Crisis in the Irish Catholic Church – Restoring the Community to the Centre by Fr Michael Bennett

image Today this blog continues with another guest post by Fr Michael Bennett, a priest with the St Patrick’s Missionary Society (Kiltegan Fathers). Today’s topic is restoring the community to the centre of the church.

Fr Michael provides a historical perspective on relationships between clerics and the Christian community, argues against mandatory celibacy, urges a greater role for women within the church, and offers some practical suggestions for how this might happen in the Irish Context.

A Look from Afar: Part Two – Restoring the Community to the Centre

A focus on the community should be central to the life of the church. This is especially important when it comes to considering the church as the people of God, and the ecumenical church. Where clericalism has flourished the community has suffered.

A Historical Perspective on Clerics and Community

In the early church the community was clearly central. The presbyters (elders) in the early church were elected by the community to serve the community. Deacons acted as administrators. A bishop was elected from the presbyters to act as their coordinator. The model was one of concentric circles – with the community at the centre – rather than the pyramid of later centuries.

This focus on the community appointing their own presbyters/priests continued for the first thousand years of the church’s history. While it was far from a perfect scene – priests were mostly uneducated – it had the merit of being self-ministering and centred on the community. From the 13th century the trend changed. Diocesan structures were increasingly modelled on the monastery which had become the centre of learning, prayer and economic activity. The monastic way was seen as the best way of living the Christian life. Monks were set apart from the world, educated, and could preach and teach. Uneducated village priests were not allowed to teach or preach, but could preside at the Eucharist.

The Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545-1563) set up the seminary system. This was a good move in so far as future priests would be educated, but the downside was that it resulted in future priests being separated from the communities they were destined to serve. Not being elected by the community, they had no direct responsibility to it. This had many potentially negative consequences.

The politics of the seminary were in danger of becoming the politics of the diocese: those who were chums in the seminary would tend to be chums later in life, and protect each other from censure and rebuke. Minor seminaries developed alongside major seminaries. Boys and young men had limited significant contact with girls/women outside of the home environment, and thus psycho-sexual development was rather precarious. The danger of sexually immature priests being imposed upon a parish community was real. This historical backdrop may to some extent account for the deviant sexual practices in recent decades.

Vatican 11 (1962-1965) tried to open doors to the world and reverse unhealthy trends. The post-Vatican formation of priests and religious took on a very different tone. The choice of candidates for priesthood was based on psychological maturity and the experience of grace, factors which are mutually interdependent. Lay women and men became part of the seminary formation team. Today, a holistic approach focuses on the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of future priests.

Celibacy a Charism, Not a Requirement!

Priests and religious are sent to form and minister to communities other than their own in a missionary context. Yet when communities have grown, mature married people emerge. However, the mandate of celibacy, a mandate with a long and chequered history, prevents their ordination. The mandate obfuscates the charism of celibacy and, indeed, begs the question as to how one can legislate for a charism! Embracing the charism is a counter-cultural statement and a radical life-form.

Celibacy is a very precious gift, particularly appropriate for those living within religious and missionary communities, but it is not an absolute requirement for priestly ministry.

Priests are needed to preside at the Eucharist and the sacraments. If the Eucharist is truly the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’ (Vatican 11) and ‘the church draws its life from the Eucharist’, the Eucharist must be made available to people.

Yet so many communities, especially in Africa and South America, are deprived of regular Eucharist due to the shortage of priestly ministers. This should not be. It is not a question of married or celibate priests. There is room for both.

There are already married men who are priests (former Anglican priests) in the Catholic church. The ordination of mature, trustworthy and proven married men to serve their own communities would be a further step and the least contentious way forward.

This would reflect the pattern of the first millennium by restoring a self-ministering community to the centre of the church’s life.

Women as Valued Members of the Christian Community

Restoring the community to the centre must also challenge the institution’s  perception of women. The image of a pyramid with the all-male hierarchy at the top and a wide base (many of whom are women) cannot be right! It contrasts totally with the image of concentric circles in the early church. The pyramidal mould has no future.

Jesus himself broke moulds in the patriarchal society of his time by associating with women in general and women of ill-repute in particular. His loose attitude to the Jewish law further set him at odds with the religious authorities. However, in the history of the church patriarchal attitudes resumed their gritty hold. Today they do not easily recede and the frustration and anger of many reflective women is palpable!

An authentic focus on the community will mean that the many lay graduates of theology and/or spirituality (including those from Kimmage Manor, All Hallows, Mater Dei, Maynooth) will find their niche. Their involvement in parish councils, catechetical instruction, pastoral outreach and a whole range of ministries would greatly enrich the community. There are also many former priests and religious who would wish to return to pastoral ministry. The human resources are abundant but, for whatever reasons, remain largely untapped.

So Just What is the Church?

A genuine focus on the community will mean that using the words ‘the church’ will no longer assume a dismissive tone. When people say they can no longer remain in ‘the church’, or ‘the church has abandoned them’, I think they are referring, currently with good reason, to the church as an institution. But we should not forget that the church can also be the people of God, the prophetic church, and the ecumenical church.

People will begin to take possession of their church, to name it as their own (‘my church’, ‘our church’), when there is healthy and life-giving interaction and interdependence between all the layers. This ideal currently seems so far from reality, yet it must not be lost. Far too often Christians forget that they are the church, not the church building or the hierarchy.

To read Part One of Fr Michael’s Look from Afar, click here.

(Photo of Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, sourced on Flickr photo sharing, by Esther Moline.)

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