A haze of controversial issues lies over any honest discussion of the Catholic priesthood: the scandal of sexual abuse by priests; the sharp decline in vocations in Europe, North America, and Australia; the sexual orientation of seminarians; obligatory celibacy; the ordination of married men; the ordination of women.
The Risk of Discipleship does not ignore these questions, but it begins in a different place. Roderick Stranges study is rooted in scripture, theology, and the experience of nearly two thousand years of Christian priesthood. Without minimizing the seriousness of the crisis or avoiding the need for renewal, it brings the essential nature of ministerial priesthood and its pastoral practice back into focus, and restores the priestly vocation to a place of honour.
Roderick Strange is the Director of the Beda College in Rome. He is a former chaplain at Oxford University, parish priest in Cheshire, and Chair of the National Conference of Priests.
- Chapter 1 - Recovering Lost Ground
There are various reasons for writing about Catholic priesthood at this time. Priesthood is an honourable way of life, but scandals and allegationsof scandal have dishonoured it. There is plenty of evidence for that. A priest I know called in at his local supermarket and held the door open, ashe arrived, for a woman who was leaving. He had never seen her before. She looked at him, stopped, and spat in his face. People like you should be in hell, she told him. And Donald Cozzens in his book, The Changing Face if Priesthood, tells the story of a young man who was talking to a priest after mass one Sunday about his interest in priesthood. The priest had some literature with him and so gave it to the man. Suddenly, Cozzens writes, his mother stood between them and grabbed the pamphlet from her sons hand. Throwing it down, she said with a voice of steel, "No son of mine is going to be a damn priest." Perhaps surprised at her own vehemence, she added, "Nothing against you, Father. Its just that no son of mine is going to be a priest" (1). In these circumstances it is easy to become discouraged and demoralized. The wretched evil perpetrated by a few can undermine us all. But priesthood remains an honourable way of life. What can we do? A well-tried strategy comes to mind.
For twelve years I had the good fortune to work as a Catholic chaplain at Oxford University. During that time many people who were not Catholics came to see me - graduates and undergraduates, dons and other members of the University and their families - to talk about the Catholic faith and explore the possibility of their becoming Catholics themselves. It was fascinating and rewarding work. Sometimes after a long series of sessions people might decide not to proceed. I never regarded it as time wasted. At least they would have clarified their own position and after all faith is a gift. And sometimes people were in more of a hurry. Occasionally someone would say, Look, Im sure that 1 want to be received. 1 believe what the Church teaches. So could I be received soon? Perhaps we could just have a few sessions on the controversial issues, like the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, papal infallibility, and the teaching about Mary. But I would always refuse. To examine only the problem issues can easily distort our understanding of the whole. More often, someone who had announced that transubstantiation or infallibility or Marian doctrine might be a sticking point, found when we reached that stage in our conversations that seen in context the difficulties had evaporated. I remember one person, now a friend, smiling wryly and expressing mock disappointment when we came to consider Mary. I was looking forward to a really good argument about that, she said.
The point is significant here as we begin this reflection on Catholic priesthood. There are many controversial issues today surrounding it, not only the scandals arising from the sexual abuse of children. Why are so few people in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia recognizing a vocation as presbyters? Why have so many priests left the priesthood? Should celibacy remain obligatory? Should other married men, besides convert clergy, be ordained? Should women be ordained? What should be said about sexual orientation? And then there are the scandals that have engulfed priests time and again in more recent years. Those are some of the questions which are raised constantly. They deserve to be considered, although they have already received thoughtful attention in church documents, as well as in a range of books and articles. However, I want to offer an account of Catholic ministerial priesthood which is not governed by those issues. I have no wish to shy away from them, but would rather address them as they may arise, integrated within a larger view.
By doing so I would hope to encourage and support those who have become dispirited, informing people and reminding priests about what this commitment entails. I want to offer an account which allows the sheer goodness of this way of life to be acknowledged once more. It would be wonderful too if anything written here helped someone recognize a call to this life which until now they have not identified. And I am prompted to write partly because of a minor coincidence.
There is a common tradition that Jesus of Nazareth was thirty three years old when he was crucified and I have now been a priest for thirty-three years, as long as Jesus lived. The coincidence is as tenuous as that, but they are years for which I can only be grateful. It seems in its way a good moment for me to pause and reflect; and if I am to share what I may have learnt with others, it may help if I begin by sketching my background and how those years have been spent.
