One of the reasons I rarely write about priesthood or marriage is that I can do so only as an onlooker, not as a participant, but I think today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 62 On the Priests of the Monastery, has some important things to say about the nature of priesthood and service that we could all usefully apply in our own lives.
Nowhere in this brief chapter does Benedict mention any sense of personal vocation. That is the first surprise. Priesthood in the monastery is exercised because of community need and at the abbot’s discretion (RB 62.1, 3). That is contrary to the way in which we tend to see priesthood nowadays, when the individual’s sense of being called by God is (usually) the starting-point for discernment. Benedict is aware of the tensions that can arise because of ordination and the temptation for priests and deacons to regard themselves as having a special status. They do, of course, in an ontological sense, but their status is not ‘special’ in the sense of conferring exemption from obedience or discipline (RB 62.2–4). Indeed, Benedict says priests should make ever more progress towards God, magis ac magis in Deum proficiat (RB 62.4). The priest is to be advanced in rank only if (a) the community chooses and (b) the abbot wishes because of (c) the worthiness of his life, si forte electio congregationis et voluntas abbatis pro vitae merito (RB 62.6). Those are very significant conditions, the second surprise, if I may call it that. Benedict goes on to emphasize yet again that priests must obey the Rule. If a priest does not, the bishop’s authority will be invoked; and if that doesn’t settle matters, the one at fault will be considered no longer a priest but a rebel, non sacerdos sed rebellio, and expelled from the monastery (RB62. 8 – 11). Every opportunity will have been given him to change his ways but ultimately, Benedict is implying, he has to decide whether he wants to be a monk or not. That is pretty strong stuff, even for Benedict!
What I find most arresting in chapter 62 is the insistence on the disponibility of the person chosen to be a priest. The abbot discerns the need of the community and himself puts forward the candidate he considers best suited to meet it. It suggests a humility in the individual, a willingness to accept the decision of another, that goes to the heart of the monastic commitment to obedience and service. Incidentally, it also suggests that the number of priests in Benedict’s first communities was comparatively few, which is rather different from the situation in most British monasteries today, where the majority of community members are priests or deacons. This chapter invites us to reflect on our approach not just to priesthood but to the way in which a Christian community (monastic or otherwise) meets its various needs and the importance of keeping the idea of service uppermost. There is to be no excess, no seeking power or privilege because of the role we are given (given, not assume, please note) or the service we provide. We can all take that lesson to heart, whether we are monastics or not.
In emphasizing the giveness of certain roles or forms of service, I am not denying or undervaluing either the sense of personal vocation or initiative that has been so important in the history of the Church, but that requires another post to itself.