Friday, August 15, 2014

A Reflection on priestly life -- part 8

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued. (And the whining continues)
 Remember a long time ago when I told you that there were two flavors of priest — diocesan priests and monks (though not all monks are priests)? Let me refresh your memory. As early as two hundred and fifty years after Christ, men and a few women were running off to the desert to get away from the sinful world and the sometimes sinful Church. There developed two parallel wings of the church which for a while bore the names, “the church of the bishops” and the “church of the monks.” 
There was a class of monks who called “gyrovagues” a Greek word meaning “those who wander around in circles.” The Council of Chalcedon condemned them as didSt. Benedict (480-543), the organizer of western monasticism. In our times, there are still gyrovagues wandering about and to call a monk a gyrovague is just about the worst thing you can call him. The most famous of the gyrovagues is quite possibly Rasputin, the holy man who wandered into the court of Czar Nicholas II. Most of the monks never quite abandoned the Church and always felt the need for the Holy Eucharist, so theirs was a tense relationship. Gradually, through the work of St. Benedict in the West and St. Basil (330-379) in the East, monks become an integral part of the wider Church and monasteries eventually ordained enough priests and deacons to serve their own liturgical needs.   
Monks, ordained or not, usually take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Benedictine monks take vows of obedience, conversion of life and stability. St. Benedict thought this was the only way to combat the gyrovagues.  This means that a monk may not leave his community or even his cloister without the permission of his abbot. This has the effect of creating lives of balanced prayer and work. They eat, pray, sleep and work by carefully regulated schedule. It is feasible that a monk who is living a very traditional life will never touch money, never pay a bill, and never pay a cent in taxes. They own nothing and need nothing. They tend to live into their 90’s, at least the ones I know do.  They live in the fellowship of their brothers, or sisters in the case of women monks, (nuns) for their whole long lives.
The world has an irritating way of changing and in the middle ages there was a need for a new kind of religious order. Groups like Servites, Franciscans, and Dominicans didn’t live in monasteries. They weren’t quite monks. These “brothers” (i.e. friars) and “sisters” lived in priories and religious houses that were not as cloistered as monasteries. They took on specific apostolates such as teaching, preaching, the care of the sick and so on. Though they didn’t live in monasteries and left their religious houses, they did so only under their strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as if they were monks. They were obedient to their superiors and lived in the community. The variations on this semi-monastic theme are almost innumerable in our times, but all seem to have poverty, chastity, obedience and community in common.  These variations on the theme are what we call the religious orders.  
Celibacy is a monastic calling. Celibacy does not seem to have been the rule for diocesan priests in the beginning and still is not among the diocesan clergy of the Eastern Church. In the West, when the Roman Empire fell and the diocesan system was under strain, the priests of the parish churches were often taken from among the monks.  Parishes didn’t have daily mass in the east and still don’t. Monasteries did, so the western church got used to daily Mass and unmarried clergy and so a kind of stability and celibacy bled over into the diocesan presbyterate (priesthood.)
I, being a diocesan priest do not take vows and may own property!  I make a promise of obedience to my bishop and his successor. I am incardinated into my diocese. Incardinate is a Latin word meaning “to be attached” or “hinged in.”  That means I can’t leave the diocese to work without my bishop’s permission. I can’t even say a public Mass in the next county over without a letter from my bishop saying I’m kosher. I make a promise of celibacy and obedience, and so I am bound to stability, chastity and obedience — like a monk — but by a promise, not a vow.  I take no vow or promise of poverty and I have no religious community beyond the parish I serve. Herein lays much of the problem.  
Since the reforms that limited the pastorate, the supports and protections for the diocesan priesthood are pretty much a thing of the past. Remember that in the bad old days a pastor was expected to be available for the sacramental needs of his parishioners, but who now are his parishioners?  In times past a priest was not expected to minister to the needs of the next parish over, and was actually prohibited from doing so except in the case of an emergency.  The real situation now is that a priest is expected to serve all who show up at his door, no matter how tenuous the relationship to the parish. I am not writing these whiny epistles simply to vent, but to point out how radically the situation has changed. If a priest wants to be a good priest he is expected to work until he drops. I am not saying that is necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that he is expected to exhaust himself for people with whom he has no real pastoral relationship. Instead of helping, he often ends up merely enabling.   
A lot of people think that if the community supports that sustained the diocesan priesthood are gone, perhaps we should consider abolishing the expectation of celibacy. In the Eastern Church the religious orders sustain communities of unmarried monastic clergy but the parish clergy are married. Think long and hard before abolishing celibacy. It will not result in a more available clergy.
Perhaps I’ve already mentioned this. I have a good friend who is Greek Orthodox. He and his wife often invite me to family functions. At first his extended family and in laws seemed shocked to see me. I asked my friend if they thought I was there to steal them from Greek Orthodox Church.
He said, “That’s not it, Father. It’s just that the only time a Greek Orthodox priest visits a home it means that someone is dying!”
This is a bit of an exaggeration, but not totally. In the Roman Catholic Church it is common for a priest to visit his parishioners in their homes, and it is almost expected.  I am often invited to a home for dinner, in fact so often that I can’t accept all the invitations. Imagine the situation if were I a married man with children and announced to my wife, “Honey, I won’t be home for Sunday dinner, I’ll be going over to the Smiths for Sunday dinner.” That wouldn’t happen twice in a row. It is true that Eastern clergy visit their parishioners, but it is usually with wife and children in tow, and it is a fairly rare event, from what I understand.
In the Western Church with celibacy and daily Mass and the whole deal, a priest could be radically available to his parishioners. Marriage necessarily limits that availability.  Marriage limits availability in another way. In my ministry I served 30 years in some of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of the city. I was shot at, had a meat cleaver pulled on me, endured death threats ,was robbed often, had my car broken into repeatedly and did nonstop war with rodents and roaches, all while working three jobs.
Had I a wife and children I could not, in good conscience, have done this. Since God stayed the hand of Abraham, we have not expected to sacrifice our children. In addition, my current salary would have to double at least to provide for a wife and children.  Quite frankly, I would be far more interested in financial remuneration than I am now. Have you ever heard a sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:17-16?  (“The priests (presbyters/elders) who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching, for Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’”) 
We are horrified to think that a priest is interested in money. The first Christians had no such scruples. In the bad old days I was free not to worry about money. I didn’t need the stuff that much. I didn’t have to worry about retirement or a wife. Now I have to provide for my own retirement and a lot of people want me to have a wife and children to worry about. 
I am finally done whining.  All this is to say that priests were never radically available. They were radically available to a limited group to whom they could speak the unpleasant truth with impunity. You can’t expect radical availability from a pastor without a sense of obligation to certain norms of conduct and religious observance. Suffice it to say the parish priesthood of our faulty memories no longer exists and it probably never did.

Next week: the solution.  (And maybe just a little more whining. It’s so much fun.)

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