Thank you for your invitation to join in this important discussion, organized under the general theme “God’s Priestly People: The Baptized & the Ordained – also Baptized.” It is a theme that rightly highlights that those receiving Holy Orders participate in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, which all the faithful enter at Baptism. As such, the foundation of the ordained priesthood is Baptism, which rests on the foundation of “our great High Priest” – the Risen Lord. It is when the ordained ministry becomes separated from the baptismal foundation it shares with all the faithful that the Holy Orders needed for Church life are replaced by some unholy disorders.
Of course, you selected this theme at a moment in which the Church is in crisis, a word whose etymology suggests we should be provoked to decide on a new direction rather than be paralyzed by the instability or the dangers we face. The decision before us is to recapture a holy order for the Church, that has been corrupted by a culture of clericalism, which lies at the root of the present crisis the Church is facing.
You prepared a white paper titled Confronting the Systemic Dysfunction of Clericalism, which is nothing less than a catalogue of horrors chronicling imperial pronouncements, put-downs, claims of privileges, entitlements and exemptions from accountability, but also a culture so pervasive that, sadly, many of the laity have come to accept it as normal and yes, even have cooperated in maintaining it.
There are, of course, many entry points for upending this culture of clericalism and you have asked me to reflect with you on the importance for priests to reclaim Baptism as the starting point for understanding their ordination. You latched on to a saying I quoted from a bishop attending the Second Vatical Council. His name was Archbishop Franjo Šeper, who later served as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. During the discussion on the document on the priesthood, he told the Council Fathers that they “should remember that ordination does not annihilate one’s Baptism.” His point was that priests are to live by the demands of the Gospel just like everyone else. There are no exemptions when it comes to the call to holiness.
The first time I heard that quote was almost 50 years ago at a day of recollection given to seminarians studying in Rome. The preacher introduced it by telling us a story. One day St. Peter walked into God the Father’s office carrying a big box. “Oh,” he said with excitement, “you will never guess what your people have invented now.” “What is it?” God the Father asked. Peter quickly opened the box to reveal a television. “How does it work?” the divine Father asked. As Peter pulled up the rabbit ears (well, this story was told in 1972!), he explained how the volume and channel dials worked and then he turned it on to show a scene of migrant workers slaving under a hot sun, with cuts on their hands and toiling at backbreaking work. “This is terrible, who are these people?” God the Father asked. “Well these are your people, who because of Adam’s sin you said had to work by the sweat of their brow and suffer in life.” “But, I was just kidding,” God the Father said. “Turn the station and get something else on, this is too hard to watch.” So, Peter turned the channel and on came a program of a great liturgy with songs, choirs chanting, bells, incense rising, and clerics conspicuously dressed in fine robes and processing in such orderly and splendid fashion. “Now this is more like it,” God the Father said. “Who are these people?” “Oh,” St. Peter responded, “these are the people who knew you were only kidding.”
With that, the preacher told us what Franjo Šeper said to his brother bishops at the Council: “remember, ordination does not annihilate one’s Baptism.”
Admittedly, the story is a bit biting, but maybe that is why I remember it so vividly, and I can assure you I have recalled it throughout my years of ministry. But, it also puts into perspective that clericalism leads one to live the lie of a double life. It also highlights that clericalism can only be confronted by reclaiming the authenticity of the conversion we are called to in Baptism. In the case of child abuse, the abuser has convinced himself that he can use his power even violently to get what he wants because he has convinced himself that he can live by one set of expectations and rules that are different from those required of the rest of the Christian family. Clericalism, therefore, is a form of elitism that we see in many instances of society, where some have convinced themselves that they can play by different rules, where entitlement has replaced accountability.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has framed the renewal needed today in terms of retrieving an understanding of the Church as synodal, which can only take place if all the baptized fully participate in the life of the Church. He used the occasion of the 50thAnniversary of the Synod of Bishops to develop this understanding of a synodal Church as we take up the mission of Christ with boldness, authenticity and fresh energy. As all the baptized are anointed, he states, the proclamation of the Gospel is not something “to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients.” Properly understood, there should be no rigid separation between “an Ecclesia docensand an Ecclesia discens, (a teaching Church and a learning Church) since the flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.” It is precisely such a penetrating discernment that is so vital to the Church in this moment of crisis, as it will give rise to the elements of truth, penitence and the renewal of a proper culture of church order in our ecclesial life that are essential to opening a pathway forward. The vision he offers is of an inverted pyramid. Instead of placing the hierarchy at the top at various levels, everyone is at the top and those at the bottom are there to serve and animate all in the community to be missionary disciples.
So, what I plan to do this morning is to reflect on the fullness of Christian initiation through the lens of synodality, which I believe can provoke a deeper appreciation of what Baptism means for all of us and especially for the ordained. My hope is that with such a reflection the ordained will find fresh inspiration for their ministry, but also sound vocational reasons to take the lead in rejecting any form of clericalism.
