A reader has asked me to expand on a brief remark I made a few days ago when I said I hoped Pope Francis’s experience as a member of a religious order, the Jesuits, would enable him to bring greater awareness of the communal dimension to our understanding of priesthood. I was responding to a question asked in the context of the Church’s record on clerical sexual abuse and the ministry of women, but the point I was trying to make is of wider application. I am sure that any priest readers will have their own take on the subject. I write as one who is not, and cannot be, a priest myself but who does have a great love of the Church and therefore of her priests.
By way of preliminary, I ought to say I think Pope Benedict did his best to purify the Church of what he himself called the ‘filth’ of sexual abuse and had to put up with a lot of false accusations about his record. Pope Francis has emphasized that he takes up where Benedict XVI left off. However, where this subject is concerned, enough is never enough: there is always something more one could or should do because of the enormity of abuse; and no one could say that the Vatican has handled the situation well. In PR terms, it has been an unmitigated disaster.
But the Church is not a PR organization, nor is priesthood to be defined in negative terms, or in the light of individual or institutional failures to live up to its obligations. The sexual abuse scandals have highlighted something which disturbs many Catholics — the feeling that many priests are in need of fresh encouragement and inspiration. Some of my own priest friends have spoken very frankly about how low their morale is. They go about their duty perseveringly, but the backlash from the abuse scandals has rocked them. They are often vilified and distrusted simply because they are priests, which makes for a lonely and difficult life.
I take heart from the fact that the pope is a Jesuit and has served as novice master. He has therefore been directly responsible for helping young — and possibly not so young — men to prepare for living a vowed life in which celibate chastity is not merely ‘part of the package deal’ but an explicit, freely chosen, way of following Christ. He is thus familiar, in a way many bishops drawn from the ranks of diocesan clergy are perhaps not so familiar, with the important role of the community in the formation and support of the individual. No one is a priest for himself alone. Equally, no one should be expected to find within himself all the resources he needs to exercise his priestly ministry. It is a kind of two-way contract, but during the past fifty or sixty years, I think we have tended to forget that.
Once a secular (i.e. diocesan) priest has left the seminary, community support can be a rather hit-and-miss affair. The days of the parish priest with a couple of curates a-piece is long gone, and many clergy would much prefer to live on their own anyway — but the need for support remains. I believe that there is something religious orders like the Jesuits can contribute to the understanding of how that can be done and that Pope Francis is uniquely placed to further that understanding.
Why is it important that priests be supported in their ministry by the community? Quite apart from the fact that as Christians we are all responsible for each other, there is the very obvious fact that without support ultimately we won’t have any priests or any community, either. That is why I am hopeful that Pope Francis will lead the way in encouraging and supporting the Church and her priests.
I’m pretty sure some people will land on this page and want to take me to task for abuse in the Catholic Church. That is not what I am writing about above although I had to give the context in which my original remark was made. If you are one of these, please would you take the trouble to do a search in the sidebar where you will find I have written several posts which make my attitude clear. Some may also alert you to aspects you may not have thought about, e.g. the way in which most Catholics feel betrayed by what has happened and the way in which it has been handled. Thank you.