The October 2009 issue of Intercom is now available. Read a feature article about the Theology of Priesthood and view the Contents page. Subscription details below.

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October 2009 issue

Click on link to view Intercom October 2009 contents

The Theology of the Priesthood in Context

The context of priesthood today.

Who is the ordained priest? What is his true profile? Although the Second Vatican Council produced two decrees on the topic of the Priesthood, and although the question has since engaged two synods, there is still an ongoing malaise felt deeply in the priesthood and the Church. Many factors contribute to this. The priest is a man caught between an older order and an attempted new post-Vatican II order, between institutional representation and the local community, between the clear teaching of the Church and concrete pastoral realism, between laity and episcopacy, between the need for lay involvement and the diminishing numbers of lay volunteers in many quarters. Priests find themselves caught in a crossfire that is both theological and pastoral.

In Ireland there is the further stratum of the impact of the scandals, the reports and the consequent fallout. In a short time the priest has lost much of the social standing which he enjoyed. On top of this, he has an increasingly endless round of groups to meet, committees to sit on and projects often not of his devising to accompany. And all this with fewer colleagues! Faced with a mega agenda of change, the priest would not be human at all if he did not find himself at times in a cloud of bewilderment.

Where are we?

Where does all this leave priests? It leaves us on the cross! We have to admit to ourselves that there is no easy way forward, no easy solution to the bewilderment, no escape from the troubles without and the troubles within. It really is a desert time. And that is the cross: we cannot go back since the past does not exist any more, and we cannot jump beyond the present and into a future of our own devising, since that would be escapism. Instead, weve got to learn how to live out priestly existence in that utopia, that no-place, in which we often find ourselves!

The cross, however, is precisely the no place where Jesus went. To the bewilderment of the disciples. Three times in rapid succession they react in amazed unbelief to the Masters declaration of his impending death in Jerusalem according to the Gospel of Mark (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Death, in fact, on a cross! (Phil 2:8) However, it was on that Cross that he generated the Church. One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water.(John 19:34) Eucharist and baptism flow out of his pierced side generating the Church. And the significance of this is so fascinating and central that St John directs us to look on the one whom we have pierced! (John 19:37) It will take Peter and his fellow-apostles much time to understand the meaning of the Event, to understand, namely, that Jesus took the last place in this world so perfectly that no one will ever be able to take it away from him. (Charles de Foucauld)

A priest friend tells an experience from his seminary days which was to prove decisive for his priesthood. He realised that by character he was not going to be able to cope well with adversity or trouble. At least that was how he felt about himself. Relating his concern to a wise spiritual director, he explained that the generous life of the priestly ministry, that living for God and for others, attracted him greatly. Still, he feared the sufferings that would inevitably arrive. His anam cara, a wise man, replied, You fear because you think of the Cross as a thing. Youre forgetting to see the Person on the Cross. You need not fear: hell be there before you always.

Can this desert bloom?

On the Cross, Jesus cried out his abandonment (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34) and kept on loving. By dying and breathing out the Holy Spirit (John 19:30) Jesus generated the Church. Every priest, re-living in his life Jesus abandonment, keeping on loving and hoping against hope, co-generates the Church. Blood and water flowed from the pierced side of the Lord. It is these that irrigate the deserts that seem to expand around us today. In contemporary Ireland priests encounter many expressions of that desert. Perhaps God is asking us, individually and collectively, as he asked Moses and Aaron in the desert, Do you believe water can flow from that rock? (Num 20:1-11). The rock in our case may be the unbelieving mind or the mind that has been drying up because threatened by a decrease of faith encircling us. In faith and hope, we can reply: Yes, I am certain that water can well up in that rock. Faith is necessary, the faith that Mary had. Hers is the absolute silence of the creature that stood up at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25-27) and did not seek explanations. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.(1 Cor 13:7)

Celebrating the Eucharist and living eucharistically

It is true that it is the Eucharist, as the centre of the sacramental order, which makes the Church. (Henri de Lubac) Word and sacrament combine there to generate the living body of the crucified and risen Lord. There is, however, a second moment in that generation: its the moment when the celebrant of the Eucharist existentially unites his personal cross with the sacramental proclamation of the death of Christ in the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:26). The ordination liturgy links the two when at a most poignant moment the bishop says to the ordinand, Recognise what you are doingModel your life on the mystery of the Lords Cross

Fr Thomas Norris
(Maynooth College)

Intercom

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