The Priest as Guide
I was beginning to despair of finding the time and occasion for a brief comment on the Holy Father’s address at the General Audience of 26 May 2010, continuing his series of reflections on the specific tasks of priests, which, according to tradition, are essentially three: to teach, to sanctify, to govern, this one devoted to the third task the priest has, that of governing or guiding that part of the Church entrusted to his care by proper authority. Truth to be told, my real interest is in mining the Pope’s audience talk for use in my own reflection on the question: Who in the Church has or should have “skills for governing” and where do they come from?
My question is inspired by a whole series of quandaries, some even affecting me directly. Partly, I suppose, it is a desire to deal with the angry fists shaken (at least figuratively so) in the face of bishops in many different countries these days for having failed to confront priests especially for misusing their “power” or “authority” over minors. It is also somewhat piqued by the media attention to the Holy Father’s words about the style of governance of St. Bonaventure as Minister General of the Franciscans in a time of real crisis for that group. Many commentators took the Pope’s words as an expression of his own philosophy of governing:
“Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure governing was not merely action but above all was thinking and praying. At the root of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions are the result of reflection, of thought illumined by prayer. His intimate contact with Christ always accompanied his work as Minister General and therefore he composed a series of theological and mystical writings that express the soul of his government. They also manifest his intention of guiding the Order inwardly, that is, of governing not only by means of commands and structures, but by guiding and illuminating souls, orienting them to Christ.” (LEV – Vatican Web Site – General Audience of 10 March 2010)
Then there is the matter that here in the islands we face the question of where do you look for people to govern the Church, given the scarcity of homegrown priests with the right age and temperament for the office of bishop? From my reading these days I can blame also dear Sigrid Undset’s life of St. Catherine of Siena for getting my “wheels turning” as well, as she describes this very young woman, with no qualifications in human terms for governance, who directs the spiritual life of people from every walk in life, who dictates terms of peace to the worldly princes of her day and really lays down the law with her “sweet Christ on earth”, the Pope. The sole explanation for St. Catherine’s ability to do this is that she is taught by God, that she is in constant and intimate communion with her Bridegroom, the Christ, and that she knows and is directed by Him to express His mind, His will for the salvation of the world of her time.
Who in the Church has or should have “skills for governing” and where do they come from?
The Gospel for this Trinity Sunday (Year C) offers me no small amount of consolation in terms of configuring or positioning any kind of response to that question:
“But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine.” (John 16:13-15)
Remembering the Primacy discourse between Jesus and Peter, we can confidently say that governance in the Church belongs to those who love the Church as Christ did or to use Pope Benedict’s words from 26 May: “In fact, Christ feeds his flock through the pastors of the Church: It is he who guides it, protects it, corrects it, because he loves it profoundly.” [Translation by ZENIT]
You might say that the “angry fists” to the extent that they are being shaken by faithful sons or daughters of the Church are more than understandable given the primacy which should belong to love. Let it be said that priestly ordination does not necessarily and enduringly confer that love which is at the heart of governance. It’s sort of like discussing the importance of the sacrament of matrimony for sealing the bond of love between man and woman, fully recognizing that the couple must cooperate with the grace bestowed. The same is true of the primacy of love in governing and guiding, of love’s triumph in the heart of the man ordained to the priesthood as a sine qua non for his being able to govern or guide. As the Holy Father said at the Wednesday Audience:
“If such a pastoral task is founded on the sacrament, nevertheless its efficacy is not independent of the personal existence of the presbyter. To be a pastor according to the heart of God (cf. Jeremiah 3:15) there must be a profound rootedness in living friendship with Christ, not only of the intelligence, but also of liberty and of the will, a clear awareness of the identity received in priestly ordination, an unconditional willingness to guide the entrusted flock where the Lord wishes and not in the direction that, apparently, seems more suitable and easy. That requires, first of all, the continuous and progressive willingness to let Christ himself govern the priestly existence of the presbyters. In fact, no one is really capable of feeding Christ's flock if he does not live a profound and real obedience to Christ and to the Church, and the docility itself of the people to their priests depends on the docility of priests to Christ; because of this, at the base of pastoral ministry is always the personal and constant encounter with the Lord, profound knowledge of him, conforming one's will to the will of Christ.” [Translation by ZENIT]
Who in the Church has or should have “skills for governing” and where do they come from?
Any priest could or should have those skills if he truly loves, if he is truly a priest after Jesus’ own Heart… Perseverance is part of the equation too. The old wisdom about not proclaiming anyone a saint until that person has both feet firmly planted in the grave applies to the triumph of love: each day has its skirmishes; some days there are set backs; rest from battling comes at the end of our days despite the fact that we live in the hope of going from strength to strength.
“This authority does not come from man himself, but has its origin in the sacred, in the sacrament; hence it subjects the person to the vocation, to the mystery of Christ; it makes of the individual a servant of Christ and only insofar as he is a servant of Christ can he govern, guide for Christ and with Christ. Because of this, whoever enters in the sacred order of the sacrament, the "hierarchy," is not an autocrat, but enters in a new bond of obedience to Christ: he is tied to him in communion with the other members of the sacred order, of the priesthood. And even the Pope -- point of reference for all the other pastors and for the communion of the Church -- cannot do what he wants; on the contrary, the Pope is custodian of the obedience to Christ, to his word taken up again in the "regula fidei," in the Creed of the Church, and must proceed in obedience to Christ and to his Church. Hence, hierarchy implies a triple bond: first of all, the one with Christ and the order given by the Lord to his Church; then the bond with the other pastors in the one communion of the Church; and, finally, the bond with the faithful entrusted to the individual, in the order of the Church….” [Translation by ZENIT]
I really hope that younger people are discovering obedience, coming to an appreciation of the essential importance of obedience in the love equation. Frequently, sad to say, I hear young people criticized for their willfulness. I have heard it said that “he comes to the seminary or she comes to the novitiate with his or her idea of how it is supposed to go”. One Father Provincial told me that he and his whole council were totally aghast when each and every one of them finally became convinced that the young man standing before them was demanding admission to perpetual vows on his own terms and not those laid down by St. Dominic and the Church.
Was it Cardinal Suenens or Karl Rahner who said that the future of the Church lies in the hands of the mystics? The quote is indeed creepy if you do not understand that never from the time of St. Peter has the Church depended on a military academy or elite finishing school of the Ivy League sort to prepare its leadership. Some say that Jesus asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” because Peter had to take back or make reparation for his three denials. It might just as well be that Jesus wanted no misunderstandings concerning what He considered the sine qua non for tending the flock… “Simon, do you love me more than these?”