My family was Catholic and the faith was important in our home. My father had decided to become a Catholic before marrying my mother in 1939, but the wise Jesuit who was instructing him advised delay until after the wedding to spare his parents feelings. Was that symbolic? The commitment was clear, but neither narrow nor rigid.
I went to school at Stonyhurst. There was a large number of Jesuits on the staff at the time and during those years the possibility of my becoming a priest occurred to me. I didnt cling to it desperately. If my mind had changed, I wouldnt have been devastated. But I came to realize it was a notion I ought to explore. On reflection I felt drawn to the diocesan priesthood rather than the Society of Jesus. I applied to my home diocese of Shrewsbury and was accepted. I was sent to Rome and began my studies in 1963. I was seventeen.
Today that seems extraordinary, far too young. But things were different in the sixties. When people left school in those days, they had usually decided what they wanted to do with their lives. And it was an exceptional time to be in Rome.
Each autumn of my first three years the Second Vatican Council was sitting. When documents were to be promulgated, there were public sessions and I attended as many as I could. They were wonderful days. There was a sense of being part of historic events. And the years which followed were as absorbing in a different way. In the immediate aftermath of the Council the flow of visitors to Rome continued; they were attending sessions of the post-conciliar commissions which were seeking to put what the Council had taught into effect. It was a privileged time to be training for the priesthood and it has shaped my life. The Councils vision inspires me.
I was ordained a priest of the Shrewsbury Diocese in December 1969 and after my return from Rome the following June, I was sent to Oxford to study Newman. I lived at the University Catholic Chaplaincy for the next four years. Crispian Hollis, now the Bishop of Portsmouth, was chaplain. He had just succeeded Michael Hollings who in the previous eleven years had transformed the place. He had established it as an open house and Crispian maintained the practice. The doors were unlocked at seven in the morning and closed at midnight. It was an inspiring model of priesthood to meet in my formative years. And at its heart was prayerfulness. The early mass was said at 7.45 in the morning in a small upstairs chapel, but a good halfhour before that fifteen or more people would have gathered to prepare themselves in silence. You could set your clock by Bill Frerking, an American philosophy graduate, who had had polio as a child, climbing those stairs on his crutches at 7.10. He is now a Benedictine abbot in the United States (2).
I left Oxford in 1974 and returned as one of the Catholic chaplains to the University in 1977. During those three years I was an assistant priest in a parish, English Martyrs in Wallasey, and also chaplain to the large Catholic comprehensive school, St Marys College, which is next door. After Oxford, when I returned to the diocese in 1990, I was appointed parish priest of St Pauls, Hyde, and in 1993 I became Director of the Diocesan Religious Education Service for five years. I also spent eight years as a member of the National Conference of Priests and served as its chairman from 1994 to 1997. I had been moved from Hyde back to Wallasey in 1996 to facilitate the R.E. work and then in 1998 I was invited to return to Rome as Rector of the Beda College which has the responsibility of preparing for priestly ordination older men from the English-speaking world. The invitation could not have surprised me more.
Parish and school, university and seminary, and like all priests a variety of other responsibilities besides, my years as a priest have offered me a range of experience and that experience is one of the sources on which I draw and reflect here. This book is not, however, disguised autobiography, but having had the experience, in Eliots phrase, I dont want to miss the meaning (3). And I would want to state something clearly from the start. I have loved being a priest.
During my time as a student in Rome I became friendly with Jack Pledger, a priest from the Archdiocese of Southwark, who used to come out on holiday. I learnt a great deal from him. By his own admission Jack did not suffer fools gladly, but he had great zest for living. Whats the point of being a priest, he would say, if youre not going to be happy about it. His own delight in priesthood was transparent. And it was because of him that the card commemorating my ordination bore the simple statement, Serve the Lord with joy. I have tried to be faithful to those words. So what path shall we follow now?
The fundamental theme for these reflections is the risk of discipleship. The very idea of risk is fascinating. Risks do not fall into a single category. There is a distinction between the risks we run because we have ourselves taken an initiative and those we face because we have accepted an invitation. Lets call them respectively the risks of initiative and the risks of invitation.