I believe this is a much more pastoral approach. It does us no good to rail against experiences of clericalism in the Church which, sadly, are legion, and leave it at that, as if shouting will accomplish anything. Similarly, the way forward must involve more than mere policy changes or new regulations. Even if these institutional reforms are the fruit of the finest acts of collegiality, they will not be enough. It is the conversion of men and women, walking together as a synodal Church — parents and priests, catechists and religious, parish leaders and bishops — and the conversion of ecclesial cultures on every continent that we must seek. It is also important to keep in mind the countless acts of loving and generous service by so many of our priests. I know of cases where priests have donated kidneys or parts of their livers to parishioners, who have given money from their own resources to people in need and in some cases organized among their presbyterates a fund to help fund counseling for victim survivors.
Synodality, on the one hand, has the power to tap into and revivify the deepest aspirations that motivated priests to accept their calling. On the other, synodality allows us to avoid the trap of responding to clericalism by becoming anti-clerical or devaluing the unique contribution of Holy Orders in the life of the Church. It would be ironic if we responded to clericalism in a way that only further divided people from their priests, as it is precisely that divide that has to be overcome if we are serious about eradicating clericalism.
So, let’s briefly look at Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist in a synodal Church. I do not pretend to be exhaustive in this reflection on the sacraments of initiation, but only raise up salient reference points that can stir a more fulsome discussion as you take up this topic in these days.
The baptismal formula makes clear that Baptism is the call to receive the very life of the Trinitarian God. The conversion needed for accepting this new life involves letting go of any tendency to save ourselves by the means of our limited humanity, which Paul refers to as a fleshly existence. The strategy of accumulating power, possessions and prestige to save ourselves must give way to living as God lives and God loves. Father Walter Burghardt once wrote (see Lovely in Eyes Not His) that the life of the Trinity is “the perfect realization of perfect love,” for in God there is an I and a you, but not a mine and yours. Jesus tells us that the Father has given all to me and I have given over all to the Father. Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI writes inDeus Caritas Estthat God the Father gives over everything except the name “Father.” There is ego without egoism. It is about becoming an “I” with claiming what is mine and that means dying to the notion that we can possess and control our own lives. Notice that Christians from the earliest days spoke of Baptism not as being baptized into Jesus’ Baptism. We are not baptized because Jesus was baptized or baptized others. Rather, as Paul reminds us, we are baptized into his death (cf., Romans 6).
In one of the most dramatic illustrations of this, St. Cyril (see The Jerusalem Mystagogical Catecheses), points to Christ’s tomb as he preaches to the neophytes baptized at the Vigil who are gathered in the Holy Sepulcher and tells them: “You were led down to the font of holy Baptism just as Christ was taken down from the cross and placed in this tomb, which is before your eyes…. Do you not know that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus we were by that very action sharing in his death? By Baptism we went with him into the tomb.”
Of course, we know this as core to our faith, and yet there are just too many instances in the lives of priests and bishops that remind us that it has not been fully embraced, particularly as privileges and entitlements are expected and exemptions from accountability are claimed. Does a bishop really live the life of the Trinity given in Baptism if he organizes his whole life around saving himself by the accumulation of power, possession and prestige? Does a priest really live the Trinitarian life of Baptism if he is fixated on his position, privilege and claims of entitlement?
Such an approach blinds us to the great gift of God’s life we are offered in Baptism, a blindness captured in the scene with the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son. He complains about what his younger brother got and how he was left wanting of goods and the father’s attention. The father’s reply cuts to the core as he tells this elder son, “I am with you always; everything I have is yours.” That is what we are called to believe in Baptism. I recommend that this would be a great place to start our day as priests, letting the Father speak to us not only as one who gives us all he has, but who walks with us. This is the start of synodality, living in constant dialogue with and being accompanied by the Father who pledges each day “I am with you always; everything I have is yours.” We need nothing else but to respond.
Often Confirmation is portrayed as sending the baptized into the world. But recent scholarship has called that interpretation into question. Rather, the earliest rituals of Confirmation are crafted in the form of a dismissal rite, by which the neophytes are sent from the baptistry into the Eucharistic assembly. The point is that the community celebrating the Lord’s Supper is the place of ongoing formation and conversion begun in Baptism. Let’s not forget that the Eucharist is the only repeatable sacrament of initiation. It is through community interaction and participation in the dying and rising of Christ made present in the Eucharist that the conversion begun at Baptism continues to shape our lives. The gift of the Spirit in Confirmation empowers us to renew time and again through community relationships the baptismal conversion by which we turned away from relying on ourselves and embraced a life with God marked by dialogue and accompaniment. The school of Trinitarian life is ecclesial community life, where the dying and rising of Christ is celebrated and where we turn away step by step from a self-referential life. The temptation for the ordained to retreat into obsessive privacy, pursuing one’s own preferences and avoiding conflict is so alluring, particularly if we convince ourselves in power schemes, where we make the rules and create our own zones of safety, that we are not accountable. The alternative Pope Francis offers us is a synodal Church where the shepherd has to be willing to take up three positions in the community. Yes, he is often in front of the community to lead, to scout out danger and protect, but he also needs to stand in their midst so that he knows their name and they know his voice and recognize their smell on him. But, the Holy Father says, the shepherd at times is to walk behind the flock, for they know how to sniff out fresh waters unknown to him.
