Thursday, 25 June 2009

Thoughts on the priesthood

The year of priests began on Friday, and after a lovely, unfussy mass and an excellent sermon by Fr Daniel, I've spent the last few days reflecting on my complex feelings about the Catholic priesthood.

That reflection was further complicated by the discovery yesterday that someone whose behaviour shows him to be utterly unfit for the priesthood is a seminarian.

A story to illustrate the point: 18 months ago, I was having dinner with a friend. Seminarian X knew this; he'd been told. During the course of the evening, he rang my friend NO LESS than 7 times over the course of the evening to ask if he could come over or if my friend could come out. I wondered who the hell this person and his group were, and unfortunately, I later had occasion to find out as, even after having been told "NO, I HAVE A GUEST THIS EVENING," ad nauseam, Seminarian X showed up, sat down and promptly started eating the candy bar my host had just unwrapped.

The utter selfishness, violation of personal boundaries, lack of respect for others, immaturity and the lack of genuine friendship was...staggering. More trivially, since my host and I spent the rest of the evening trying to get away, it totally ruined what had been a lovely evening.

There is no way this was hidden in the interview or in any recommendations he received - he's too unaware of self to KNOW to hide it. No way he could have hidden the split between what he professes and how he behaves. But the seminary accepted him anyway.

The most likely reaction from the people at my church? A "So what?" and a limp wrist wave.

I'll tell you 'so what' - that boy will be dealing with people at their most vulnerable, from birth to death. He will be their SHEPHERD. This is NOT a LIVE ACTION ROLE PLAYING GAME (LARP) so he can ponce about in lace, pretty vestments, with a thurible. Nor is it a way to put off growing up and becoming responsible - something both religious communities and the training for the priesthood do far too often these days.

These are people's lives, hearts and souls on the line. So, yeah, I think character, maturity and people skills are important. Deal.

That doesn't make me anti-clerical. It makes me demanding; it makes me tough; it means I have high expectations from those of you shepherding God's flock.Yes, I allow for imperfection. But ONLY where you are committed to growth - emotional and spiritual. Where you can admit that you are wrong. Where you are committed to learning. But where you're using imperfection as an excuse to be lazy and not change, I will give no quarter.

This is where I step up and say: part of this is because I'm sick of cleaning up after the bad ones. I've lost count of the hours where I've sat down to talk down someone in tears because some boy said something in the confessional that made me cover my mouth in horror - things I wouldn't even say to the uncle who sexually abused me. We won't discuss the things that have been said outside the confessional, in the public domain, things priests thought were funny or clever, but were only passive-aggressive and hurtful. Let's not even go into the ways problems - big problems, obvious unhappiness, clear unsuitability - are ignored until it is way, way too late. And sometimes, that costs lives.

One instance I remember most sharply is where a cleric came to me one day, hugged me and just put his head on my shoulder. I let him be there and then we talked. Absolutely the simplest thing in the world. Later, one of his colleagues said, "I'm so glad he came to you. The rest of us didn't really know what to say."


He was lucky he didn't get what was on the tip of my tongue to say: "Well, God forbid any of you should have displayed some pastoral ability. Wouldn't want that."

I sound pretty unambivalent, don't I?

But I'm not. Because frankly, I lay a LOT of this at the door of their training. Those who should never be accepted ARE; those who should be weeded out in seminary are not; those who have the skills to be good priests aren't properly trained. I'm not sure I actually believe that seminary is much more than a place for Borg assimilation and some intellectual work, with the barest nod to real pastoral work or moral training. Essentially, you've put a young man in a group of people who look like him, who agree with him, who will apply peer pressure to think the accepted groupthink and don't require much responsibility or knock the corners off. Put them in a place where they're taught that they're 'special' or 'more important' or, in the one Vianney quote I don't like, 'everything' - and you lose the man, don't you? He becomes a boy again. To become a man - let's use the gender neutral adult - you need to be able to see other points of view without being threatened, you need to think through your speech and actions, you need to take responsibility - and you need to realise that you are not, and will never be, more special than any other of God's children.

You cannot call yourself a man if you live in ways, places or with people that are invested in keeping you a boy. And unfortunately, in its odd mix of attempting to hammer down the nail that sticks up yet inculcating a sense of 'specialness', of 'entitlement', priestly training does exactly that - creates a boy to do man's job, setting far too many up for failure.

Good priests only seem to happen by accident or grace, not by design of the Church. And that's just plain wrong.

There's the other reason I'm ambivalent - I know some absolutely amazing priests. The ones who make me want to hug them as they struggle their way out loud through a difficult pastoral situation and I can hear the emotion in their voice. The ones who can call situations 'tough and tragic' and apply orthodox teaching compassionately - and by orthodox teaching, I don't mean pretty liturgy. I mean the priests who can say that suicide is not a mortal sin because even though it is grave matter, full knowledge and consent can't have been present. The ones who call me on saying 'forgive but not forget' because they KNOW I really mean 'I don't forgive' - and make me admit and deal with it. THAT is true orthodoxy. The ones who choke up (and that DOES get a hug for as long as needed) when they talk about the gratefulness of the parents of a stillborn child after the funeral or any of the countless situations where they share, even as they try to comfort, someone's pain or darkness. The ones who undo the damage of their colleagues as only they can.

THEY are my many clerical friends. THEY are the good priests, the good men who, as one of them beautifully put it, pour their lives out as a libation. The WORLD, not just the Church, is a better place for them. (Though I think they ought to be able to marry, but that's another discussion.)

Those of you I know and those of you I don't - THANK YOU. THANK YOU.

They are, quite simply, God's vessels. But there aren't enough of them. They don't get nearly enough support - from the laity or the institution. And God knows, they certainly don't get the initial or continuing training they need. They get worn down by the disproportionate number of parishioners who come to them and by those who aren't priests in the true sense of the word. That balance needs to shift dramatically in the other direction. They need and deserve all the support they can get.

The Church needs to recognise, nurture and support them. The dead weight needs to go.

So where does this all lead us? To how Irim would set up and run a Catholic seminary, of course.

What was that sound? Oh, that would be the sound of my clerical friends groaning in despair ;-).
Sorry, boys, you'll have to wait for the next installment - I've got an essay to finish...but watch this space.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was another sound you missed - the sound of myself wildly applauding...!!!

Details, please, of how the Irim seminary would operate. Please? Pretty please with a palindromic prime number on top, garnished with (perhaps) a fractal or factorial?

But seriously, I'd love to hear or read more about the proposed plans.