Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Jesus the Christ: Priest or Layperson?

The most obvious answer to the question phrased above is that Jesus was not a priest. He was born of the tribe of Benjamin. Only those born of the tribe of Levi were born to priesthood. Yet in our Catholic iconography Jesus is a priest. The Letter to the Hebrews calls him High Priest. Indeed there is an idea that goes back many centuries that the only way to be like Christ is to be a priest. It is only the priest who can be called “another Christ”. Few remember that in the history of the early Church, up to the end of the second century, the only person titled Priest in the Christian community was Christ himself. He was the only priest.

In the course of this reflection I hope to explore the lay identity and vision of Jesus of Nazareth who became in his Resurrection the Christ (anointed) of God. He was not a priest. No one called him priest, the Gospel writers do not call him priest, Jesus did not call himself a priest. The crowds who followed him called him Prophet or Teacher. These were the two most frequent titles given him.

For us who call ourselves Christian, or who hope someday to be Christian, there is only one calling: to follow Christ. We do that in a myriad of ways. Jesus himself pointed out the Way he followed when he spoke about the Last Judgment in terms of solidarity and concern for the hungry, thirsty, the sick, the stranger etc. He spoke of lifestyle and fundamental attitudes to life when he spoke of the Beatitudes: to live poor in (with?) spirit, to be clean of heart, to be merciful, to strive for justice, to long for peace and to bear up in persecution. He called his followers salt of the earth, light of the world, leaven in the dough—metaphors which evoke images of a Way lived in littleness, of apparent insignificance and of patient thankless endeavour.

That is a Way open to all, not just to clergy or laity, but also unbeliever as well as believer.  Jesus more than hinted at this when he told the story of the Good Samaritan, the unbeliever who went to the aid of the believer. His most beautiful words were, in my opinion; “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.” And when we consider the criteria for separating the sheep from the goats in the scenario of the Last Judgment, none of the criteria are particularly religious as most ordinarily understand religious. The Christian faith is fundamentally a practice, something that is done from an attitude or standpoint of solidarity with the poor, motivated by the love of God which validates itself in one’s practice. I should add that prayer, community celebration, being church etc all flow from that practice of love and in turn nourish and deepen that practice.


THE CONTEMPORARY CHURCH

We live in a Catholic Church experiencing grave problems regarding its institutional life and the life of its members. The years since Vatican Council II (1962-1965) have seen many changes, most of them cosmetic, e.g. the use of vernacular languages in ritual celebration, church architecture, fewer devotional practices, the Diaconate etc. Deeper more radical changes wanting to be effected are contested e.g. a greater sense of Mission for the life of the world, not of the church; greater participation in church structures and leadership by a laity with an adult formation in the faith; greater transparency on the part of the clergy; the recognition and integration of ministerial gifts of women and laity, married or single etc.

The Second Vatican Council put a renewed emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful. Many laity felt called to develop their own identity as laity with a mission to the world and its suffering. Therein they discovered new foundations for their own proper priesthood of the laity. They found a call to autonomy and to a renewed adulthood in the Church. They found a ministry which could be collaborative and mutual, without prejudice to ministerial priesthood.

But there were tensions. Many priests felt threatened by a newly-found and autonomous lay identity which spoke from its own experience of faith in the midst of the world. They spoke of God in the world outside the sanctuary, in the midst of secular realities with their own laws and ethos and culture. They spoke of a God of history, of the sinuousities and ambivalences of historical and social processes, of the challenges of growing in the Faith in the midst of sin and turmoil, and of the efforts one must make to discern God’s will in the sphere of family-life, in the world of work and career, in social struggle, in building a good and just society where the human person fully alive is a sign and sacrament of the glory of the God.

Most priests could not resonate to the experience of the People of God in the world. They preferred to remain in the sacristy, suspicious of the world with its sin and turmoil. They could not understand a faith language and discourse derived from experience of the world and its questions about life, ethics, meaning, transcendence etc. The priests had acquired their identity in the seminary which fostered an identity derived from the priests’ relationship with the institutional church. That church is predominantly male, celibate and clerical and tends to be jealous and protective of its power. They derived none of their identity from their relationships with the committed laity, thus hindering their understanding of the laity’s experience, problems and questions. They could not relate with the laity as equals, as fellow journeyers, followers of Christ. They found it difficult to relate to women as colleagues much less as friends.

