Sunday, June 21, 2009

Benedict writes a letter to the world's priests and sends a pretty powerful message to the world's laity.

Friday, Pope Benedict initiated the year of the priest. I conjunction with that he sent a letter to the priests of the world. It's an extensive letter which Zenit has translated into English, and you can access here. For the purposes of this post, I am extracting two sections, one deals with the priesthood itself and the other deals with the priesthood expressed in community.

It strikes me that this letter of Pope Benedict's is a treasure trove of his thinking on the Church and it's future. In some respects it's depressing as hell, and in other respects he presents some curious thinking. Here is the first part:

"There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection. What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgement of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realisation of the greatness of God's gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides. ( This is a classic 'but' statement in that what comes after the interjection, is what we are expected to remember. Yes, Yes priests have given great scandal and we should be frank about that, but......)

Here the teaching and example of St. John Mary Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference for us all. The Cure of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy". He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature: "O, how great is the priest! ... If he realised what he is, he would die. ... God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host". (This is a pretty narcissitic statement, and essentially describes high magic--words compelling a spirit to act.)

Explaining to his parishioners the importance of the Sacraments, he would say: "Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put Him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest. ... After God, the priest is everything! ... Only in heaven will he fully realise what he is". (Priest as God's jailer is an interesting concept. Lot of power in that thought.)

These words, welling up from the priestly heart of the holy pastor, might sound excessive. Yet they reveal the high esteem in which he held the Sacrament of the Priesthood. He seemed overwhelmed by a boundless sense of responsibility: "Were we to fully realise what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love. ... Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth. ... What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of His goods. ... Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshipping the beasts there. ... The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you". (I understand these quotes are from an entirely different time frame and sound psychotic to modern culture. Since Pope Benedict seems to know this, as he himself says, it's excessive, why use them?)

The letter continues on in this vein for some length, spending a great deal of time on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which Benedict refers to as the Sacrament of Penance, which should tip one to the theology behind the discussion. The three evangelical counsels that the Pope refers to at the beginning of this next extract are poverty, chastity, and obedience:

"In this context of a spirituality nourished by the practice of the evangelical counsels, I would like to invite all priests, during this Year dedicated to them, to welcome the new springtime which the Spirit is now bringing about in the Church, not least through the ecclesial movements and the new communities. (This new spring time, and the new ecclesial movements do not refer to Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, or Pax Christi.)

"In his gifts the Spirit is multifaceted. ... He breathes where He wills. He does so unexpectedly, in unexpected places, and in ways previously unheard of, ... but he also shows us that He works with a view to the one body and in the unity of the one body". In this regard, the statement of the Decree "Presbyterorum Ordinis" continues to be timely: "While testing the spirits to discover if they be of God, priests must discover with faith, recognise with joy and foster diligently the many and varied charismatic gifts of the laity, whether these be of a humble or more exalted kind". ( I wonder how many priests in the West see this passage as something of a curve ball.)

These gifts, which awaken in many people the desire for a deeper spiritual life, can benefit not only the lay faithful but the clergy as well. The communion between ordained and charismatic ministries can provide "a helpful impulse to a renewed commitment by the Church in proclaiming and bearing witness to the Gospel of hope and charity in every corner of the world". (These are just fascinating paragraphs from a Pope who preaches faith must be informed by reason. Maybe he's had the same kind of experience another famous theologian had--Thomas Aquinas. After his great mystical experience Aquinas is reputed to have said "all that I have written is like straw to me compared to what I have seen.")

I would also like to add, echoing the Apostolic Exhortation "Pastores Dabo Vobis" of Pope John Paul II, that the ordained ministry has a radical "communitarian form" and can be exercised only in the communion of priests with their bishop. This communion between priests and their bishop, grounded in the Sacrament of Holy Orders and made manifest in Eucharistic concelebration, needs to be translated into various concrete expressions of an effective and affective priestly fraternity. Only thus will priests be able to live fully the gift of celibacy and build thriving Christian communities in which the miracles which accompanied the first preaching of the Gospel can be repeated. (This has to be a direct message for South American and African priests who are having their issues with celibacy.)


I think this year of the priesthood, and this particular letter, may be the most important signals the Church has been given as to Benedict's understanding of Church, and what we can expect from him in the future. It completely dovetails with what he laid out in his homily at JP II's funeral. The only major difference is this interesting inclusion of charismatic gifts and their importance to the Church. This aspect has to be a direct message for the Southern Church who are hemorrhaging Catholics to the Evangelical movements--movements who claim to have a monopoly on the gifts of the spirit.

From the tone of this letter, we can expect no change in celibacy, no real change in transparency in the management of the priesthood, no change in the Trentan theology of the priesthood, no change in how the laity is perceived, no change in direction with regards to 'secular relativism', no change in governance, and a continued repression of the theology of Vatican II. The magical priesthood will stay magically above us with their ordained power to command God to appear on our behalf.

