The disobedient actions of priests in Austria (there most visibly, but similar feelings are also present among clergy in other countries), who call for married priests, ordination of women and lay people ‘celebrating’ the Eucharist (a sheer impossibility, equal to, say,  having fish wait tables), has also spread to Belgium. From the Diocese of Bruges, to be exact. A manifest titled “Faithful have their say” (‘Gelovigen nemen het woord’) has by now been signed by several hundred people, among them 155 priests. The full text, along with the names of the priests who signed it, is available, in Dutch, here.

The seriousness of the blatant disobedience of these people to their faith, Church, faithful and bishop, is explained by theologian Stijn Van Den Bossche, in an article he wrote for Tertio:

“The manifest at least remains more careful, but because of that also vaguer than its Austrian compeer. It expresses the wish that formed ‘fellow faithful’ be allowed to ‘lead Sunday celebrations’. If that means lay people leading the Eucharist – as is proposed in Austria – this is not only forbidden to Catholic and Orthodox understanding, but it also results in an invalid sacrament – therefore we do not receive a sacrament there.”

The manifest itself expresses the concerns of its author(s) in the form of propositions to which they want answers (provided, I fear, that these answers suit their agenda). The problem that, they say, needs solving is the existence of parishes without priests, Masses on unsuitable hours and prayer services without Communion. While this ‘problem’ in itself already showcases the serious lack of understanding of such things as Holy Orders, the sacraments and the nature of Communion (the latter being not a right of ours), the proposed solutions, presented in the form of aforementioned propositions, are equally untenable.

Let’s go over the propositions one by one, and analyse them. It may seem that I am a bit strict in my definitions of the ‘rules’, so to speak, but for clarity’s sake, I think it’s good to present things as bare-bones as possible. That does not mean that exceptions and adaptations are not possible, but these do not change the rules, of course.

  1. We do not understand why the leadership of our local communities (such as parishes) is not entrusted to a man or woman, married or unmarried, professional or volunteer, who received the necessary formation. The innate nature of the priest is to be a shepherd, in name of the local bishop, of a set group of faithful. This is not just a purely administrative task or a job description given to a man in a clerical collar. Just like Jesus appointed twelve men (specifically men) to lead the developing Church, and gave them the means and abilities to do so because of their faith, so He still appoints men to do so. These men are ordained to be shepherds and to administer the sacraments. That is a core element of our faith and understanding of how God works among His people. The priests, once they are sent to a group of faithful to be their shepherd in the faith, do that 24-7. It’s not a job, so it’s not a question of being a volunteer or a professional. It goes beyond that: through his ordination, a priest is a priest forever. After all, ordination is a sacrament, and a sacrament is forever. It goes without saying that a priest must be an example to the faithful: he needs to practice what he preaches, so to speak. The Latin Church today asks her priests to be celibate, in order to fully devote their life to the Lord and His Church. There are exceptions, such as married Anglican clergy who convert and are later ordained as Catholic priests. But these are exceptions, which change nothing about the rule. In short, The Church established by Christ had a structure, a hierarchy, which she maintains to this day. That means that it is not a matter of simple appointing someone who was ‘formed properly’ to do the work of a priest, who is specifically tasked to lead an educate. Of course, there are such things as parish councils, but these work with the priests and do not, can not, replace him.
  2. We need dedicated shepherds. We do not understand why these fellow faithful cannot lead Sunday services. As already touched upon in the previous answer, a layman or -woman is unable to administer the sacraments. It really is as simple as that. God has chosen to work to specific people when it comes to the sacraments, thus providing structure and certainty. A layman can obviously lead a prayer service – any faithful can pray. He can also read from the Bible and speak about the faith. He can not consecrate or hear confession.
  3. In every living community we need liturgical leaders. We do not understand why – when there is no priest – a service of Word and Communion is not allowed.As far as I understand, this is allowed. But care must be taken that such services remain the exception and do not become the rule. The heart of our faith is the Eucharist: God who became man and saved us through His death and Resurrection. Because of this importance, the Church asks us to attend the Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. A service of Word and Communion, despite the value of the Word and of receiving the Lord, does not fulfill this obligation. To pretend it does, is depriving the faithful of a valuable treasure.
  4. We do not understand why skilled laypeople and formed religious educators can not preach. We need the Word of God. We do. And we get it, every time we read our Bibles. But the context of the Mass is not the same as us reading our Bible at home. In the Mass, Christ is present: in the people, but certainly also in the priest and most of all in the Blessed Sacrament once consecrated.  We hear the Word of God in the readings, after which the priest exercises his shepherdly duties of interpretation, education and encouragement. In essence, because the priest is the alter Christus during the Mass, we hear Christ speak to us. A priest is formed and ordained to be able to do this. A priest can not sit back and let someone else discourse about hat he has just read. That would be negligent and deceptive, and possibly simply lazy.
  5. We do not understand why faithful of good will who remarried after a divorce have to be denied Communion. They are equally part of the community. True, but Communion is not a matter of being a community together. It is about being in communion with Christ. In Christ, we form a community. We cannot be a Christian community without Him. Marriage is a sacrament, and as I said above, sacraments are forever. The Church can’t pretend this is otherwise, and therefore can’t allow divorce or remarriage. This doesn’t change of people divorce and remarry all the same. From the position of the Church it is a pretense. This creates a barrier between the people involved and the community of faithful-in-Christ, the Church. The demand Communion anyway is to pretend there is no such barrier.
  6. We plead that, as soon as possible, both married men and woman are allowed to the priesthood. We, faithful, desperately need them. The necessity of priests is not in questions, but altering their identity, or pretending such identity exists, is not the answer. We would be lying to ourselves. As I wrote above, the nature of the priesthood is such that only men are called to it. It is the law of the Church that these men can best fulfill there priestly duties if they remain unmarried and celibate. And besides, the bishops of Belgium, or of any country, can’t change this, since the nature of the priesthood is not a local thing. It’s universal.

Questions about such matters are only understandable, and should be encouraged. Through questions we arrive at understanding, after all. But we must not stop at questioning others, but we must also question our motives when we want to change these things. Do I consider myself above the community, above the Church, above God? Our do I see myself as one who needs God and the community?

The priests who signed this manifest, however… Were these men not educated in seminary? Have they no idea of what they received at their ordination? Do they not know what their duties are to the people and the Church? Are they, I must wonder, their own little bishops and popes?

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