… Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops and deacons and priests. Women, in the Church, are more important than bishops and priests; how, this is something we have to try to explain better, because I believe that we lack a theological explanation of this. Thank you.
Press conference on plane returning from WYD Rio
Reflection – I quoted this same passage yesterday, and getting to the end of my blog post realized that I have a lot more to say about this subject of priests and the priesthood, their relative importance and the role and mission of women and the laity in general in the Church. I realized yesterday that this whole subject and the questions it raises are very much at the heart of my own vocation in Madonna House, and in fact I believe MH has a significant contribution to make to the conversation in the Church about men and women, priests and laity, and their proper ordering.
I won’t repeat everything I said yesterday and in my prior post ‘A Theology of Woman.’ Scroll on down, or click on the relevant links in the ‘Most Popular Posts’ on the right hand sidebar. Today I want to talk about what I think the Pope is critiquing here, that is, the scourge of clericalism in the Church.
So what is this thing, clericalism? It’s a bit hard to define, although like the judge in the obscenity case, I can say that “I know it when I see it.” Clericalism is not showing respect to priests because they are priests. That is faith in the presence of Christ in the ordained minister. Clericalism is not recognizing and submitting to the proper teaching authority of pope and bishop in defining Catholic doctrine. That too is faith in the guiding presence of the Spirit in the Church Christ founded. Clericalism is not being properly obedient to the pastor in the matters in which he has been given authority by his bishop. That is simply good order, both natural and supernatural.
So what is clericalism? It’s a bit tricky to define it. It is a losing sight of the human being who bears the grace of the priesthood. It is putting the man on a pedestal, a fawning, cringing attitude that places a vast distance between priest and people. It is being scandalized when a priest does wrong—not only grave egregious evils like sexual abuse, but the normal foibles and failures every human being is prone to. It is a certain immaturity that ascribes, or expects, total holiness and perfection from the priest while not expecting very much from oneself and other lay people. From the side of the priest, it is an expectation of being waited on, served, catered to, a use of one’s office to bully or lord over or to insulate oneself from the hard knocks of interpersonal relationships.
It is also an exaggerated sense of the centrality of the priesthood in the life of the Church. Now this is tricky. Clearly, the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, and the priest is above all a man of the Eucharist, a servant of this mystery. Clearly the forgiveness of sins is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven, and the priest is minister of forgiveness. Clearly baptism is the very doorway into the paschal mystery and its saving power, and the priest is the ordinary minister of baptism.
All of that is granted, right? But let us be clear—and I think this is where Madonna House really has something to say, based on our 65 years of lived experience—the whole ministry of the ordained priest is at the service of, and ordered to, the sanctification and (hence) empowerment of the laity, of the whole people of God, a ‘holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart.’
Everyone is a priest, by virtue of his or her baptism. The insistence that women cannot be full members of the Church unless they are ordained priests is based on a deeply clericalist mindset, that somehow the ordained priesthood is ‘the real deal’ and this business of lay apostolate and lay holiness and the vocation of the laity in the world is somehow a second-class, second-tier affair. This attitude is the heart of clericalism—there, I finally defined it!
The ‘real deal’ is not the priestly ministry and office. The real deal is that which Mary communicates to us, that mysterious thing I have been trying to articulate in these posts. The reception of grace, the cooperation of the human person in freedom and love with the action of the Spirit. It is not who is up at the altar performing the sacred rite. In a sense, it is a question of who is on the altar, offering their lives through, with, and in the Lord Jesus. That’s the real deal of Christianity, not the clerical structures that exist to serve this mystery. Ultimately the real deal of Christianity is Jesus, and our life in Him, received from Him.
In Madonna House, priests and laity live together in community. It is a lay apostolate—the work of the apostolate is led, ordered, organized and carried out by the lay members who make up the large part of our membership. We who are priests have our proper role to play. The liturgy is our province, and spiritual direction, and to some degree the teaching of Catholic doctrine that goes on in the place.
Otherwise, we pitch in and help out under the direction of and in obedience to the lay leaders of the place, cleaning toilets, weeding the garden, peeling vegetables, mucking out the barn, chopping wood alongside our brothers and sisters.
The whole spirit of the place is deeply collaborative, familial, with a deep respect and striving to genuinely work together in peace and love. We all rub along together in a communal way of life. Priests are shown respect, not out of subservient cringing clericalism, but because the priesthood of Christ is a holy thing, a beautiful thing.
We’re not perfect—who is?—but I think we have something, a spirit and a flow of life together, a way of living the mystery of man and woman, lay and priest, that is not just for us, but is a gift for the whole Church. Come and see us, and see if there’s something here That’s why I am so passionate about this subject, and why I wanted to take a little extra time to talk about it today on the blog. Tomorrow, onward to something else.