When we take an initiative - for example, to move house or change job or emigrate - we assess the implications. We weigh the pros and cons, we consider the advantages and disadvantages. We know we dont control the outcome. The conclusion is uncertain. Some risk is unavoidable. If we decide to proceed, however, the risks can be described as of our own choosing. They are our risks. On the other hand, when we receive an invitation, we know that that too involves risks. We dont know precisely what will happen. Once again, we look ahead and weigh up whether or not to accept. We think it through as best we can. And if we accept, its our decision and we must take responsibility for it. But I would suggest that, if we accept, the risks involved are different from those which are part of an initiative we may take. The risks which come from accepting an invitation are not as such of our own choosing. When we accept an invitation, we make a commitment, and so we accept the risks, the consequences of that commitment, whatever they may be. Calculation is utterly foreign to such commitment.
In the Synoptic Gospels, at the start of his public ministry people gathered around Jesus. We learn about two pairs of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John, who were fishermen. He called them and they left everything, boats, nets, livelihood, and followed him (see Mark 1:16-20). In the Fourth Gospel the story is told differently. There John the Baptist points Jesus out to two of his disciples, one of whom is Andrew. They approach him and ask, Rabbi, where are you staying? He replies, Came and see. And they spend the day with him. Andrew then looks far his brother, Simon Peter, and the fallowing day Jesus finds Philip who in turn brings Nathanael to him (see John 1:37-51). These men will all became apostles, his closest disciples, but it is essential to appreciate what is happening.
It is not as though they have noticed this man from Nazareth and weighed the consequences of following him. They are not like entrepreneurs, calculating a risk which might make their future mare profitable. They have not taken the initiative. Jesus has. He has called them, invited them, to. follow him and they have responded. By that response they begin to run the risk of discipleship, the risk of invitation, not the risk of initiative.
And to be ordained is to. accept an invitation. It is not my own initiative. At the Last Supper we hear Jesus telling his disciples, You did not choose me, but I choose you (John 15:16). We have been called. We have received an invitation and answered, Yes. Now we must run the risks which that acceptance involves, face the consequences of our commitment. The risk of discipleship, the theme which runs~ through these reflections and unifies them, refers to. risks which are not of our choosing. That is what makes them the risks of discipleship. Lifelong commitment is not fashionable these days, but once committed, I accept whatever may be asked of me.
This life may be costly, but we must not be afraid. Nor must we fall prey to the lure of perfectionism, which will undermine us. From that viewpoint, we do not need to be perfect; it is sufficient to be god enough. We need, however, the courage to live at depth. Do we dare to do that? It may seem intimidating, but is also inspiring.
A short while ago. I came across a passage from John Dunnes book Time and Myth, in which he speaks of an enduring life which lasts through and beyond death. To. find [this deeper life than the ordinary], he says, would be like seeing something fiery in the depths of life; it would be like hearing a rhythm in life that is not ordinarily heard. I found myself wondering whether it could be taken as well to refer to the life to which a priest is called. He goes on:
The question is whether a man, if he found such a life, could bear to live it, whether he could live at that depth, whether he could live according to that rhythm. The deeper life would be like an undertow, like a current that flows beneath the surface, a current that sets seaward or along the beach while the waves on the surface are breaking upon the shore. . . A life lived on the surface is like the surf itself, like the swell of the sea that breaks upon the shore, like the foam, the splash, the sound of breaking waves. There is no swelling and breaking in the undertow, no foam, no splash, no sound. Yet it is a powerful current and may move in a direction opposite to that of the waves, may move toward the open sea while they move toward the shore. . . To live in accord with the deeper rhythm might be to ignore the surface rhythm of life. It might mean missing the normal joys and cares of childhood, youth, manhood, and age. It might mean plunging down into the depths of life to follow a light as elusive as sea fire (4).
Dunnes insight is applicable much more extensively than to the life of ministerial priesthood, but his image of a deeper life as an undertow which may run against the prevailing tide - you notice that it does not do so necessarily - which does not swell or break, which is unseen, because there is no foam, no splash, no sound, and which may involve sacrificing much that others regard as normal, speaks to me powerfully of the life which those who have been ordained embrace. It is an image we should take to heart.
(1) Donald B. Cozzens, The Changing Face of Priesthood (Minnesota, 2000), p. 134
(2) See Roderick Strange, Michael Hollings at Oxford, in Jock Dalrymple, Joan McCrimmon, and Terry Tastard (eds.), Press On! Michael Hollings, his Life and Witness (Great Wakering, 2001), pp. 89-99.
(3)See T.S. Eliot, Dry Salvages II, The Four Quartets.
(4) John Dunne, Time and Myth, quoted in M. Basil Pennington OCSO,
Centering Prayer (New York, 2001) pp. 160-1.