For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you by his power according to the riches of his glory to become mighty through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and founded in love, my have the strength to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. (Eph 3:14-15.)
It would be fair to say, I think, that in today’s popular culture many men are experiencing a kind of "identity crisis". The conventional role of the father as primary breadwinner, like the role of the mother as housewife, has been put into question. Technology, which has already in the 1960s severed the connection between sex and reproduction, now promises to separate gender from parenthood entirely. Meanwhile, in the subculture of Catholicism, the fatherhood of the priest in his parish is being obscured by his role as bureaucrat and facilitator of lay ministries, as jolly host at the parish love-feast and stand-up comedian on a Sunday morning. In these circumstances we may well ask ourselves: what is a father supposed to do?
The British writer G.K. Chesterton (d. 1936) lived through the early stages of the feminist movement. He poured scorn on the tendency of suffragettes and aspiring secretaries to glorify the world of work outside the home, in the office and factory. He perceived the world of the home as infinitely more exciting, more adventurous and more challenging: "The place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of moral life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope. And while nobody would be such a fool as to pretend that it is the only place where women should work, it has the character of unity and universality that is not found in any of the fragmentary experiences of the division of labour" (cited in de Silva, Brave New Family, Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 148). At the same time, he perceived that the feminists were rejecting the home and going out to work and in search of votes for a reason. "The generation in revolt fled from a cold hearth and godless shrine". The Victorians, far from upholding or exemplifying the "family values" that conservatives hold so dear, had already betrayed the Christian tradition. The home that had once, perhaps, been larger inside than out had become a prison, from which it was understandable and inevitable that woman should want to escape.
The betrayal began long before, with the Protestant extirpation of popular devotion to Our Lady, with the separation of work from the home brought about by industrialism, with the dominance of the pragmatic mercantile mentality. When the only values were those that could be counted, and the only truth was a truth that worked, when knowledge (and authority) had become equated with mere power, then the romance and adventure of making a home and a family together had given way to the idea of a marriage of "convenience". This so-called marriage amounted to little more - and it soon amounted to much less - than a business contract between consenting adults, for the exchange of certain services and the amalgamation of property, normally under the husband’s name.
Something very similar can be said of the crisis in the clerical Church. The collapse of cultural Catholicism that we are witnessing today in countries like Austria and Ireland is the direct result of a "cold hearth" within the Church. Aided, no doubt, by forces outside and against the Catholic tradition only too eager to point out abuses and corruption, the weakness that lay within (and which could so easily be magnified by the mass media) - a weakness which for too long had been concealed by the passivity of the Catholic population - concerned the failure of patriarchy to be truly "patriarchal". This was a failure of fatherhood as surely as that which afflicted the Victorian paterfamilias in his residential castle. It had the same distant causes, too. The legitimate respect of the faithful for the sacred office of priest had been corrupted into a servility demanded by men whose view of that office was too often entirely political. Like the world outside the Church, in the imagination of these men the Church herself had become a business, a career, a room with a view. The Church was an institution, not a "sacrament". In keeping with the whole Enlightenment mentality, human relations had gradually been mechanized, as though living persons could be treated like cogs in a machine. The laity, like the wife of the paterfamilias, had been instrumentalized. It was there to "pray, pay and obey".
The events that followed the Second Vatican Council did not really improve this situation very much. Just as among men and women, where the crisis in the meaning of fatherhood had thrown relations between the sexes into a confusion that could only be only compounded by well-intentioned reform, so in the Church the crisis of the priesthood led to deeper manifestations of the same problem. The hearth had grown cold, so in order to warm the people the whole house was set on fire. The source of the crisis had not been addressed: it simply lay too deep. It was rooted in a whole attitude to the self, to nature, to truth and to God which developed with the Reformation, and especially with the rise of rationalism and modern industrial civilization. Ancient and medieval man had to live in harmony with the rest of nature (even if at times it was an uneasy harmony, dominated by fear and suffering). He had no real alternative. But modern man has glimpsed and become entranced by the perennial temptation of the black magician: to control nature itself, and ultimately to fashion a new world of his own, which he thought could be superior to the one into which he had been sent by God. We see this tendency now in all its nakedness, in cyberspace and genetics, in science fiction and science fact. It is what drives the research projects and shapes the society of the day after tomorrow.
In an increasingly artificial world, in which the very boundary between natural and artificial can scarcely be maintained, the nature of the priesthood above all is not something that can be understood by the average person. The sacramental sharing in the priesthood of Christ by an average Joe, a bond established not by virtue of any human or superhuman qualities in the priest himself but by the will of God working through him, this mystery becomes a mere mystification to the pragmatic and superficial intellects of our age.
