Bad days, we all have them. Though substantial the same I made several grammatical and spelling corrections to this essay. My apologizes for sloppiness.
Christian theological reflection begins by looking backwards. Our concern is always to meditate on the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. Because we are members of the One Body of Christ and “surrounded by a great cloud of witness,” our mediation necessarily includes the reflections of those who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith.” This above all means the we are called to think about the lives and work of the saints and Fathers.
The temptation of this approach, however, is to stay in the past. There is a certain romantic glow when we imagine ourselves to live no longer in our own time but (by a series of curious intellectual and emotional twists and turns) in some bygone “Golden Age.” Well, “bygone,” to everyone but us that is. While we must learn from the past we cannot be limited to it. As Thomas Merton somewhere said that we value the “old answers” not because they are old but because they are true.
I offer this by way of a caution about my earlier reflections on the role of the priest in the early Church. As much as I find helpful for my own ministry meditating on the office of the priest during the patristic era, I also know that we cannot return to the 2nd century. Not only can we not do this, we ought not to try or even allow ourselves the self-indulgent luxury of imaging that such a return is desirable. Thomas Wolfe is correct, “You can’t go home again.”
That said though, what can the past teach us about the ministry of the parish priest in the contemporary situation?
Right at the start the way I’ve phrased the question betrays my conviction that not all priests need to be, or should be, parish priests. Besides the need for priestly service in monasteries, I think there is something valuable in leaving in reserve priest, married or monastic, for the classical work of presbyter: counseling, governing and teaching on the diocesan level (or even outside the formal boundaries of the Church, but that is for another day). This has been the work of presbyters from very early on and, if the needs of the Church have changed and the work of the priest with it, this does not absolve the Church, much less the order of presbyters, from these earliest obligations.
As the Church has grown, the ancient practice of the Church being coterminous with faithful of a given geographical area gathering around the Holy Altar together with the bishop, the presbyterial senate, the deacons, the minor orders, the order of virgins and the whole People of God, is no longer the practice. I will leave to better theological minds then mine whether or not the ancient or contemporary should be the norm. For myself all I can say is, that even if we should return to the ancient practice of smaller dioceses and more bishops, we can only do so by invigorating the Church within its current limits.
And so to the parish priest.
The work of the late Baptist theology A.J. Conyers, The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture is helpful in understanding the parish priesthood. Mike Aqualia on the blog Fathers of the Church, offers us some selections (and a very positive review) from Conyers’ work. Reading through them with our concern for the parochial ministry of the priest, I am struck by this passage regarding St Justin Martyr
who came to the Christian faith by way of Stoicism and Platonism. For him Christian faith is the “touchstone” of truth. He believed that the identification of Christ as logos in Scripture opened the way to understanding even pre-Christian philosophies as bearing a measure of truth. Explains the historian Henry Chadwick, “Christ is for Justin the principle of unity and the criterion by which we may judge the truth, scattered like divided seeds among the different schools of philosophy in so far as they have dealt with religion and morals.”
As with Justin, the parish priest finds himself in a community in which, through creation and the sacraments, God the Father through the Holy Spirit has scattered the seeds of Christ. In each person that he encounters in the parish the priest finds Christ seminally present. It is the priest’s task and great privilege to discern and nurture the seminal presence of Christ in his parishioners, uniquely for the person and corporately for the parish.
The ability, the authority (exousia), to do this is central to the promise made to the priest at his ordination. The bishop prays that God will send down on the candidate “divine grace which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking” so that filled
with the gift of your Holy Spirit this man, whom you have been well-pleased to let enter the rank of Presbyter, that he may become worthy to stand without blemish before your Altar, to proclaim the Gospel of your Kingdom, to minister the word of your truth, to offer gifts and spiritual sacrifices, to renew your People through the washing of rebirth, so that, when he meets the second coming of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, your only-begotten Son, he may in your great goodness receive the reward of his good stewardship of his own order.
The presbyter is no merely liturgical functionary–the priest is the steward of the gifts God has given His Church. And these gifts are above all those personal and shared charismata given to each believer to strengthen the Church and make possible the fulfilling of the commandments given to her by Christ.
