Thursday, July 26, 2018

Reform in the Church: A Positive Proposal

St. Philip Neri
During the past few weeks I have read several great spiritual books. "The Art of Praying" by Fr. Romano Guardini, "Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God" by Fr. Donald Haggerty, and "Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom" by Fr. Thomas Dubay (which I haven't finished yet). As I like to tell people, the books are great except for the fact that they make me feel like I'm actually suppose to change my life.  You know . . . like pray more, convert more, and live more simply and generously.  I suppose the reason I picked up each book was because something inside of me said, "You need to change. You need to pray more. You need to recommit to being converted. You need to live more simply."  To be honest, it has been a little unsettling.  Just when I was getting comfortable in my bourgeois life, I'm confronted with that urgent demand of the Gospel: "Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!"

At the same time that I've been reading these spiritual books, I've also spent (probably, too much) time reading online articles and social media commentaries concerning the recent revelations about Cardinal McCarrick. Many of those articles--rightly--call for institutional reforms in the Catholic Church. Angered by the situation, some authors are looking for heads to roll. In many ways, the situation reminds me of 2002 all over again.

Back in 2002, I had only been ordained for five years. In the midst of the never ending torrent of accusations and constant news stories, I felt like all of the language being employed was about external things. Talk about committees, charters, zero tolerance, training, etc . . . it left me feeling kind of empty and a bit cold. In retrospect, I understand why it was important to use all of those terms, but I felt like something was missing. All of those things put into place external checks and balances, and that was important. But, at the same time (perhaps because nobody had the time to focus on it) there was not an employment of the Church's language or the deployment of the Church's spiritual weapons. There wasn't a call to conversion. There wasn't a call to a more serious approach to prayer, to conversion, to simplicity of life. Now perhaps the world might roll their eyes at such language, but we are not of the world.

I remember thinking, "When I look back on this time in the Church's life, I want to be able to say that in the midst of so much ugliness, I was part of something beautiful." To that end some priest friends and I started to meet together on a regular basis, to go on retreat together, to read and pray together, and to share meals together. Not surprisingly, as our pastoral responsibilities increased, we found it more difficult to commit to our gatherings. Eventually, even though we remain close and support one another, the intensity of living something together in an intentional way fizzled. My intuition, however, that there needs to be a different way of living diocesan priesthood has only intensified over the years.

As I said, I've been reading lots of articles online about the McCarrick situation and most of the articles call for institutional reform. (Some articles call for public executions in St. Peter's Square)! What I propose here is not in opposition to institutional reforms, but is simply another plank in the structure of reform. It is, by no means, a quick fix. It is the kind of thing that would take a long time to come to fruition. It is a proposal for a new option for living diocesan priesthood.

In the history of the Church, it seems that the great reforms come when first the clergy are reformed, and from a greater attention to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Yes, reporting structures, charters etc, are all fine and good, but those things are not going to attract anyone to the priesthood or purify the priesthood. In addition to adopting strong policies and procedures, we need to propose a new and more radical way of living out the diocesan priesthood. Some dioceses already have something similar. They are diocesan priests, under the diocesan bishop, who seek to live together in community, follow a common rule, and who live out the evangelical counsels together in a manner consistent with their being diocesan priests and not religious order priests.

Having been a diocesan priest for over twenty years, I know that one immediate reaction to that proposal from some diocesan priests would be to say, "Oh, these guys think that they're better than the rest of us. They think that they are holier, that they're going to save the Church."  Fair enough. Any such project could lead to a division among a presbyterate. I think, however, we should work to overcome such divisions. Seminarians and priests who would want to be part of such a fraternity or society should do so not as a judgment on other priests, but merely as an attempt to grow in their own holiness of life. It would be ONE way of living out diocesan priesthood. It would not be the ONLY way. They would still be diocesan priests, but would simply be living out their priesthood in a different manner.

The key in such an enterprise would be in following a rule of life together. It's not simply a group of priests who merely live together. It would be a fraternity of priests who follow the Lord together, who are accountable to one another, who pray together, who study together, and who grow in holiness and fraternity together. The rule of life would be an anchor to prevent such a community from becoming too rigid or extreme in its practice of the evangelical counsels..  Similarly, it would prevent such a community from devolving into a mere common residence or a club.

Investigations, policies, and procedures all have their place, but something more is necessary. There is a need for holiness, a need for conversion, a need for a more radical way of living out the following  of Christ. This is true for every person in the Church, but so often, reform in the Church needs to begin with the reform of the clergy. None of this is to say that a new way of living out the diocesan priesthood would prevent something like the McCarrick situation from ever happening again. In the face of evil, however, we should all feel a greater urgency to strive towards holiness. In the face of sin and corruption, the Christian response is holiness.

Most priests are not going to be involved in the development of policies and procedures. That is the work of a few. The way the vast majority of priests can help the Church is by more radically following Jesus Christ. New ways of living out diocesan priesthood--fraternities and societies who follow a rule of life--ought to be formed, encouraged, and supported by institutional structures. In the midst of so much ugliness, sin, and corruption, there are many priests and seminarians who want to do the most important thing that they can do: become more like Jesus Christ. Such an endeavor would likely have positive effects on vocations to the diocesan priesthood as well. Young men are attracted toward a life that is demanding and one that is lived in fraternity. The opportunity to see mature, healthy, and holy diocesan priests living a way of life--TOGETHER--would likely attract other such men to the diocesan priesthood. Additionally, the Catholic laity would be supportive of such an endeavor. 

A fraternity of diocesan priests living in community, committed to the evangelical counsels, and following a rule of life together will not prevent sin and evil in the Church, but it most certainly would be a bold and salutary response to sin and evil.

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