Monday, 16 May 2011

4th Sunday of Easter Year A

It’s a thematic Sunday again—Vocation Sunday—time to speak about priestly or religious vocations. Coincidentally, yesterday 14th May was also the Feast St Matthias, Apostle. I would like to speak on two topics. Firstly, the manner of Matthias’ election may shed light on why the Catholic priesthood is the way it is today and secondly, the Gospel presents us with an image of the priesthood we do not fully appreciate.

Recently a bishop in Australia was removed. The issues surrounding his removal centred on the bishop’s position that the time has come for women’s ordination, ordination of married priests and on recognising the validity of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders.

Why is the Church so insistent that women cannot be ordained, never mind married priest or recognising the validity of Protestant “orders”? Listen to a passage from the Acts of the Apostles concerning Matthias’ election and you might just catch a glimpse of where the Church is coming from.

One day Peter stood up to speak to the brothers—there were about a hundred and twenty persons in the congregation: Brothers, the passage of scripture has to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit, speaking through David, foretells the fate of Judas”.

The passage has two considerations. First consideration is the context and second is Peter’s speech. The context is important. After the Ascension, Peter and the 10 returned to Jerusalem and there, they were together with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus. When the time came for choosing a replacement for Judas, Peter, disregarding the context, spoke in this manner. “Andres, adelphoi ” which is translated as “Men, brothers”.

This is sometimes lost in politically-correct translations. “Friends”, for example, is a vast difference from “Men, brothers”. The literal translation gives us a glimpse into the mind of Christ. Peter seemed to have understood what Christ had intended and here, he faithfully echoed it. It does sound brazen to propose that Peter knew the mind of Christ, but, this is basically the Church’s position as evidenced by how Matthias was chosen. One may not agree with the Church’s position on women’s ordination but one can appreciate why the Church has been unable to move forward in this matter despite the fact that cultural, economical, political or social sentiments have made tremendous progress. Priestly vocation is not tied to any other considerations except what Christ has intended for His Church.

This is not an apologia for the Church’s position as much as offering a plausible explanation of why the Church behaves in this manner. She is being loyal to her Master’s intention for His Church. It also reflects the unity of Christology and Ecclesiology. How we understand Christ defines the Church and logically speaking, Christ the Head cannot be separated from the Church, His Body.

Poor Christology has implications for Ecclesiology. With regard to “priestly” vocations, the paucity of vocation is an infallible indicator of a Bishop’s heterodoxy meaning when a Bishop is not faithful to Church teaching, you can be sure that vocation to the priesthood in his diocese will drop. From there, it does not take long to find a correlation between the lack of priestly vocations and the abundance of the so-called “pastoral associates”. In many contexts, it usually revolves around nuns/lay people trying to play priest.

An increasing reliance on pastoral associates may help explain the lack of priestly vocation. Priestly vocation, like marital vocation, is a vocation to be and not really a vocation to do. When a priest is reduced to his function meaning that he is priest because of what he does, then we descend a slippery slope. The lack of priests can be pragmatically solved by “anyone can do the job”. It does not matter who—nuns, lay men or women, or any Protestant pastor—as long as the “job” gets done. But, a priest’s usefulness does not lie in his utility. Instead, his usefulness is very much to be alter Christus. Even if a priest does nothing, he is Christ present amongst his people. This is important.

This is a sense of priesthood that we have lost and this loss is two sides of a coin. Firstly, we have romanticised the image of the shepherd. Secondly, priests have forgotten that priesthood is about holiness.

Firstly, Catholics have romanticised the idea of the shepherd which runs counter to the two images presented in the Gospel. The shepherd is anything but “tender” and “compassionate”. If you look at the images of the Pharaohs they are presented as shepherds wielding on one hand, a shepherd’s crook and on the other, a whip. The idea of a shepherd is monarchical. In fact the king is often spoken of as a shepherd. In this context, listening becomes obedience. But, since we breathe the air of consensus and democracy, listening becomes a problem as many of us will obey only when the shepherd is reasonable. But, mostly, we listen and obey because we like the shepherd. In the end, the scenario is not the sheep who listens to the shepherd but the contrary. He is no longer the shepherd who commands but rather a hireling. Like some Protestant pastors who can be fired by their congregation. The shepherd says only what the congregation wants to hear.

A couple of weeks ago, I said, “It is easier to love the Pope”. It is not an attack of the Bishop. It merely reflects a reality. The Pope is far away but the Bishop is near and we “know” him etc. We often speak of doing God’s will but tie this desire to do God’s will with someone we “know” and we realise that “doing God’s will” means doing our own thing and expecting the shepherd to sanctify it. And this leads us to the image of the gate.

In Jerusalem, there is a gate called the Sheep-gate. It is a one-way street where the sheep are led to the slaughter. Shepherds lead their sheep to be sacrificed at the altar of holocaust. In the context of Jesus speaking in the Temple, He who became the victim now leads His people to freedom because this one-way street does not lead to a dead end but rather through the torn veil of the Holy of Holies, He leads His sheep to eternal life. Thus, all shepherds must lead because they are meant to lead. For us, it becomes a question of trusting the shepherd as we enter the gate. And I recognise the universal challenge today is that shepherds cannot be trusted. This brings us to the second side of the coin.

Secondly, priests themselves struggle with the issue of trustworthiness. Trustworthiness does not reside in capability or cleverness. Otherwise, that would mean that Christ can only work if a priest is capable or clever. Instead, trustworthiness is a state of holiness. Catholics instinctively trust a priest because they equate priests not with capability or intelligence but with holiness. A holy priest reflects Christ’s holiness. The Patron Saint for diocesan priests is St John Vianney—not someone famed for his cleverness but sought after from all over France for his holiness. This is the reason we pray so much for the Holy Father and the Bishops, for the fullness of priesthood resides in them and also their helpers, the priests. In an age of untrustworthiness, we ask God to give us more holy bishops and priests who will allow Christ to be more real through them. And we pray that they have the courage to lead because they are shepherds placed by Christ over His sheep.