The ministry of the parish priest then is this:
To help the members of the community Christ, through the bishop, has entrusted to his care discover and develop their own charismata for the sake of the whole Church and for themselves.
This is the direct application of the priest’s more general ministry to the diocese as counselor, governor and teacher. And as with the priest, it is important to note here, that the parish (and so the parishioners) only fulfills its own ministry in so far as the parish serve not simply its own needs, but the needs of the whole Church (that is, the diocese).
Strictly speaking the priest does not serve the parish. He serves the local Church (diocese). The parish is that part of the diocese that has been entrusted to his stewardship. But his aim is not the parish as such, but the diocese. His work in the parish finds its justification and completion only as part of the work of the whole Church.
In this service he will, invariable, discover that the riches poured out by Christ through the Holy Spirit on the members of the parish have a curiously incomplete character. This doesn’t mean that Christ gives only partial gifts. Rather the gifts that are given to each are only fulfilled in and through the personal integration, the personal incorporation if you will, of each member of the faithful into the larger community of the parish. Even as the gifts given to each are fulfilled by incorporation into the parish, so to the gifts given to the parish as whole only find their fulfillment though the parish’s incorporation into the diocese.
Conyer’s meditation on the Church fathers’ understanding of tolerance highlights for us the challenge that the parish priest faces in fulfilling his own office. In addition to human sinfulness, the priest leads a congregation that is very much formed by the modern world.
Modern times … lost the earlier understanding of a higher connection among different ways of thinking and believing. Thus modern people tended to know no way of tolerating alien thought other than to say that all opinions are of equal value since they merely illuminate the mind of the individual doing the thinking. Or, to put it less starkly, they confined certain kinds of thought, religious and moral thought specifically, to the realm of the private.
When, as will inevitably be the case, parishioners try to absolutize their own gifts, the priest is called to counsel tolerance. This is not done as the world does this, by privatizing the differences in our gifts so as to allow us to live separate lives on parallel tracks. Rather it is the priest’s task to demonstrate to the individual parishioner how his or her gifts are essential for the completion the gifts given to others. The more challenge task, however, is to help people see that they too are in need of the gifts that Christ has given to the other members of the Body of Christ and that without their gifts, my gifts remain incomplete.
The more richly we are blessed, it seems to me, the more we need to realize that our gifts are only fulfilled by the gifts God has given to others.
As when Clement of Alexandria looked at Greek philosophy, the parish priest needs to cultivate in himself and his community a living sense of the parish as a “chorus of truth” Again, Conyers;
This multiple source did not replace Scripture, but it illuminated its pages. All philosophy, if it was true philosophy, was of divine origin, even though what we receive through philosophy is broken and almost unintelligible. All truth, Clement would argue, is God’s truth. In his Stromata (Miscellanies) he wrote, “They may say that it is mere chance that the Greeks have expressed something of the true philosophy. But that chance is subject to divine providence. . . . Or in the next place it may be said that the Greeks possessed an idea of truth implanted by nature. But we know that the Creator of nature is one only…”
The parish priest, in concert with the bishop and the faithful, is called to help see how the different gifts given to each illumines not only the Scriptures, but the lives of each and the work of the whole Church.
While it is understandable that we might find ourselves longing for a return the “Golden Age” of the Fathers, or at least the more proximate “good ol’ days” of the parish, a return to the past in either case is impossible. But possible or not, it is “now,” not “yesterday,” that is the acceptable hour to serve God as He has called us to serve Him.
In the use of their gifts the priest and his parishioners need to follow the example of Christ:
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
” The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4: 16-22)
Today, here and now, among these peoples with all their gifts and limitations, the Scriptures are fulfilled.
While the past may guide our understanding, the past cannot be substituted for the present. The parish priest is set aside to counsel, govern and teach and his specific area of concern is the parish. Dependent upon the Holy Spirit it is in the lives of his parishioners that he is called to discern the will of God the Father and the presence of Christ not simply for the sake of the parish, but the whole of the Church.