There are conflicts of perception and priorities in the life and ministry of priests today, especially during these Covid-19 pandemic times. We have to accept this fact honestly and face it squarely. How do priests understand their own roles today and what is the expectation of the laity from the priests? But we will be completely off the point if we attempt at an answer before we ask a few other questions. How do the Gospels present the role of a priest? In what way did Christ, the only High Priest, exercise his Priesthood? What do we mean and communicate when we define priest as ‘another Christ’ or representative of Christ? We will attempt to deal with these questions without going into a comprehensive exposition of the theology and spirituality of priesthood.
I would like to emphasize three observations or presuppositions.
First of all , we underscore the fact that our reflection on the role and task of priests today – for that matter at any time of history – should be based on the Gospel perception and should never contradict it, viz. the personal life and ministry of Jesus.
Secondly , the image and functioning of the Church also should be part of our reflection, because a priest is situated primarily in the ecclesial community, although certainly not limited to it.
Thirdly , we should make a distinction between priests who are directly called for and committed to the pastoral service to the people (i.e., secular, diocesan and priests of communities of apostolic life) and the monks and hermits who may also be ordained priests, but are not first and foremost ordained for pastoral, administrative and organizational responsibilities in the Church.
In such cases, priests are ordained for the spiritual and sacramental care of their own religious community. The so-called apostolic religious are living a sort of an amphibian life, but their pastoral involvement is usually limited by persons, time and place. That means, according to the need of the time and place, some of them may be allowed/requested to be avant-garde pastors to fill the gap of the secular/diocesan priests. Canon Law has clear distinctions in this regard.
The ‘eclipse of God’ in the temple of worship
Let’s begin with the basic questions that are raised these days: Where are our priests now, especially since we don’t find them where they used to be? What are our priests doing now, since they are not doing what they used to be doing all the time? They are not seen in their vestments, they are not seen in the church!
Why are those preachers, miracle workers and visionaries absconding, though they always claimed to have a hotline, a direct link, with God? On further thought, we realize that these are reflections of the questions about God Himself!
Where is God when we are in most need of Him? In the place of ‘ an epiclesis of God’, we are confronted with ‘an eclipse of God’! In the same way, we are experiencing ‘an eclipse of priests’ too. Suddenly they have become invisible and inadequate to face the current challenges. The empty skyscraper basilicas remind us of the wailing wall (of Herod’s temple) of Jerusalem.
Remember, during the time of Jesus too, there was an eclipse of the real and true God, and correspondingly, an eclipse of true priests and prophets. The God, exposed and adored in Jerusalem temple, was not primarily the God of the poor and the downtrodden. He was not the God present with the people of Israel in Egyptian slavery and Babylonian exile. He was not the God of Jesus Christ too. The temple of Jerusalem was not central to the life and ministry of Jesus.
The real God, the God who walked with our first parents in paradise, and the God, who intervened in real history and liberated an enslaved people from Egypt, was kept hidden behind all sorts of legal and liturgical paraphernalia. Jesus did not mince His words while criticizing the leaders for their indifference to the suffering of His people and their arrogance and audacity as well as their exhibition of extravagance in lifestyle (cfr. Mt 23). However, remember that there were many simple people as well as people of goodwill, from all walks of life, who recognized the presence and action of God in the person of Jesus, the true incarnation of God.
Hence, we see ‘an eclipse’ of a particular notion of God and his priests during the lifetime of Jesus. Instead, Jesus facilitated ‘an epiclesis’ of the true God in and through his ministry. It was ‘an anamnesis’ (a reminder and a revelation) of the true God of love and compassion, the God of exodus and the God of the prophets, the God who loves and nourishes His people and the world they live in.
1. The context of the Priest and his ministry in India
Paulachan Kochappilly (Dharmaram, Bangalore), in an enlightening and thought-provoking article “Whither the Church in India”, published in Jeevadhara (July 2019), narrates the malaise afflicting the Church in India.
Let me quote some of the crucial issues he raises: “… misconceptions of our mission, parochial mindedness, domination of priests and indifference of the laity, pomp and show of our pastors, our faulty attitudes towards politics, insufficient interest in social activities, reluctance to take a stand on the side of the workers and the poor, ( …) a relish for power and glory, bane institutionalism, too much diplomacy among bishops and priests, a lack of Church consciousness as a pilgrim people on earth, etc.” What brings us to a disillusion is the fact that these allegations/self-criticisms have been repeatedly raised from the time of the All India Seminar conducted in the late sixties under the inspiration and leadership of late Fr. Amalorpavadas and a few others.
Paulachan points out four major setbacks in the Catholic Church, in which the clergy is directly involved.
First , the recent sex and financial scandals precipitate the anger and anxiety of a large section of the Faithful, undermining the integrity and credibility of the ministers of the Church.
