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.