Priests for Today

By John Wijngaards

THE TABLET 18/25 April 1987

On Maundy Thursday the Church remembers the institution of the priesthood. Reflecting on the example of Fr Rupert Mayer, who is soon to be beatified, the director of the Housetop Centre in London contrasts two models of how priests should function today.

“Priests are no more necessary to religion than politicians to patriotism”, said John Haynes Holmes who was himself a clergy- man. Many a priest today may well harbour the same sentiment. In this year of the Synod on the laity, he becomes acutely aware that many of his tasks can be done equally well, if not better, by his parishioners. Latin no longer props up his liturgical control. The parish council threatens his untempered sway in matters temporal. Christian moral autonomy erodes his role as a guide. Catholics in trouble often turn to their family doctor for advice rather than to him.

“Do this in memory of me.” With those words Christ instituted the priesthood, as the Council of Trent tells us in a theological aside. But what exactly were priests commissioned to do? Were they mainly set apart to offer sacrifices to a worship-loving God, as cultic ministers? Or were they called upon to gather stray sheep and assemble a community that could celebrate Jesus’ victory? Where should their hearts be: in the crowded turbulent homes of people; or in the sanctuary?

Priests today are pulled this way and that between two spiritualities. For some the priest is sacred, pure, untouchable. “To the carnal eye he appears like another mortal”, Gibbons states in The Faith of Our Fathers, “but to the eye of faith he is exalted above the angels”. Presenting heavenly values to earthly people, he should dress in black and stay out of pubs, workshops and picket lines. For others the priest is a “son of man” like Jesus; mixing with publicans and sinners and needing the support of friends; excited by the way the Father reveals himself to ordinary men and women. The majority of priests encouraged by Vatican II are testing out this people-oriented spirituality, but the vast proportion of the laity still expect their priests to conform to the other model.

The priest is a sacrament, of course, as husband and wife are to each other. But sacraments are for people, as the ancient adage reminds us. In the person of the priest Christ himself is present to his people. “Who hears you hears me.” “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” Through ·the sacramental order God, who became man in Christ, remains present to us in visible signs. The priest is one of these signs. God, of course, relates to the Christian directly by his indwelling and the infusion of his Spirit. But he also relates to believing men and women through external symbols.

Symbols, however, should- link up and relate; not usurp or dominate. The temptation has been to idolise the sacredness of the symbol itself. But what use is baptismal water except to cleanse catechumens? Or holy oil” except to anoint the sick? What scope have the consecrated bread and wine except to bring people into communion with God?

That priests are priests for people is a principle firmly rooted in tradition. In AD 451the Council of Chalcedon declared that the ordination of a priest without reference to a local community was not only illicit, but invalid. “If he has not been assigned to a specific congregation, whether in city, country, shrine or monastery, the imposition of hands upon him is null and void” (canon 6). Vatican II is at pains to stress that there can be no seeking of God’s glory that is not at the same time serving people. “God’s glory consists in people consciously, freely and gratefully accepting his plan and realising it in their lives.” That is why, though set apart in some sense, priests should not be separated from people nor remain aloof from people’s lives and circumstances”. A good priest need not be a popular priest; but he has to be a people’s priest.

Both popular and close to the people was Rupert Mayer, the German Jesuit who will be beatified by Pope John Paul on 3 May. He acquired lasting fame as one of the earliest and most outspoken opponents of Hitler. He spent nine years in prison, concentration camp and under house arrest. But his damning of Nazism – “No Catholic can ever be a Nazi!” – is not the reason why thousands keep visiting his shrine in the crypt of St Michael’s Church at Munich, He is a priest who won people’s hearts because he went to meet them where they were.

As chaplain to the Eighth Bavarian Division during World War I, he could have opted for safety, well behind the lines. Instead he stayed in the trenches, crawling from one outpost to the other, encouraging the living and comforting the dying. We can imagine what that means when we learn that his division was decimated in 1916 during the battle of the Somme. The particular battalion he served was reduced from 900 troops to 220 in eight days. Of the new strength of 7’70 troops with which the battalion was hastily reinforced, 650 be- came casualties in’ the next week. The official despatch reads: “Throughout these devastating attacks from 20 July to 13 August, one man stayed put in the front line: Fr Mayer. Under withering artillery fire he saved many lives by giving first aid and carrying the wounded to safety.” Having earned three military distinctions and the Iron Cross in two years of service, he lost his left leg when shrapnel shredded his knee.

The collapse of Germany after the war was almost as dreadful an experience as the war itself: disruption of families, unemployment, poverty, political confusion every- where. Rupert Mayer, now limping parish priest of St Michael’s in Munich, proved once more his closeness to the people. He visited the sick and the poor, organised the men in a strong Marian sodality and joined political ral1ies in the tumultuous Bierhal-Zen. It was here that he challenged first the Communists, then Hitler and his associates. Repeatedly he was shouted down. On one occasion a bully kicked against his wooden leg and sent him sprawling to, the ground. But, whether friend or foe, people knew that here was a priest who spoke their language. Even his critics in the Church, among them the bishops of Graz, Salzburg and Innsbruck who were to welcome the Nazis to Austria, recognised it. “Why is this troublesome priest meddling in politics?”, they said. “Let him stay in the confessional”.

The Church will never lack priests, because Christ cares about people. He knows they are confused and dispersed as sheep without a shepherd; today as much as ever. The question is whether priests will be allowed the scope to give people the ministry required in our day and age. The odds are heavily stacked against them. In the public eye they are irrevocably linked to medieval structures, a male mandarin caste, a naive sexual code and a Roman collar. In the Church itself they are held on a tight leash; as much through prejudice in the pew as through established practice. Kissing a man’s hands after ordination and putting him on a sacred pedestal chains him no less securely than a padlocked cage.

Priests, of course, will find their way out eventually, as they have done through the centuries. The Spirit of Christ cannot be repressed. In the dark ages monks worked hard, taught Europe new ways of farming and became rich. The mendicants arose to reaffirm detachment. Study and education made priests the “clerics” of the Middle Ages.  Knowledge brought power which in turn provoked reformation and anti-clericalism, both inside and outside the Church.  Whenever new needs have been felt, priests have been among those foremost in meeting them.

I hope that in their search for’ relevance priests will not allow themselves to be sidetracked. A priest is not a teacher, manager, marriage consultant, social worker or trade unionist; even though he may at times be called upon to render such services. By his sacramental calling he stands out; as Sunday stands out from the rest of the week. His “job” is as odd as leisure, incense and worship. It furthers the unusual dimensions of the kingdom: love without profit; seeking peace instead of securing power; conquering fear by hope; reaching out to endless horizons in prayer. The priest has to make people see with new eyes. He spells out and evokes the deeper, spiritual meaning of reality. He has to be interpreter, mystagogue. He heals, dispenses Spirit, celebrates. He defies convention, as a Christ here, and now.

In a typically left-handed compliment Jean-Paul Sartre once remarked that priests, like doctors, judges and policemen on the beat, know people as thoroughly as if they had made them. It is an understatement. Priests have made people and will do so again. Like priest, like people. The priest is the forma gregis, the template that forms the flock. But the reverse is equally true. People make or break their spiritual leaders. People will get the priests they deserve.