Second , an unhealthy and irreligious trend that has been growing in our ecclesial life is the craze in and race for constructing huge and highly expensive luxurious places of worship.
Third , there is dwindling enthusiasm, energy and zeal for evangelization, which is the mission of the Church, the very reason for her existence. In the past few decades there has been no concerted official effort to redefine the content and style of evangelization in the multicultural, multireligious Indian context. It is unchristian to equate evangelization with expansion of the Church in area and number. (Unfortunately, while the Latin Catholic Church in India has been plagued with a ‘territorial-possession mania’, the Oriental Catholic Churches are possessed with an ‘expansion mania’! Both are neglecting the call to be authentically Christian in their life and ministry.)
Fourth , authoritarianism and arrogance are on the increase while accountability and transparency are on the decline. I suppose that an elaboration with examples is unnecessary here.
I would like to add a fifth one, i.e., there is a growing confusion and competition between the clergy, religious and laity. For example, the religious priests want to administer parishes, the secular priests want to be formators of the religious, and the clergy – both secular and religious – feel commissioned to be mentors of women – both religious and lay.
Interestingly, it is not a competition in which the three groups – the secular priests, the religious and the laity – are trying to protect and fight for their specific identity and unique contribution in their respective field of apostolate; on the contrary, everybody is trying to do everything they can get hold of in the Church. Even some of the lay leaders prefer to step into the clerical shoes, rather than take pride in their own dignity of being a layman/laywoman.
The new questions raised and the challenges posed
With this brief description of the situation of the Church in India, with special reference to the clergy, we shall examine the role and ministry of priests in India, especially in the Covid-19 context.
All of us will agree that we are in an exceptional situation and that will warrant us to engage in extraordinary ministries and to set up short-term priorities, until the situation gets normalized. However, what is happening in the Church in the past three months has great significance and should not be just brushed away from our minds.
I see certain indications and inspirations for the evolution of a new Church, and correspondingly a new priesthood, more agile, more engaged, more transparent and accountable, more participatory and dialogical, as well as more ecumenical and inclusive.
(1) ‘An inclusive secular spirituality’ emerging?
Many believers have started thinking on a deeper level about their own identity and engagements, priorities and preferences, relationships and friendships, lifestyle and food habits, etc. What has been taken for granted for long is now taken under the lens in order to examine the de-facto situation of our personal lives, relationship with family members, co-workers, co-religionists, neighbours, etc.
A close observation of nature reveals that the earth and the atmosphere are recharging their energy and there are signs of improvement of environmental health. People are realizing their intimate relation with nature and what it produces for their food. Even the food habits are changing – viz., NO to junk food and YES to home-made healthy food and drink. It is no more difficult to find out that we have been using and spending too much without proportionate returns. We are invited and challenged to reflect on the meaning of expressions like, ‘small is beautiful’, ‘simple lifestyle makes life enjoyable’, ‘sharing and partaking bring more joy than accumulation’, ‘take your time rather than waste your life in haste’, ‘to stress and to fret leads to distress and disruption of harmony’, ‘consider not merely my affordability, but also accountability to the society’, ‘by fighting alone we despair, but together we shall repair the world’, ‘we need to overcome the ‘TINA’ syndrome (There Is No Alternative) and adopt the ‘TIAA’ slogan (There Is An Alternative)’, etc.
My basic questions in our present context may be framed as: Can’t we discover ‘ an inclusive secular spirituality’ behind these expressions, if adopted and lived as free choices? Does it in any way contradict the spirituality lived by Jesus? On the contrary, is it not really close to the Christian perception of a moral-spiritual life? If so, what is the role of a priest in this gradually emerging inclusive spirituality? Can a priest assume the role of a protagonist and facilitator without in any way trying to be possessive and dominating the scenario?
(2) Inter-religious sensibility and collaboration
The Covid-19 pandemic has opened up a great opportunity for reform of life with reorientation of priorities. Experts in the field of economy, medicine, education, psychology, geopolitics, ecology, etc., have warned with substantiating evidence that the world will never be the same again at least for the next decade. My apprehension is that , from the part of the Church and Spirituality, we have not given sufficient thought to innovative possibilities and pro-active interactions with people of other religions.
The new situation puts all religions in the same boat – what was thought of as indispensable and obligatory are dispensed with and at least temporarily discarded. People of all religions stand helpless before the threat of the virus, irrespective of the colour of their skin, the dress they wear, the food they take, the ideology they profess, the education they have, the language they speak, the faith and religion they cherish and the liturgies they celebrate.