THE EXPERIENCE OF JESUS OF NAZARETH

There is something unique about the God Christians worship: God became a human person. And there is something unique about Jesus of Nazareth deemed by Christians the Son of God: God in him knelt down to minister to his sons and daughters, to laugh, cry, triumph and suffer alongside them, to wash their feet and share their burdens so that they could be one with him.

From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus immerses himself in the frail humanity about him. At his baptism he presents himself to John ‘with all the people who came to be baptised’ (Lk 3: 21). John baptises Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and for the coming of the Reign of God’s justice. (The baptism of John has its roots in a ceremony of initiation for prosylites just beginning their lives in Judaism, thus John’s baptism celebrates a new beginning.) Jesus presents himself to John as one among other sinners, a member of a suffering human race, awaiting the coming of God’s Reign of Justice(reconciliation) and Holiness(wholeness or healing), God’s world made new once again.

Despite that sin situation in which Jesus is immersed, the Spirit is loosed through the baptism. Jesus experiences a quantum leap in his self-understanding. The Abba Father reveals to him his Sonship, that he is chosen and that he gives delight to God (Lk3:22). It is a moment of self-discovery, a giant step in wisdom and grace (cf Lk2:52).

The Spirit comes to empower Jesus. From that moment Jesus is a man impelled by the Spirit, constantly challenged to use that power in favour of others instead of himself. His sojourn in the desert was a learning experience. He had to face his own demons(powers) and begin to learn how to deal with them, to discern when they lied ( I shall give you all these kingdoms) and when they hinted at the truth (if you are the Son of God). How would he use his powers to feed others, to minister instead of to rule, to announce the God of love and not himself or the caricature of a punishing judgmental God preached by the Synagogue.

His prayer was a daily conversation with his God, Abba Father, marked by a constant struggle to discern where God’s Spirit was leading. That is why Jesus could identify so readily with his brother and sister journeyers in their daily struggles. He learned obedience(listening to God) through suffering along with others(Heb 5:8) and was made perfect, a person fully alive(Heb 5:9).

In that sense Jesus was the Compassion of God. He was sensitively attuned to the wounded humanity of his brothers and sisters because he too bore wounds. Compassion is the noblest of the virtues. It is gut-level and acquainted with pain. Jesus’ point of departure for all relationship is the suffering of his people. He does not start with sin, but rather pain and healing, the sign of sin forgiven.

When Jesus meets the leper his gut is torn(Mk1:41). His heart goes out to the woman bent for eighteen years and risks excommunication from the synagogue when he heals her. Indeed, he not only heals her, he calls her ‘daughter of Abraham’, a shocking appellative. In the patriarchal culture of Israel there were no daughters of Abraham, only sons. Jesus tears down the gender barrier and declares an Israelite woman an equal to the Israelite man. This raises many questions to our contemporary church, bulwark of male supremacy.


CONFLICT

At every step of the journey, Jesus finds himself confronting the priests, scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders. This seems strange as Jesus was not a religious rebel. He was a very pious Jewish layman. He was happy in his Jewishness and never raised a question about the truth of his own Jewish faith and tradition. He yearned for the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel and had no intention of leaving the synagogue. He kept every detail of the Law but questioned the rigidity of the priests who imposed the Law as a burden instead of way to find God in daily life.

Jesus was no lawyer, nor had he studied. The only learning he had was his experience of life and of God. He gave witness to a God of life: “I have come that you might have life…to the full.” (Jn 10.10). He shared his experience of his Abba Father who wanted his sons and daughters to live in intimacy and conviviality with him. Abba was like a loving dad, close by, watchful yet willing to give his children freedom to take a risk (Lk 15: 11-32). But he was also a loving mum, waiting with open arms for the wandering son to come home: “Look, my son has returned home. Let’s have a party!”

