Thursday, 4 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 1st Day, 4th March 2010

When I was studying in Dublin, my superior asked me this question during my 1st year of theology. “What do you think of ordination? How you do feel?” My answer was simply, “Nothing. Not excited nor have I thought about it”. He was not duly concerned but this question came up again in my 2nd year and my answer was the same. “I am not really bothered whether I am ordained or not. I am just happy being a Jesuit”. He showed a little concern but left it at that. And the 3rd year, the same question came up and this time he was concerned. Here was a man preparing for priesthood but had shown no interest in ordination… it revealed questions of motivation.

The answer to why I was not interested lay in this: I am a Jesuit first. The priesthood is incidental. Last night, I was talking to some people; I mentioned that for me, coming back here was some kind of an accident. I was not doing well in theology. I was coming to terms with my strengths and weaknesses. I felt that since the path to academia was too hard for me, I asked to work in the parish, believing that it would not be as challenging as academics.

(Was I wrong?)

Anyway, the fact that I am a Jesuit first and only a priest second is important. Today we embark on this journey of 9 days… a Novena of grace. First, it is grace because we have not gone down the path of mega-marketing. There have been no posters sent to other parishes. The people who are here are people who want to be here. So, I feel as if I am speaking to friends.

So, this fact of religious first and priest second is important because I want to share something, at the beginning of this 9-day journey, of the priesthood. It is not easy to say some of the things because many of us are latent conspiracy theorists, fed as we were on the hermeneutics of suspicion. Whatever is said of the priesthood is said because I am a priest defending my turf, just like some people will think that whatever comes out from Pope Benedict is the result of him trying to protect his position. If you believe strongly in conspiracy theories, then the many tensions in the Church may be explained as the “hierarchy”, be it old men, the West, the clergy, etc. protecting their own interests.

Therefore, a religious first and a priest second gives me an advantage over a diocesan priest because I should have less reason to protect my turf than a diocesan. I don’t have to “cari makan” [make a living] because I am as happy working here as I am being assigned to the garden of a big Jesuit house. Of course, I would like the big Jesuit house to be somewhere in Europe rather than in Indonesia but the fact remains that I am a Jesuit, a religious who happens to be a priest. So, let me begin.

The priesthood is never more important than today, if the Church were to be called the Church of Christ. Many of you know that you have to contend with a diminishing pool of priests. The contention is never more apparent when you face an emergency. A loved one is taken ill most suddenly and you’re caught with the dilemma that the priests of the parish are away at a meeting in Melaka and the priests of the Assumption is celebrating a funeral. Fr OC’s health complications brought this fact to the fore. The work load is not decreasing. In fact, it is mounting. What we may do and often we do is lament. We fret and since Vatican II, the best solution that we have come up with is to make more people take over some of the ministries of the priest. But give it a further thought.

Perhaps we are living a denial. We live this denial by “laicising the clergy as we clericalise the laity”. For example, the phenomenon we call “extra-ordinary” ministers of Holy Communion is taken to be a positive development of Vatican II. We experience this as a process of democratisation in the Church. We think that this phenomenon is the working out of our common priesthood conferred by our baptism. Some of us are happy that this democratisation is taking place as the laity addresses the clergy by first name. Not that it is wrong, but, this misses the whole point of the sacrament of orders or priesthood. Many have forgotten that the sacrament of priesthood is not about the man himself but rather about the Man Himself. A priest is only a priest because he is in persona Christi. So each time a priest himself feels that he should not want to be placed on the pedestal himself, he should be careful because he has confused that the pedestal was always meant for Christ not the man himself. This “misguided” humility is a confirmation that we do live in this age of self-glory—the age of the exalted individual. Every time a priest feels that he does not want to be too “priestly”, he is already confused about his priestly character, as if he were the one who gave himself the priestly character, forgetting that his priesthood is derived from the Man Himself, Christ. Whenever a priest tries not to draw attention to himself, he is already doing so because he is confusing “his priesthood” and with the “priesthood of Christ”. Most Catholics love the priests because they represent Christ. Loving the man is incidental. Sometimes we are so big-headed believing that you love us but in actual fact, you actually love the Christ in us. Loving us is always incidental!

The question perhaps is how long are we to live our denial? The vibrancy of the laity is a celebration. We are, as a whole, the envy of many Churches as they look at our BECs and say "wow". But, the rate of priest dying is higher than the rate of men joining the seminary. The fact remains and we must face this fact squarely: without the priest, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there is no Church.