It will be a colossal loss if we miss this opportunity, hoping to return to the usual routine as early as possible. I would like to underline the fact that so many WhatsApp groups came up spontaneously and sporadically to provide urgent help to people who are caught up in the after-effects of the pandemic – probably much more, due to the consequences of ‘Lockdown’ at the national level. People of all religions, languages, regions and ideologies joined together to provide transport and other amenities to the hapless panic-stricken daily labourers (who are wrongly called ‘migrant workers’) across the length and breadth of India. There have also been numerous people providing food-packets as well as cooked food to the poor workers in the unorganized sector, who are out of job and suddenly thrown on the roads in the scorching heat of the midsummer. This concerted action is an eye-opener to people who look for new expressions of ‘down-to-earth’ spirituality, rooted in our common humanity. Many Christians, including bishops, priests and religious, have been in the forefront in providing such service.
In this context, the question is: What has been the role of a priest in this whole adventurous, unparalleled programme of inter-religious collaboration. Are we not somehow still guided by the principle of “do it alone or leave it”? Our recent popes have been encouraging the Faithful to seek and promote the collaboration of all people of goodwill for the good of the humanity. Are our priests functioning as promoters or roadblocks for such collaborations? I feel that we need to pursue this matter much more intensely in the near future.(3) Has our contemplative tradition gone sterile?
Many priests are feeling ill at ease with the solitude and silence during the ‘lockdown period’ forced upon them by the civil authority. Instead of making use of the time creatively to initiate personalized spiritual accompaniment and care to the most deserving families or individuals through phone and possibilities in the internet, many priests, I’m afraid, are tempted to waste away their precious time irresponsibly.
When people were looking for consolation and encouragement to solve their spiritual and psychological problems during the quarantine or ‘lockdown’ period, the Church, in spite of her centuries-long experience and expertise in ‘voluntary isolation’ of contemplative life in hermitages and monasteries, was conspicuous by her absence. In fact, astronauts were approached for advice on ‘how to survive lockdown and social distancing’, since it is part of their training for space travel!
The Church was either busy with online liturgy and devotion, bible quiz and retreats, as well as meeting the material needs of the people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This is definitely a praiseworthy service and the Catholic Church is second to none, as far as the humanitarian relief service is concerned.
(4) A deeper insight into the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist and the Confession is in place. The absence of liturgical celebrations and non-reception of sacraments invite us to examine honestly what we miss and whether we miss something! Online mass with live telecast is not new because there have been many channels offering it for the benefit of the elderly as well as sick people, for whom physical participation in the Eucharistic celebration is not possible. Now during these pandemic-affected days, online mass has gradually become a convenient substitute for the celebration of the Eucharist. In fact I was shocked when someone told me a few weeks ago: “Honestly we can’t complain about the present arrangement. We don’t miss the mass; rather now we have a larger choice – we can attend the mass of the pope, or a bishop or a priest of our choice, at a time convenient for us, we don’t have to mess up with all sorts of people, and the mother superior will distribute the consecrated host at the end of the mass”!
Now what is the understanding of the Eucharist? What about the breaking of the word and breaking of the bread that has to take place in the context of the community and for the building up of the community? The sacrament is being reduced to a magical devotional practice. Sometimes I feel that Eucharistic adoration and procession are given more prominence than the sacrament of the Eucharist itself! These devotions developed in history as a reaction against those who doubted the continued real presence of Christ in the Eucharist after the celebration of the sacrifice of the mass. Honestly, I think that we have not given sufficient thought to the theology of the Eucharist and the pastoral consequences or repercussions of propagating online mass. At the same time, I should admit that there have been many useful and valuable attempts to give online retreats, recollections and discussions. I am sure that many have profited from the same.
(5) Leadership without clericalism is possible. The Christian concept of priesthood is diametrically opposed to clericalism, to be more precise the male chauvinism and clericalism fused into male clerical domination. Probably this has done the most serious damage to the image of priest and Church itself. As Pope Francis points out repeatedly, clericalism is a cancer that endangers the Church today, because it is expressing its domination not merely in the liturgical life, but in the language, dress, behaviour and lifestyle of the priests.
The four pillars of any established religion are the famous/notorious four Cs – Creed, Cult, Code and Community. The priest teaches what to believe; he leads the cult and determines the details of it; he makes the laws, interprets them and judges on the basis of these laws; and he understands the community as those who are in tune with his whims and fancies!
Excuse me for exaggerating a little bit, but see how terrible and lamentable the situation is! In all these four aspects or levels of religion, the ordinary Faithful, especially women, have been exposed to the domination of male priests. I don’t say that it is a consciously chosen exploitative malpractice and obsessive oppression typical of the Church.
I would say that the system and tradition have grown to such an extent that the meritorious examples of numerous good and holy priests go unnoticed. Priest defamation novels become best sellers easily, whereas the biographies of saints are not sought after. [However, I should acknowledge that the heroic examples of the recently canonized saints St. Damien of Molokai and St. Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the non-canonised martyrs Fr. Arul Doss and Fr. A.T. Thomas, as well as my friend, a champion of the rights of the poor and marginalized, Fr. Thomas Kochery, who had to undergo indescribable agonies at different times in his life, attract appreciation beyond the boundaries of Catholic Church.]