This means the seminaries will continue to present the Church with a certain percentage of well educated but emotionally and spiritually stunted priests. Young men will continue to be indoctrinated into a stage II kind of spirituality which is incapable of fostering meaningful internal spiritual maturity because the theology is based almost exclusively on externals.

If this trend continues uninterrupted, there will be very few Catholics with access to any of the sacraments. Maybe Benedict is working on a moto proprio to command God to Grace the Mass and other sacraments by satellite TV and email. I can certainly think of a number of bishops who would really get off on this notion of being international TV bishops and Face book stars. What a concept. Come Holy Spirit, fill the airwaves.

Back in the real world, Iran is presenting a very important lesson about this notion of divinely empowered clergy and how devastating it is to women, youth, human rights, and the spiritual life of a people. Instead of waxing eloquently about the Cure' of Ars, perhaps Benedict should pay very close attention to Iran. There are important messages there about just how far a cleric can control people by claiming to speak for God before those people see it's not about God, it's about misusing religious belief to maintain power. For more on those notions, as it applies to the US, see this article.


  1. Well, I am happy that it is a year for priests.

    I would like to be, as Benedict urges at the end of his letter, a herald for the world in our time of hope, reconciliation, and peace.

    Unfortunately for him, I agree with your critique of his letter more than with what Benedict has to say. The pope's words make me wonder again that, perhaps, he belongs to a different world than I do.

    To quickly make my point. I happened upon the picture of Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera in your previous post. Now, how, please tell me, is a priest to be a herald of peace, hope, and reconciliation for an institution represented by THAT image?

    And where did you find that photo?

  2. To be brutally honest - and cognizant of the timing of the inauguration of the Year of the Priest on the heels of the Ryan Report - I find the whole conception of a 'Year of the Priest' utterly repugnant. The words quoted here of Ratzinger, both the overt & those 'between the lines', make matters even worse.

    Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in a attempt to steer the Church back in the direction of the mind of Christ for his Ekklesia. Away from the Imperial Papacy & the virtual (if not literal....)demi-god status enjoyed by priests & bishops & vigorously defended as if 'by Divine Right'. Toward a genuine concern for the poor, in which Jesus taught us to see Him....and through serving them we truly serve Him. Away from the excessive externalism as the object of virtual adoration, and to God as the correct object of adoration.

    Ratzinger, as the love child of Opus Dei, shows in his words & deeds a clear agenda of turning back the clock to the 'good old days' prior to Vatican II, while doing Doublespeak seemingly validating the Council.

    This is called: lying. It is also called: hypocrisy.

    Read between the lines: He presents the priest as the 'gatekeeper to Christ', to whom one must submit in all things, with fawning adulation & OBEDIENCE (!!!!). Translation: the clergy as the true object of faith, not Christ. The priest as 'dispenser of Sacraments' (presumably with an eyedropper) to those he deems 'worthy'.

    As to Confession - excellent point. But let us look at the model of it in the very Early Church:

    At the beginning of mass, the priest would turn toward the people, confess aloud HIS SINS AGAINST THE LAITY & ask their forgivness. Then all, priest & people, would turn toward the altar & bow, kneel, or prostrate themselves - confessing their sins to God in the silence of their hearts. Then the priest would rise and impose (condtional) absolution upon all present. This was part of the Entrance Rite.....of which all that is left now is the Kyrie, with which the Rite would have then concluded. All were shrived of their sins; thus all were cleansed....making the Asperges meaningful....instead of the present silly farce!

    N.B. personal & private Confession was always available for those who WANTED IT. Nobody was FORCED under 'pain of sin' to confide in the priest. It was 'as needed, personally'; totally voluntary spiritual direction.

    It must be remembered that ALL absolution is, literally, "Conditional' - as it is contingent upon the sincerity of the penitent. Which is known but to God & the penitent.

    My personal suggestion would be: return to the Early Church model for the shriving of sins at the beginning of the Mass. This would solve a multitude of emotional, psychological & spiritual issues.

    The 'burden of sin' for those who receive Communion unworthily (whatever the reason) would be where it should be: on the individual. This would eliminate the sheer nonsense of public shaming for those who are deemed 'sinners'.

    ...but then this would spoil all the fun! And put the likes of Fr. Frank Pavone & other radical fanatics out of reach of their $$$ agendas:)

  3. Wild Hair, I found the photo of Canizares on the website I link to in the main article. Believe me when I say this was the best/gentlest of a bad lot. And Benedict does belong to a different world. I described him in my article. A brilliant, well educated but emotionally immature adult. I can understand why, his teen years were chaotic and psychically brutal.

    I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't have some PTSD. However, those aren't qualifications for a true spiritual leader, unless you are forced to work through them. There is nothing in his reported background that leads me to believe he has ever worked through any of it, or even thought he needed to. That's the trouble with his theology, it's loaded with excuses to avoid real self examination. The true spiritual path calls for reconciling with yourself and God, not substituting penance.

  4. Anonymous, I hope you don't mind if in a future post I quote your information on the original initial part of the Mass. This is actually how I was taught in my graduate school days. Not the part about the priest confessing to the laity, but the part about conditional absolution.

