow demonstrates true humility.  As Saint Paul so eloquently wrote: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself. (Phil 2:6-7)”  So it must be for the priest.  The priest is given and must be understood to possess real authority not only sacramentally, but in matters of teaching and governance as well. 

The undermining of the priest’s authority in non-sacramental ministry undermines his sense of responsibility to act in service of and for the good of the body.  And so it is common to find a correlation in priestly ministry between the loss of authority and absence from ministry.    This absence, the 9-5 syndrome, the complaining of being overworked, the multiple days off and extended periods of vacation, make more sense when the priest thinks that his ministry is supposed to be merely sacramental.  Pastoral council meetings, managing staff, teaching at vacation bible school, and going to the woman’s sodality meeting – these are all seen as impositions and activities that lie outside of the priestly vocation.  And so the priest quite easily can begin to excuse himself from building up and maintaining community life in his parish because he does not see such activities as being intrinsically tied to his ministry as a priest.  Instead, he becomes a sacramental accessory to the life of the parish, and may say things like “This is your parish, you decide what you need to do.”  And many of those who seek to dominate particular parts of parish life may encourage him in this thinking and commiserate about how overworked the poor priest is.  “Poor Father, you have so much going on, don’t bother coming to the meeting – we’ve got it covered.” 

Lack of Subsidiarity and the Adoption of Secular Governance Models

Another symptom of the impoverishment in understanding of priestly ministry manifests itself at the diocesan level. Since a magic man is clearly not capable of running a parish, it becomes necessary to institutionalize and even require lay positions and structures that can fill this void in priestly ministry.  Large diocesan offices must be created to oversee finance and business administration and to direct religious education.  These offices, in turn, begin to communicate and work directly with lay staff and volunteers from the parishes, rather than the priests themselves, since the work of teaching and governance is no longer considered to be intrinsic to priestly ministry.  Soon, lay staff outnumber ordained clergy and religious, and because of this shift toward  non-clerical hierarchies within the diocese, the model of governance adopted by the bishop and his lay staff is increasingly influenced by secular employment practices. 

The context of governance within a diocese that is envisioned by Lumen Gentium and by the codes of canon law is nowhere to be found.  While finance and administration meetings may begin and end in prayer, the spiritual relationship of shepherd and flock that is at the heart of Christ’s priestly ministry entrusted to the apostles and their successors is seriously compromised.  Fewer and fewer administrative decisions are made by those who have been directly entrusted with the salvation of those under their care and have received the grace of holy orders to carry out their ministry. 


What results when the three munera of priestly ministry are separated in favor of a purely sacramental model is destructive to the life of the Church.   Vocations to the priesthood are lost, dissent from church teachings and authority among the laity is fostered, parish community is weakened, and priests become apathetic and frustrated.  A priest can only carry out Christ’s ministry as he is baptized: priest, prophet, and king.  Just as Christ stooped to wash his disciples feet, so must the priest stoop to pay the bills, oversee a youth minister, or attend the finance council meeting.  The priest acts in the person of Christ the head, in the person of Christ who is the bridegroom to the Church, in the person of Christ who offered himself, priest, prophet, and king, to his beloved. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Take Nothing For the Journey But A Walking Stick

Homily for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick-- no food, no sack, no money in your belt.
Some days these instructions to the first disciples sound pretty good.  Perhaps especially on those days when we’re trying to register the car, paying taxes, cleaning or painting the house.  Just a walking stick.  Ahh…

But a family can’t survive with just a walking stick.  In order to develop the gifts we’ve been given, each of us requires many things.  And so as we hear Jesus’ instructions to the 72 in the gospel today, we know that he cannot have meant for this command to be literally followed by all of us.  Yet we are all disciples, to be those who announce the good news in our world.  We all share in the same prophetic ministry of the 72 who Jesus sent from Jerusalem to preach the Gospel.  So we can’t just say, well none of this applies to us.  We know that Christ’s teaching about the need for disciples to live a life detached from material things must apply at least in principle to us too.  But how are we to understand and live a Christian detachment from the material world that is appropriate for our state in life?  How are we who must raise families and live in the real world to be faithful to this teaching?