The Covid-19 pandemic gave the Church an opportunity to reflect on the real Gospel understanding of priestly leadership and an invitation to return to live it concretely.
Avery Dulles gives seven models of the Church, but there is only one acceptable model of leadership in the Church; it is the leadership exercised by Jesus Christ, viz., servant leadership.
The leadership is embodied in the parable of the Good Shepherd who risks his life and sheepfold in order to regain the lost sheep, and expressed in Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, an example without parallels. A priest need not be always successful; he need not know all the answers; he need not be the strongest, and he may not be even the holiest. But he has to be authentic and sincere; he has to be forgiving and seeking forgiveness; he has to be praying and inspiring others to pray; he has to be transparent and accountable; he has to intercede before God for his people; and he has to be available and amiable.
Dorothy Sayers writes about three humiliations of God, viz., the incarnation (solidarity with humanity), the cross (solidarity in suffering) and the wounded Church (solidarity with the sinful believers). A priest also will have to participate in these humiliations and sufferings of Christ, knowing and accepting them as salvific and life-giving. When tempted with clericalism, let priests remember that the Biblical heroes, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, Mary and a number of others were not triumphant heroes but survivors of the silence of God; most of the saints and martyrs did not have a halo over their head while on earth, instead they had to undergo ‘the dark night of the soul’. This is the privilege of participation in the salvific death and resurrection of Christ, the Messiah.
(6) Luxury and extravaganza are real sins in a world in which the majority are faced with deprivation and impoverishment. The forced constraints in the number of participants in religious festivals, ordinations, religious professions, marriages and other family festivities and even funerals during this Covid-19 pandemic would hopefully provide us an occasion to check the extravaganza of our own celebrations – from birthdays to parish feasts. We notice that these celebrations often reach absurd levels. Even the Church leaders are tempted to go for the maximum allowed/possible rather than be joyful with the minimum necessary. I narrate this in order to remind ourselves that priests have a definitive role and a moral responsibility to dissuade people from all sorts of extravaganza in the context of widespread and increasing poverty and deprivation. Only a priest who is happy with the minimum necessary for life and shares joyfully what he has can convincingly persuade the people to simple life and social responsibility.
(7) The ‘Ghar Wapsi March’ of the so-called ‘migrant workers’ has opened our eyes to the dismal situation of the huge number of unorganized workers – almost four crores – and the exploitation and insults they are exposed to. Often they are not treated any better than beggars and criminals! Arrogant and inhuman treatment meted out to them, dismal disregard for their security and dignity, and the sheer hunger and thirst pushing some of them to a miserable death on the road, will remain an aching sore wound on the conscience of the people of India for a long time.
Their transportation back home was a fiasco and utter failure from the part of the central government, which declared the lockdown that caught people unawares like thunderbolt. It was the voluntary groups and NGOs that came to their help. They did praiseworthy service to numerous displaced hapless workers. For example, a WhatsApp group called “Indian Migrants Transport,” comprising of some 200 people, has been doing an unparalleled humanitarian service irrespective of caste and creed, gender and language, in various cities of India, where the politicians and bureaucrats have been shirking away from their obligatory responsibilities.
They have been facilitating transportation and providing food for the workers to reach their homes safe. In my own diocese, the bishop, priests, religious and laity joined hands to help these people on the road in scorching heat with free food and transportation till the borders of the state. Many dioceses and other religious groups came forward with such initiatives.
It is a crude joke to call these workers ‘migrants’ in their own country. They are citizens of India, entitled to live and work anywhere in India without discrimination or intimidation. Living in their midst and interacting with them, how do we understand to be a Church of the poor and with the poor? When we think for a moment what Jesus would have done in such a situation, the priests of Jesus can’t sit comfortably in their rooms; they cannot but feel challenged to be on the roads to seek and save them as our brothers and sisters, to break bread with them, to share our food and drink with them. Will it not be the celebration of the Eucharist on the road, where Jesus would become present in our midst and our hearts would burn with compassionate love!
2. By way of conclusion:
Now, coming back to our first question: Where do you place your priorities – a priest of God or a priest for the people? The New Testament doesn’t present a cultic priest, but a prophetic priest. His place of activity is not limited to the church and its liturgy, but the wide world, the whole creation of God. Hence, to be a priest of God and to be priest for the people are two sides of the same coin. However, both in the beatitudes (Mt 5 and Lk 6) and in the description of the last judgment (Mt 25,31 ff) Jesus makes a clear prioritization through what he says and what he does not say! Only when a priest lives for and serves the people, he becomes a priest of God!(Published on 22nd June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 26)