Between 1978 and 1987 I spent a great deal of time in Catholic seminaries, both in the US and in Rome. During the later years of this period I finally became cognizant of a pattern among candidates for the priesthood that I notice among clergy to this day–an unhealthy pattern that has become even more prominent since then.
For too many members of the clergy, ministry appears to be about control. They speak to parishioners and go about their clerical duties as if people, ideas, beliefs, proposals, and actions all have to be closely monitored for the possibility of sin or error. For them, the sermon is an opportunity to correct people, to set the record straight, to condemn ideas and activities with which they disagree. Their message is one that concentrates on all the things people shouldn’t be doing. The words of 1 Peter 5:8 seem to explain their ministry as they warn us that “the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
These priests are the ones who refuse to baptize a child if the parents haven’t been to mass for a while. Their concern is a genuine one, no doubt, but their refusal does more damage than good. There are many ways to encourage a young couple to return to active participation in the parish. Refusing to baptize their baby isn’t one of them. Such priests often run their parishes like small fiefdoms, jealously guarding whatever spiritual or ecclesiastical power they believe to have been bestowed upon them by the sacrament of ordination.
It’s almost as if they want to keep God in a box. When the Spirit breaks forth and does something liberating, they scurry to control the divine outbreak as if it were a deadly virus.
Sadly, this same attitude infects many deacons as well. They seem to be imitating the predominant ministerial model at work around them. Unfortunately, it’s rare that I meet one who projects himself as a servant instead of a sergeant. Rules and orders are important, but do they really need to claim the central place of honor in one’s faith or ministry?
I remember standing in the hallway of my seminary when I finally recognized the choice before me. I was sharing with another seminarian the challenges and joys associated with our chosen ministries. He was disappointed while I was elated. As I walked away from the conversation I realized why this was so. He sought to control and correct those he served. I prayed as I walked to my room. “I don’t want to control people, Lord–I want to liberate them.” The insight inspires me still.
Controllers see dangers and problems. Liberators see opportunities. Controllers want to stamp out sin. Liberators want to raise awareness and increase holiness. Controllers emphasize rules. Liberators emphasize grace. One of these approaches is very Roman while the other is very Catholic. The dichotomy offers us a choice–the same choice highlighted with the first post of this blog. It needs to be faced by everyone who serves in the church, from the lay minister to the bishop.
Recent remarks by Pope Francis provide a good example for explaining both approaches. During his homily at mass a few days ago, he was inspired by a passage from the Gospel of Mark. “The Lord has redeemed all of us with the blood of Christ,” he said. “Even the atheists.”
This is a remarkable expression of liberation, especially for a pope, but it greatly disturbed the controllers in the church. A Vatican spokesman didn’t need long to offer a water-tight clarification: “People who know the Catholic Church cannot be saved if they refuse to enter or remain in her.” I’ve been told that something similar happened in my own diocese as an official came forward to offer clarification.
What is the unspoken motto of the controllers? Perhaps it’s something like this: “Follow the rules and do as those rules tell you to do.” For me, I prefer the admonition of St. Augustine of Hippo: “Love and do what you will. If you keep silence, do it out of love. If you cry out, do it out of love. If you refrain from punishing, do it out of love” (Homily 7: On the First Epistle of John).