Every reaction provokes an equal and opposite counter-reaction. The democratization of the Church, which masked a clericalization of the laity as the faithful rushed to fill the void left by the declining priesthood, has been followed in some places by a resurgence of traditionalism - a recovery of the "sense of the sacred". The Church without priests could not sustain the attention of the rising generation: why should we attend a liturgy that is less than divine; that does not demand we fling ourselves to our knees in adoration; a liturgy that does not address the Father but merely our own corporate selves, gathered around a table? Mere duty will not keep us around such an altar for long, unless perchance we are converts, already disenchanted with the world outside, and aware of the deeper reality that the modern liturgy now veils rather than reveals. For what we have really come to (though many have no conception of it) "is nothing known to the senses: not a blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm; or trumpeting thunder or the great voice speaking which made everyone that heard it beg that no more should be said to them. But what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and to Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant" (Heb. 12:18-19:24).
Thus we see the beginnings of a return to more traditional and explicitly sacral forms of liturgy. But to the extent that this return is driven by a reaction to the situation that preceded it, it too contains the seeds of an important weakness. The danger is that the recovery of the sense of the sacred will bring in its train the very clericalism that provoked the secularization and democratization of the Church in the first place. If we do not sufficiently distinguish the inner meaning of the sacred from its outward forms, and try to understand what the human contribution to the divine initiative is meant to be, the same mistakes will be repeated over again.
In Christianity everything is incarnational, sacramental. The spirit and the letter, the spirit and the body, are not separated, nor are they confused with each other; they are distinguished and united. The mind of the Church is bathed in a beautiful clarity concerning these distinctions. To "think with the Church" we must do justice both to the unity of outward form and inner meaning, and to the difference between them. It does not suffice to resurrect the devotions and rubrics of an earlier era, when perhaps the sacred was respected more and sacramental authority was held in reverence, if we do not at the same time fill these forms with the spirit of love, which is the Holy Spirit and the Giver of Life. A priest who holds his thumbs in the correct position during Mass and inclines his head at the Holy Name, if his love for every person who stands before him does not shine as brightly as his reverence for the One who unites them all in His Body, is manifesting a kind of hypocrisy. If he does not breathe the spirit of humility and mercy, of compassion and kindness, he will not breathe life into his flock but engender division and decay. Those who do not leave his church will be increasingly drawn into bigotry and arrogance, gossip and conspiracy. The pattern has repeated itself many times in the history of the Church, and the saints have always denounced it - the saints, of whom there are so few in every generation.
The priest who is concerned only with restoring the outward form of the liturgy is akin in some ways to the priest (often doctrinally more liberal) who sees his role in terms of management of the parish. For the "manager", obsessed with balancing the books, or keeping the peace between political factions, has again placed the external form ahead of the interior reality. He is concerned with the Church as a kind of enterprise, with himself as the mover and the shaker, the laity as consumers whom he must seek to please and placate, in an endless propaganda battle to demonstrate to the upper management that he is "succeeding". But in the end his true priorities will reveal themselves, particularly when trouble strikes, in his manner, his tone, and above all in the way he treats the people. Since he is a man, they may reveal themselves in the way he treats women, who are so often deeply involved in the fabric of parish life: he may find himself treating them either as scalps to be collected, or as objects of contempt, a constant source of potential problems. Nothing less than the courtesy of St Joseph or St John will reveal the spirit of the true priest. This courtesy, this ability to discern and give sincere attention to souls, has nothing to do with the language of manipulation and control. Yet the priest who has become a manager has been caught up in the world of the machine; a masculine world where the whole dimension of feeling has been misplaced or systematically denied.
Vocations to the priesthood have declined in many places because the true nature of this supernatural calling has been forgotten. When careerism takes over, mysticism goes out of the window. In his book A Spiritual Theology of the Priesthood (CUA Press/T&T Clark, 1998), Fr Dermot Power uses the theological insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar to revive our flagging sense of the "paradoxical grandeur and weakness of the Catholic priesthood". "Ministerial priests are called to prolong the presence of Christ, the one High Priest, by making him visible in the midst of the flock entrusted to their care. Consequently the nature and mission of the priesthood is defined through the interconnection of relationships which constitute the communion of the Church. The mutual immanence of the the priest and his people is a representation of the mystery of the Church as essentially related to Jesus Christ. In Balthasar’s ecclesial vision she is Christ’s fullness, his Body, his Bride: the essential Marian and nuptial mystery which is at the deepest level of the consciousness of the Church has the priesthood totally at its service. The diocesan priesthood, particularly when it is clearly ‘local’ and ‘near’, stands beside the Marian mystery as foster-father of the life of Christ that is brought forth by the mother Church into the world" (p. 116). Perhaps, then, if Fr Power is right, we need to pay more attention to St Joseph (not just to St Peter and St John) as an inspiration for the renewal of priestly spirituality.