    As a shrink, this always made so much sense to me, and I kind of used the same thinking with some of my overly guilt ridden clients. I would sort of give them a general absolution for repetitive offenses so we could get to the progress part of their therapy.

    I've always considered the Mass a form of Spiritual therapy, but then I've also been told I'm kind of strange in that I tend to think any social interaction can be a chance for therapy and growth.

    I don't attend Mass now, and I won't until there is some sort of theology which acknowledges that spritual growth is an outcome of choice and not coercion. This is why I am pro choice and also pro life. You can't meaningfully choose to honor life if you have no meaningful choice.

    Thanks for your comment.

  5. By all means, feel free to quote what I said, if it might be of some help.

    Yes, all Absolution - even in the conventional Confessional setting - is literally 'Conditional'. You will even find that in older catechisms (though you may have to read between the lines......). But it is a spiritual & theological truth.

    As to the bit about the priest asking the forgiveness of the ppl for whatever he might have done to them to wrong or offend, this existed more in the Eastern Churches. It is also - if sincere - a wonderful exercise in humility.

    ...and would go a long way to rebuild trust between priest & lay person!

    When I was in grade school, I recall being taught about the ancient form of the penitential rite by the nuns.....but sort of hushed, as if they were almost to admit this was true, historically.
    Also, they were similarly both hushed & appeared to be under stress, when telling us that 'venial sins are still forgiven in the penitential rite'. They would later deny (to me) having said this. Curious. It seems that the latter was an 'underground' concept being spread around the end of V2.

    But now ask yourself this question: in the Divine Vespers or Compline, said before sleep, the leader/abbot/abbess says the same line as that which ORIGINALLY followed the Confiteor in the Mass:

    "May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, & bring you unto everlasting life. May the Almighty & merciful Lord grant you pardon, absolution, & remission of all your sins".

    Praytell...what is the point of this, if sins are not thus forgiven? It mirrors closely the Confessional formulary for Absolution!

    In this, the Vatican is playing at words........either your sins are or are not forgiven. There is no third option!

    You will find it VERY difficult to research & verify this online, as info on this seems to have been either stripped from the web, or hidden.

    Yet, we do know that the Kyrie is 'all which is left of 'a much longer & more elaborate penitential rite'.

  6. Very well said. The narcissism is well noted, and the fact that the Vianney discourse on the power of the priest (a discourse unheard in the mainstream of the Roman Church since 1962) does indeed come across as psychotic today. The Pope's letter invites psychoanalytical rather than theological commentary.

  7. It's really quite revealing that the Pope chose the Cure D'Ars death anniversary for his "Year of the Priest" monologue.

    The Cure D'Ars is very representative of a type of Catholicism long vanished from Europe, a type that represented pre-industrial religion.

    The Cure was not a highly educated man, not very theologically sophisticated. His piety was quite simple and direct and based on the manuals of theology of the day. Those manuals were quite rigid and moralistic especially with anything to do with sexuality.

    I don't think the hiearchy had any interest in him. After all, he was just a peasant. He was sent off to an obscure area, far from any possibility of advancement and influence. Despite this he managed to influence a great number of people, this in a period when France was still recovering from the Revolution.

    He is a saint but he's not really the type for the modern age. I don't think he can be an examplar for modern priest, ( the hair-shirts, self-flaggelation and diet of potatoes would certainly be viewed by most as being extreme if not an indication of mental illness).

    So, why did the Pope urge this unusual man as an examplar? I don't think it was his piety but rather his obedience to the ancien regime notion of priesthood where the priest, in good feudal manners, intermediates between the people and the Divine Lord.

    Nothing wrong with that in a feudal age. But we're in modern times, with democracy, high education, mass information, mis-information etc;, psychology, etc; etc;.

    I think the Pope harks back to those times.

    The more he harks back, the more the Church disappears.

  8. There's more's to this John Vianney thing because Sunday Benedict went to pay homage to Padre Pio, another pietistic darling of the traditional set and a priest very much in keeping with the whole notion of confessing to priests. That I think is the gist of this year of the priest for Benedict--re establishing the primacy of the priest by banging on the notion of private confession as necessary for reception of the Eucharist.

    The other common denominator in these two priests was there psychic/spiritual ability. I could go on at great length about how the two were also candidates for mental institutions, and that is not to knock their spiritual/psychic connections. There are tons of psychically gifted psychotics on the streets and in institutions. It doesn't make them saintly role models.

    For some reason Native Americans have made this connection far faster than western culture. I had one elder tell me the best way to shut down spiritual connections is to give someone zyprexa. Interestingly enough this was validated to me by a pharmaceutical rep who said Pfizer's own studies showed this is exactly what happened.

    He never did say why they did these studies, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the funding didn't come from the NSA.

    In any event I would bet a boat load of money on the fact Padre Pio would have stopped being Padre Pio if he had been given zyprexa. Which leads to a veritable boatload of questions as to how spiritual talent really works. It ain't all about God.