Sunday, June 17, 2012


Many years ago while I was still studying for ordination one of our friars who was on a course here in Dublin came home with a story to tell. At the Mass that day a well known Irish priest had laid his stole on the floor to symbolise the 'priesthood of all believers' and encouraged all the people at the Mass (who were also doing the course) to join him in praying the Eucharistic Prayer except for the consecration which he said on his own. There was some horror around the table at this. On reflection it occurred to me that this could be an example not of some new, liberal theology but of an old theology poorly digested. By keeping the consecration to himself the celebrant was still operating out of traditional Catholic theology that when the priest recites the words of consecration, while intending to do what the Church does at Mass, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. It could be argued from such a position that the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer is just icing on the cake so to speak. Whenever the priest permits the laity to join in or when he alters the text is implicitly asserting such a position. Of course that is not what the Church teaches. Yes the words of consecration 'this is my body' and 'this is the chalice of my blood' are the form to the matter of the bread and wine but that does not mean the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer is pointless. The whole prayer is either leading up to or going on from the consecration but it is directed to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. The whole prayer is like a great symphony of which the consecration is the heart, the climax but not the whole work.

The action of that priest could also be seen as an example of clericalism. Clericalism like laicism is the attempt to exceed the boundaries of one's authority and role; it is a violation of the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity requires that no one should do for a 'lesser' (or 'higher') power what it can do for itself. Clericalism occurs whenever the priest does what it is not his role to do; whether it's altering the texts of the Mass, distorting the teaching of the Church, or ignoring the advice of his accountant or sacristan. You could say that clericalism is often at the root of heresy.

One of our friars told me that while at the Eucharistic Congress he was thanked by a lady for being courteous! She did so because so many clergy had been anything but. We went on from there to share other stories that we had heard. That rudeness towards others, especially the laity and even more so when the reputation of the Irish Church is in the gutter, is a form of clericalism. Clericalism is not a manifestation of conservatism or of liberalism. Each is prone to it. There is in the present Irish Church at least a confusion between orthodoxy and conservatism even as liberalism begins to retreat. Conservatism and liberalism are imports from the political and social dimensions of the world. They are not native to the Church. They can be used to describe general tendencies; conservatives wish to uphold stability and preserve what is good while liberals wish to uphold the freedom of the individual to grow and flourish. Liberalism appealed to a sizeable number of clergy from the fifties onwards because it offered them a sense of freedom in what they experienced as a stifling environment. It promised growth and success and greater, easier authenticity. Now that that project is revealed as a mirage conservatism is on the way back promising stability, truth and respect. If the liberalism of the past few decades pushed clericalism out of relationships into liturgy and theology the re-emergence of conservatism threatens to push it back into relationships. (Un)fortunately the laity now have a taste for involvement in the Church and a higher standard of education.

Like liberalism conservatism is easy. Conservatism has easily delineated positions that, within the Church, are usually orthodox. Orthodoxy, the concern to have the right, the true teaching of the Church and give the right glory to God, is not so easy. It is like the difference between someone who likes classical music because that is what he is expected to like and someone who likes classical music because he has learnt to appreciate such music, he recognises the range and complexity of the genre and can discern what is and is not part of it. Not everyone has an ear for great music nor has everyone the sense for what is part of tradition, for what is orthodox and not just conservative. The conservative clergy man can be deluded that if he wears his collar (even better a soutane), does the red and says the black, and makes his authority felt then is being orthodox in some way. I have no problem with soutanes and commend the 'red and black bit' but we are servants not masters and when we exceed our role, when we are rude and arrogant we serve not Christ but His enemies.

Orthodoxy is rooted in charity, that charity which is nourished by the wound in Christ's side. Orthodoxy is found in the lives of the saints. Orthodoxy is visible in humility, compassion and gentle holding to the truth in love.

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