As long as the Church is shaped by these two sacraments—priesthood and Eucharist, vocation is an area which everyone must take seriously. Here, I want to be clear that I am not entering the area concerning the shape of the clergy. Meaning, I am not interested to debate how the composition of the priesthood in the future will be like. Will the ordination of women be a solution? That is the solution taken by the Anglican communion, a solution that has torn the world-wide Anglican communion apart. Or, would a Protestant model of church be more appropriate for us? These are not issues to debate, not because they don’t deserve a debate but because this is not the place for it. For me, as long as the self-understanding of Holy Mother Church is that the Church is shaped by the priesthood and the Eucharist, we must look much deeper into our estimation of the sacrament of holy orders.

Part of our difficulty is because we do not see the priest but instead we see the man and in the light of the recent and massive failure of so many of us, the people, many of the faithful, cannot see beyond the man to the priest. Thus, in order for the Church to be who She really is, then we need to recover the sense of the sacrament and how essential it is to the health of the Church. According to the CCC, the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests and the common priesthood of the faithful participate, each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ. While being “ordered one to another”, they differ essentially. While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed to the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads His Church.

There is a difference which we need to celebrate and even affirm and not look at it as if it were a tension to be overcome. The Vatican document, Presbyterum ordinis says it this way: "In the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice…the priests exercise their principal function…because the priests alone have received from Christ Himself the formidable power to render present, sacramentally, His Body and His Blood, to perpetuate through the centuries the sacrifice of the Cross." (n. 13). That difference allows us to divinise the world meaning that the priest who celebrates the Eucharist gives the Body of Christ [the Eucharist, that is, the sacrament] to the Body of Christ [the Church] in order to strengthen it so that the Body of Christ [the Church] can make the world a place more and more conformed to the image of Christ.

Thus, if vocation promotion in the future were to mean something, part of our challenge today is to get away from a particular way of thinking. It requires a lot more humility from the laity and more so from the clergy. Firstly, we must no longer think in terms of clergy versus laity. Why? Simply because they both come from the same stock and the terms just means one is not the other. What happens with this “dichotomy between clergy and laity” is that we perceive that some priests are tyrannical and there are. In the first place, the priest came from the laity itself. He was not born a priest. Sometimes a priest is just a reflexion of the worst aspect of the laity disfigured by sin. Secondly, we must appreciate the minority (the laity) without sacrificing the majority (the priest). The words majority versus minority do not apply to numbers. In fact, in the Church, the relationship of power is rather markedly disproportionate. The clergy holds the majority of power whilst the laity has practically no power. Now you see why I belaboured the point that I am first a religious and second a priest. Otherwise, I might be accused of justifying the “power” of the priest. The fact is, the power structure of the Church is hierarchical. The word has its roots in Greek meaning holy or sacred. Therefore, power means the sacred authority entrusted by Christ for the ministration of His people. A priest who is tyrannical can be tyrannical without being a priest. So what remains is for the community to learn how authority is to be exercised. Two things can be said here. First, a priest is often a reflexion of the power structure at home; his own home. It points to an important role both parents play in the nurturance of authority and power. Second, the Pope’s signing himself as servant of the servants of God should be the way a priest should learn how to behave. He is a priest because he is the servant of God’s holy people. The solution to this seeming imbalance of power is not “make the laity more powerful” to balance the “clergy’s power”. We should not sacrifice the power of the priest in order to promote the strength of the laity. Instead, it should be the curtailment of the misuse of power. A good start is the home. Priests learn tyranny at home.

Finally, the priest is, more than anything, a man. Nevertheless, he has been tasked with no less than the divine ministry of tending to the Lord’s vineyard. He needs prayers and support. If the Church is to be destroyed, the first target will be the priests. And Benedict XVI has recognised this as he launched the Year for Priests by bringing to our attention that whilst Satan may have his array against the Church, the faithful can counter his attack by praying for their priests. You would be wondering why this litany for priests. It is like a glorification of the priest but it is not. The health of the priesthood is also the health of the Church. For, if we want to work for justice and the Gospel of “Dives and Lazarus” shows that the concern for justice is often an important criterion to measure our love for God, then we must begin with the reform of holiness amongst priests. Holy priests celebrate the Eucharist worthily as they inspire their laity to lead holy lives—all he does is to help unfold the graces of our baptism. As such, justice is largely the preserve of a holy people of God and not the preserve of the priests. Holy priests are necessary in this quest for justice.