The weak case of the disobedient priests

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?

Prayer vigil for ‘all nascent life’ – the Dutch response

Driven by curiosity, I perused the websites of the Dutch dioceses, as well as the social media at my disposal, to see how Pope Benedict XVI’s request that the bishops of the world hold a prayer vigil for “all nascent life” on the 27th of November is received in the Netherlands. The result is pretty meagre, to be honest.

The Archdiocese of Utrecht and the dioceses of Breda and Roermond present scheduled prayer vigils, as well as the FSSP-run church of St. Agnes. Individual parishes here and there are also organising, but it’s not as much as could have been.

EDIT: The Diocese of Rotterdam and the parishes of St Barnabas in Haastrecht and Blessed Sacrament in Tilburg  also join the effort.

EDIT 2: Frederick reports that the St. John’s seminary in Den Bosch is also organising a vigil.

EDIT 3: Happy news during the announcements at Mass in my parish today: all Dutch cathedrals will host prayer vigils on the 27th, even those who have yet failed to advertise it.

So, bishops, priest, laity (yes, every Catholic is called by the pope to pray for life): get to it! There is still time to organise something.

Father Z muses about the meaning of the word ‘nascent’ in the pope’s call:

“I like the use of the word “nascent”.   The very form, from the Latin deponent verb “nascor… to be born” suggests ongoing action.  The -sc- element is inchoative: ongoing, beginning, not yet complete.  That is to say, from the moment of conception the newly conceived person begins the process of being born.  Sure, we identify different stages of development and birth.  But from this other point of view, which I hear in “nascent human life”, every abortion would be a partial birth abortion.”

The Holy Father was going to have to wait for two auxiliaries

I have plenty of catching up to do, and I intend to devote some blog space to the papal visit to the United Kingdom, sometime later this week. I managed to see the Mass in which Blessed John Henry Newman was beatified this morning, via the BBC. It was some quite good coverage I have to say. It certainly put any Dutch efforts to shame. The tv news in this country managed to devote all of three minutes to the visit on Saturday evening and succeeded in completely ignoring the 200,000 (!) people who were overjoyed to see the pope. Of course, in this country, anything that makes people happy is suspect, unless it is depraved. So, naturally, the attention was on loudmouthed protesters who, it must be said, have in instinct to hog the camera, and share how shortsighted and egotistical they can be. Yes, it made me angry, can you tell?

I watched the televised Mass with two seminarians at the St. John’s seminary in Den Bosch. I was a guest there from Friday afternoon until today. Part of the reason that I was there was an invitation from one of the seminarians (who also organised this summer’s Bootcamp, which is mostly where I know him from), and the other was the consecration of the two new auxiliary bishops of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch: Msgr. Jan Liesen and Msgr. Rob Mutsaerts. I had never attended a bishop’s consecration, and I was quite curious about it.

Well, in short I can say that they do these things rather more exuberantly than us up north. Not only do they have a whopping big cathedral, but they also filled it to full capacity and then added throngs of bishops, priests, guild members (in full medieval regalia) and camera crews. And then, once the bishops were properly consecrated, they took it outside, where one of the guilds welcomed the new bishops with music and a flag display. The city of ‘s Hertogenbosch was going to know there were two new bishops.

Frederick has a proper selection of photos (or a selection of proper photos, perhaps?) in his blog, but I also couldn’t leave my camera alone…

The yellow and white decorates the basilica of St. John the Evangelist
The Vatican colours also fly on the tower
Priests gather from all over the diocese (and beyond)
TV screens were provided for the benefit of those in the far recesses of the cathedral
Guild drummers arrive to welcome the new bishops
The new auxiliaries flank Bishop Hurkmans, the ordinary of the diocese, outside the doors of the seminary
Many people queue to congratulate the bishops

On Friday evening, seminarians, priests, the bishops elect and Cardinal Simonis gathered to pray the so-called Akathistos hymn, an elaborate prayer to the Blessed Virgin that comes to us from the Orthodox. Akathistos simply means ‘not seated’, so the hymn is sung standing. I was in time at the seminary to attend a last rehearsal, but in the end I did not join the seminarians and priests in the sanctuary. Lack of a suitable alb and singing voice was the main reason. Instead I joined the 100 people in the congregation.

Afterwards there was a small reception at the seminary, where I was recognised as the writer of this very blog by three or four people. I also met the aforementioned blogging seminarian and some Twittering Catholics. Putting faces to names is still a pleasant passtime.

And then, one moment you’re just a guy in the congregation, the next you’re having breakfast with two bishops. It’s been a good weekend for me personally. Of course the entire madness surrounding the consecration is a great experience, but simply staying at a seminary, to be part of life there, for however short a while, is a good thing. It focuses me a bit more on what actually matters, and in that way this has been a very short retreat of sorts.

On the way to the priesthood: a blogging seminarian

Since it’s something that I think deserves support, here is some blatant advertising.

Frederick is a Belgian seminarian studying in the Netherlands. In his blog he promises to provide regular updates (in Dutch) about life at the seminary. As far as I know he is the only seminarian who blogs, although there are other seminarians who are active on Twitter and other social networks.

In my opinion, such a blog can serve to increase awareness of seminary life and of the choice to become a priest. On the one hand, there is much to be said for new seminarians to focus on their own private spiritual development in a new environment, especially in the first months. That was something I was told as well about a year ago. But on the other hand, in a country and a time where there are very few seminarians starting every year, the seminaries can’t afford to remain obscure outside certain Church circles. And who better to do the promotion than someone in the thick of things: a seminarian who studies and lives at the seminary?