Jesus’ religious leaders did not understand. Jesus honoured his own experience even when it took him outside the sanctuary. In all honesty he had to say that his experience was of a God of love, compassion and mercy. The testimony was subversive of the received wisdom of the synagogue of the time. This God in Christ gives us the gift of the Reign of Peace, Justice and Wholiness.


OUR CHURCH TODAY

We have inherited an institutional church which today shows signs of decay and exhaustion. The laity love their church but can be very critical of her. They are tiring of the entrenched conservatism, the corrupt structures and the institutional blindness and fear of her leadership.

The clergy have received a formation remote from the laity and its questions and concerns. They are strongly identified with the institution, but rarely with the laity. They command yet do not lead. They place the accent on doctrinal clarity rather than risk Christian discernment.  The Church which discerns the Way in the world is a school of formation of men and women struggling to live the values of the Reign in the world. The clergy have promoted a devotional Christianity rather than an adult Christianity. This is a Faith of mature men and women living in light of the Reign of God in a world no longer open to the Gospel message.

We risk becoming a church of the pure, a clubby little group of the self-righteous and smug. We are in danger of maintaining a male-dominated institution, obsessed with its power, propped up by a co-dependent laity.

A CHURCH FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD

The Holy Spirit wants to do something wonderful in us. Jesus promised we could do even greater things than he did. The times we live in set before us life or death. The challenges are exhilarating yet ominous. The biggest dangers perhaps are not so remote. They are environmental, planetary destruction beyond the possibilities of repair and nuclear stockpiling, pre-emptive strikes and destruction.

There are other challenges which set before us life or death. One is poverty in a globalising world which creates a broadening gap between rich and poor, north and south, sick and healthy, men and women etc. At the core of Christian authenticity and truth is the Church’s outreach to the poor.

Events since 9/11 have awakened us to the challenges of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue. There are wonderful experiences of Dialogue of lives shared and projects carried out in common. But there are also sad ones of sectarian hatred and ethnic cleansing. Dialogue opens to us the sanctuary of other people’s experience of God and transcendence. We need to learn the language of a broader, more inclusive ecumenism which can communicate with non-Christian faiths. This can lead us to join together in the sphere of a global social ethic and world peace, of base human communities and of worship in common.

With the Buddha who preceded him Jesus shares a common point of departure: suffering.  Suffering was related to sin(the Buddha said to obsessive or inflated desire). Jesus brought healing and thus forgave the sin which provoked the suffering. The church’s point of departure is sin and the condemnation of the sinner. The church’s remit is to heal and forgive, not to judge or condemn. John Donne, the Anglican divine, once wrote tat “we can know a man’s falling but we cannot know his wrestling”.

A church for the world can no longer cluster around Rome. We may be on the threshold of the birth of a World church, ecumenical, inclusive, pan-Faith and planetary. It will be one, but not all the same. It will be embracive, and will invite, all of humanity. Its saints will not all be Christians, e.g. Gandhi, Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela. In other words, “sheep not of this fold”. These persons, and others like them, feel themselves called to this world, for the love of their people.
And where there is love, there is God.

Christians for this world may have to risk walking outside the church walls. They may not find a welcome within. Without knowing it they are in tune with the mission of God. And God will carry the mission to fruition with or without the church. Where there is healing, solidarity, justice, liberation, empowerment and loving encounter, there is God in mission. And there is a new church, built of hearts, not of bricks.


CONCLUSION

We live in an age of the laity. We are called to exercise initiative and leadership in the mission of the church, to be present in the midst of the world, as a community of friends, transforming the world out of its deformities and sufferings. The ongoing transformation is symbolic(sacramental), effected in the transformation of the bread and the wine into the resurrected life(bread) of Christ in which we share. It is real, seen in the (mostly) small victories in which somehow the risen Christ of our common history and our personal story becomes present. Somehow we must recover the lay roots of Jesus’ priestly mission and identity, and the baptismal call to mission for the life of the world, not of the church, of both clergy and laity.

Frank Regan
June 2006

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