Priesthood and the Rule of St Benedict

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.

Note
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.

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14 thoughts on “Priesthood and the Rule of St Benedict

  1. Thanks for an interesting viewpoint and how a community via the Abbot discerns the needs of that community and also, who would be suitable to be Ordained Deacon or Priest.

    For Anglicans, of course, a sense of can be quite confusing, and discerning that that vocation might be is subject to much thought, prayer and conversations with others. I felt a call to Ordination, which was also discerned by others, my diocese and Bishop, but they do not have the final say.

    Candidates are sent to a National Selection process, which judges each candidate on their merits, among which is a sense of vocation and many other gifts and personality traits. Its a profound experience and one which decides the future of any individuals vocation, whether they will go forward and become an Ordinand and eventually become a Deacon and Priest, or, whether they currently don’t quite meet the criteria and need further time and work to prepare for another selection panel. The third and ultimate decision is that in the Panel’s opinion, evidenced in their report, a candidate is Not Suitable for Ordination.

    That small word NOT, has deep repercussions for candidates, who like me, were convinced that this was the call that I was responding too and how I and others responded to the decision given is vitally important to the future spiritual and mental health of the failed candidate.

    You can be left devastated and quite alone – the decision has impacts on your family and those who supported you to that point, but the personal impact is one of pain and doubt? “How could I have been so wrong”, How could so many others have been so wrong? This a form of deep loss and grief, and shattered hopes. A loss of confidence in your own ability to discern what God wants from you? And above all, the sense of fa

    ilure as you were obviously not upto what God was wanting you to be.

    This is the time for the Church to support and to comfort you, for pastoral care and spiritual nourishment from worship and direction. A time to be affirmed that you vocation isn’t nonsense or invalid, just misdirected.

    If that care isn’t there, than it’s all to easy to be tempted to just walk away, abandon your faith, abandon Church, as they appear to have abandoned you. And many do.

    Somehow I managed to hold on, and can see in retrospect that the whole experience was one of formation and preparation for a different sort of vocation, one of a ministry where I am from the people, not set aside as being ordained and anointed as a priest is, but still privileged to minster in service in a Lay Capacity. Different but still being chosen and affirmed to serve others.

    God is the God of surprises and he obviously has a sense of humour as he put me where I am, and it seems right and actually joyous and I am contented God is working still as new possibilities emerge in the region of chaplaincy in a different direction.

    God be Praised

    • Obviously, I cannot comment on Anglican selection procedures, but I would want to stress that, from a monastic perspective, a vocation is only truly a vocation when endorsed by the Church. Many think they are called to monastic life and go away sad or even angry when it proves not to be the case. I pray that, in time, your sense of hurt over your rejection for ordination will diminish. You will know it has when you no longer need to reference it, and I am sure you will experience (even) great joy and freedom when that happens. Be encouraged, Ernie!

      • I remember going through the Church of Scotland selection process. I was asked how I would feel if I was turned down. I said quite honestly that I would be delighted as I had my life as a teacher all planned out it was what I had wanted to do as long as I could remember, I was already established as a teacher. I didn’t want this call to ministry. I resisted it fiercely. If the church had told me I had no vocation and the call was false and in my imagination I would have been so relieved.

        Then came long years desiring to be freed from that call so that I could convert to Catholicism with no other desire than to be a faithful lay catholic.

        In God’s good and wise time of course my prayers were answered.

  2. “disponibility”?

    I look forward to this: “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.”

  3. Benedict’s process is very scriptural! One has to wonder whether any of the disciples would get through a selection process these days. They had no management skills, no academic qualifications….. and yet god called them and used them. How encouraging!
    I ran from my calling for a long time… god is patient with us, deo gratias

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