What a great question!  I hope that you ask yourself this question all the time.  How am I, how are we, how is my family called to live in a way that keeps material things in their proper place? 
This is really a question that you must ask, because it is not the role of the priest to dictate the concrete choices that each family must make regarding the material goods that they possess.  42” tv?  Ok.  44”  Nope, too big.  2 smart phones, ok.  3?  Nope, over the line.  No, the hierarchy does not produce documents that go through and detail exactly what you need and don’t need.

Yet the fact the magisterium does not delve into these financial matters does not mean in the least that our choices with regard to material possessions are unimportant or unrelated to faith.  On the contrary, one of the most visible ways that Catholics who live in the world demonstrate and proclaim their faith is by their attitude and treatment of material goods.  How you and I choose to spend our money, how much stuff we have and how much we are preoccupied with our stuff says something about our priorities, about what we think is important.  And being a follower of Christ has to change your priorities, has to change what you think is important. 

If you and I, who believe that heaven is our final destiny and that what matters on this earth more than anything is loving God and others – if our monetary choices are the same as people who don’t believe in heaven and who think that money, power, and pleasure are the goal of life, than something has gone horribly wrong.

Let me close by making this very concrete.  If I showed up tomorrow for Mass driving a Ferrari at a time while our parish is facing a budget shortfall.  You would be scandalized.  And rightly so.  You would wonder about my priorities, my integrity.  You would maybe even wonder about my commitment to the Church and the faith.  My credibility as a spiritual leader would be seriously compromised, not only among Catholics, but especially among non-Catholics.
Now what if I showed up in a Mercedes?  Probably there would still be a lot of talk.
What about a Volvo?  Probably less.
A Ford?  I think that passes the safe priest car standard.

How do I decide?  There is no church document or diocesan policy telling me what kind of car I should drive.  But clearly, that choice matters – not only for me, but for the Church.  In fact this monetary choice probably has as much impact on the community, or more, than any homily that I might give.

Now, you might say, well Father you are different from the rest of us – you represent the Church.  You are a priest and you are supposed to be detached so that you can point us to heaven.  True, very true.  But just because a priest more visibly represents Christ does not mean that none of you do at all.  Far from it.  Every Christian represents the Church, personifies the Church very clearly and directly in the place where they live and work.  And each of us, priest or not, is supposed to point others to heaven in our own way and according to our state in life. 

Does that mean that we all have to drive a Ford?  Of course not.  Does that mean that no one can drive a luxury car?  Of course not.  Some of us have received greater opportunities and greater material wealth.  That, in and of itself is not bad at all, but a good thing.  In fact, we might say that stuff, things, money represents an opportunity for us who are disciples of Christ, an opportunity to witness to the greatest goods of faith, love, truth, and beauty by the way that we manage our wealth. The things that we choose to have, the attention we give them, speaks to the world about our priorities, about what we think is important.  Monetary choices have spiritual and moral implications – and so we must prayerfully and prudently make sure that the monetary choices that we make are consistent with our faith and witness to its priority in our lives.

In a society that tends toward consumerism, we who are charged to proclaim the Gospel must be constantly on guard that our witness does not falter.  We must continue to ask ourselves “Are the monetary choices of my family witnessing to the priority of faith in Jesus Christ in our lives?  Have we begun to obsess over things or have we become distracted by them – are they keeping us from giving our attention to God and to those around us?  Are we generous to those in need and to efforts to promote what is good and true and beautiful in our community?  Are we truly grateful for the things that we have? 

We must all ask these questions, priests and deacons laypersons alike.  We cannot be content to simply follow in the footsteps of those who seek mere earthly treasure.  Our material wealth, our  belongings, are meant to be at the service of the great commission, the command that we have all received to proclaim the good news of Gods kingdom.  And so wealth cannot be the prized possession for the Christian, instead wealth must be understood as an opportunity.  An opportunity to witness to the true treasure in life: our faith in Jesus Christ.