St. Augustine is quite insistent that he needs often to return to the unity he shares with the baptized as the source of his consolation and to maintain authenticity in his service as bishop. The burdens of being a bishop leave him, as he says, “in so much turmoil that I feel as though I were tossed by storms on a great ocean.” But, he continues, “when I remember by whose blood I have been redeemed, this thought brings me peace, as though I were entering into the safety of a harbor; and I am consoled, as I carry out the arduous duties of my own particular office, by the blessings which we all have in common. By finding my chief joy therefore in the redemption, which I share with you, and not in my office, which has placed me over you, I shall the more truly be your servant.” Sermon 340.
This is the kind of order that the sacraments of Christian initiation bring to ordination, an order that belongs to a synodal Church in which the Spirit is at work in drawing us out of ourselves, perfecting us bit by bit as we are drawn into a life of relatedness with all the sharing and sacrifice that implies. The ordained always needs to keep in mind, as the theologian Richard Gaillardetz succinctly noted, that “the primary ordering in the Church comes in Baptism. We start with what we share before what distinguishes us.”
Fr. Louis Cameli of Chicago often suggests to priests that they should reflect on their dual role as they pray the words of institution and consecrate the bread and wine at the Eucharist. It is the moment when a priest raises the host and cup for the people to see that he is acting in the person of Christ, but then the priest genuflects, and in doing so takes the posture of the kneeling community, identifying with them as one of the baptized.
Pope John Paul II echoes this sentiment in Pastores Gregis: “As a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, the Bishop is above all else, like every other Christian, a son and member of the Church.”
It is from the Eucharist, not Confirmation, that the baptized are sent into the world to be a field hospital, having learned more deeply and gradually the art of accompaniment and dialogue. By calling the Church a “field hospital,” Pope Francis calls us to radically rethink ecclesial life and continue the conversion we each began at Baptism as a communal experience. He is challenging all of us as Church to give priority not to ourselves but to the wounded. That means placing the needs of others before our own. The “field hospital church” is the antithesis of the “self-referential church.” It is a term that triggers the imagination, forcing us to rethink our identity, mission and our life together as disciples of Jesus Christ.
A self-referential church and clericalism have much in common, for neither wants to take risks, preferring instead to protect what is their own, insisting on special treatment and privileges, all the while claiming knowledge unavailable to others. In a field hospital, medics and those with the bandages go to those with the wounds. They don’t sit back in the safety and isolation of their offices waiting for the needy to come to them. Instead they ask, “How can we help?” This requires patience, docility and openness to learning from others.
Pope Francis speaks about our need to lead our people to a vision of the Church as a field hospital, encouraging us to leave the safety of the sacristy for the mess of being with the needy. When pastors show that they are unafraid to get mud on their shoes, the rest of the Church will come to better understand what their mission is as they are sent into the world after the Eucharist.
Admitting that we do not have all the answers is key to undermining both clericalism and a self-referential church, as it witnesses to the fact that we are being attentive to how God is already at work in the dying and rising of Christ in the world.
Early in his papacy Pope Francis told a group of missionaries preparing to go to far off lands to remember that the Holy Spirit was there before they got there. A priest especially has to be curious, on the lookout for where the Spirit is already at work. One day while visiting a local children’s hospital, a man came out of a patient’s room and asked me to visit his daughter. He was a Muslim. We chatted a bit and prayed for his daughter. As he led me back to the hall, he asked if I was curious about why he asked me to visit his sick child. “Yes,” I said, “but I was not sure how to ask.” He then told me that in Islam it is a blessing to visit a sick person, especially a sick child. “I wanted to give you this blessing.” How many times have we been the recipient of blessings when all along we thought we were the ones blessing? A young Jesuit on the Pine Ridge reservation, where I worked for 12 years as the bishop in western South Dakota, was visiting the Badlands and got horribly lost as the sun was setting. He had heard stories of wild animals and other dangers in the Badlands at night. Finally, off into the distance he saw a light and moved towards it. A young Lakota boy was shooting hoops in the front yard. Excitedly the Jesuit told him of his plight, how lost he was and needed help. The young boy just held his basketball and listened attentively. When the scholastic finally finished, running out of breath, the boy simply said, “Come on in. We’re Indians, we help people.” God is at work in the world and we should never claim to have a monopoly on that, either because we are baptized and surely not just because we are ordained. In short, to the degree we as priests step away from clericalism in all its forms, the Church will benefit in taking up its true mission to the world as a field hospital.
Brothers, if we want to rid the Church of clericalism, then it has to begin with us, who claim in a fresh way the conversion begun at Baptism, continued and spurred on by the gift of the Spirit in Confirmation and which will shape us as we celebrate that ongoing conversion in the repeatable sacrament of initiation, the Eucharist. So much more is at stake in ending clericalism than winning back the confidence, respect and trust of our people. It is central to the renewal the Church needs at this time to also turn away from a self-referential church so that it can be that field hospital in the world.
But rejecting clericalism is also important for our own salvation, for when it comes to our need to take our Baptism seriously for our own salvation, God is not kidding. Thank you.