The fatherly priest must be a loving priest. Power quotes John Paul II (from his great document on the prriesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis): "God promises the Church not just any sort of shepherds, but shepherds ‘after his own heart’. And God’s ‘heart’ has revealed itself fully in the heart of Christ the Good Shepherd. Christ’s heart continues today to have compassion for the multitudes and to give them the bread of truth, the bread of love, the bread of life, and it pleads to be allowed to beat in other hearts: ‘You give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37). People need to come out of their anonymity and fear. They need to be known and called by name, to walk in safety along the paths of life, to be found again if they have become lost, to be loved, to receive salvation as the supreme gift of God’s love. All this is done by Jesus, the Good Shepherd - by himself and by his priests with him" (p. 128).
The reason we call priests "father" is that the priest is a sacrament. The name itself belongs to God alone. Therefore when we call a man father we are addressing ourselves to God. The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father. The man is in the Son and the Son in the man. To become a father we must first become the child of a father. It follows that the priesthood is not really about politics, even parish politics; it is about love - the love that unites Father and Son. And love is about truth, for unity is founded on truth. The Father is, after all, the Truthful One, the one who speaks the truth, whose Word is truth. It is by speaking the Word in eternity that he "becomes" the Father. The eternal Word, heard by the Virgin Mary, is conceived within her womb as a man "full of grace and truth". This truth-in-the-form-of-a-man is the truth which sets us free, for just as there is a direct connection between love and truth, so is there a direct connection between truth and freedom. As Romano Guardini writes in The End of the Modern World (ISI, 1999, p. 210), "everything that exists is shaped in a meaningful form which provides acting man with the norm from which to draw the possible and the right. Freedom does not consist in following our personal or political predelictions, but in doing what is required by the essence of things." In this way and no other we become who we are along the path of truth uniting ourselves more and more with our own essence, with the truth in ourselves. Our actions become more and more our own.
This path to freedom is a path of continual conversion. To stand still is to freeze. Another metaphor might be to think of a car windscreen in a rainstorm: it needs to be continually wiped clear if we are to see the way ahead. Conversion is always linked to repentance, and to the grace of Baptism - or of a confession that renews that grace. But from the worldly point of view, to admit any kind of fault is a weakness that threatens to undermine all that has been achieved, or which might be achieved. Truth is secondary to power, and repentance, starting again at the beginning, reverses this relationship. To "confess" is to a hand a weapon to one’s enemies, to make a crucial mistake in the propaganda war - or so it appears to the one who fears destruction, namely the ego or false self. What repentance and conversion achieve is a recentering of the self on that which transcends us. Only by ceasing to centre everything on the image that we have of ourselves can we begin to live the life of Christ-in-us. Against this background we can begin to make sense of the Pope’s appeal to the Church "strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord," to "kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters" (from the Bull of Indiction for the Great Jubilee). In herself - and in Our Lady - the Church is holy and spotless. In us, however, she is continually sinning and needing to recognize her sins, simply in order to detach herself from them and become her true self. Without that spirit of humility, the result is stagnation and smugness: precisely the tendencies in the Church which lead to death of the organic and the personal dimension (that dimension which is open to the transcendent), the death of the Church"s soul.
Truth, freedom, repentance.... all of this we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who receives back an inheritance he had squandered when he recognizes the truth and returns to his father’s arms. But what of the father in the parable? Is he not a model of how we should behave as fathers, as priests? He gives, he watches, he holds out his arms, he forgives, he welcomes. He is puzzled, perhaps, by his other son’s reaction, but he does not condemn. He, the true paterfamilias, holds his children together in his heart, giving them the love, the attention, the justice, tempered with mercy, that draws even the lost ones back to their home. He is the good shepherd, who cares for every one of his sheep, and feeds them - right down to the littlest and weakest and most contemptible.
"I saw, shadowed out in the absolute devotion of Jesus to men, that the very life of God by which we live is an everlasting giving of himself away. He asserts himself, only, solely, altogether, in an infinite sacrifice of devotion. So must we live; the child must be as the father; live he cannot on any other plan, struggle as he may. The father requires of him nothing that he is not or does not himself, who is the one prime unconditioned sacrificer and sacrifice." (George MacDonald, from Wilfred Cumbermede.)
This piece appeared in the ‘Second Spring’ section of Catholic World Report, August-September 1999.