"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Living mystery

Diogenes at Off the Record, a blogging Catholic priest whose favored tone is mordant sarcasm, sometimes manages to combine that with profundity in a way I find irresistible. I invite readers savor this instance with me.

Commenting on the latest book by Donald Cozzens, a prog priest whose caginess impressed me when I read an earlier book of his, Diogenes first says:

Fr. Donald Cozzens puts me in mind of one of those divers who takes higher and higher bounces on the springboard until he has everybody's attention, but then kills his jump, walks back off the board and robes up, still dry. As an author, he's penned a series of Prolegomena to Daring Stances, in each of which we are threatened with imminent candor. And spared. Recently Cozzens allowed himself to be interviewed about his latest book, Freeing Celibacy. No, he isn't calling for an end to mandatory celibacy. He says it needs to be "reviewed."

Anybody who follows these things knows what "reviewed" really means. But Cozzens isn't the sort to just come out and say it. He accomplishes more, or thinks he does, by seeming prudent, moderate, sagacious. So, in a promotional interview he says things like: "Many, if not most, of the inactive priests would be serving in our parishes if it were not for the law of celibacy." And this: "Celibacy used to go with priesthood as fish went with Fridays. Over the past 40 to 50 years, I would argue that more and more Catholics are questioning the need to link celibacy with priesthood." This sort of thing is not exactly unique. It is one symptom of a more general spiritual problem in the Catholic priesthood that is instantly recognizable in Diogenes's description:

We're all familiar with Cozzens's attitude, though perhaps most of us meet it in the celebrant at Mass. It's not as if they're obviously bored or perfunctory, but somehow they communicate the feeling that the real business takes place somewhere else. They seem bewildered, not by the meaning of Calvary exactly, but that the faithful would find it important. They don't understand genuflections or silences or prayers said kneeling. They're embarrassed by awe. Their breeziness at the altar as well as the velcro on their vestments shows that, for them, the whole golgotha/sacrifice/wine-into-blood thing is No Big Deal.

Their priesthood means something different to them than it does, say, to the faithful that show up at Mass during the week, whose eyes tend to focus on host and chalice. It's a priesthood in which the gift shop and the altar are simply two ways of reaching out to spiritual needs. It's a priesthood in which there's no damnation from which souls need to be rescued, a priesthood in which acceptance of self is more urgent than contrition. Small wonder if, for Cozzens's generation of priests, asceticism in general -- and celibacy in particular -- is hard to make sense of.

I don't know about you, but I can't tell you how many times, in my four-and-a-half decades as an active Catholic, I have encountered just that attitude in Catholic priests at Masses, at campus ministries, at academic conferences, and even in the confessional. It wasn't just there either.

As an adolescent in the early 1970s who had been abused by a priest as a pubescent, I gradually rediscovered and embraced my Catholic faith through prayer, reading, and a great hunger for authenticity. I was led to want to give my life to God, and I did so more in spite of than because of the clergy I knew. Yet the half-dozen or so apparently untainted priests I approached about the priesthood, over a three-to-four year period, seemed indifferent at best. They never quite said I didn't have a vocation; it was more that they seemed unable to understand why I would be interested. An attractive, intelligent young fellow like me could get married and become a well-earning professional, after all; why was I talking about spending my life in a way that would entail sacrificing such things? Was I trying to avoid real relationships, real work? I was urged to get my college degree; then to do post-graduate work of my choice; then to shed any debts; then to do the psych evals; then...well, you get the picture. Each time I left the meetings, and them, slightly bewildered. It wasn't that their concerns were off-base, exactly. Many were legitimate. But they didn't seem to give any weight to the real reasons I was interested in the priesthood. Only one even found them worth acknowledging.

With a nascent adult faith, I believed that Catholicism is true. Accordingly, I not only believed but felt that the truths and values which it conveys, and which are visibly embodied in the ministry of the sacramental priesthood, are, quite objectively, the most important truths and values in the world. That was why I wanted to be a priest. I couldn't think of anywhere near as worthwhile a way to spend my life. Of course I had a problem with celibacy. Not with the discipline itself, which I admired and wished to emulate; but like many young men who have considered the priesthood—including some priests—I doubted my ability to live it. I looked for a priest who would help me with that issue, perhaps by being or pointing me to a spiritual director who could aid my discernment and teach me sound spiritual disciplines. None did, or even showed much interest in doing so. So eventually I concluded that I did not have a vocation to the priesthood. I never lost my interest, but I could find no other way to explain why I wasn't getting anywhere with it. In my mid-20s, I acted accordingly and got married for the first time.

Looking back, I now believe my conclusion was premature. Whatever my own personal issues may have been, there was a problem with the priests I had approached, a problem that Diogenes describes in general terms and that I believe accounts in large measure for the dearth of vocations we saw in the last quarter of the 20th century. The sex-abuse scandal was only the most extreme manifestation of it. The problem was, and in some quarters still is, that the men in question did not have a lively enough faith to fully appreciate what they were and live accordingly.

Diogenes concludes his post as follows:

For a radically contrary view, compare the following remark of Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard (Archbishop of Paris 1940-1949), from a retreat he gave to his own clergy, published in a book called Priests Among Men:

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist.

Suppose the Church took the advice of her Cozzenses and, having "reviewed" the discipline in question, made the change to optional priestly celibacy. To whom would the change appear as eminently sensible? What would the new witnesses be witnesses to?

The questions virtually answer themselves, of course. The reasons why indicate that the attitude Cardinal Suhard described should be the attitude of every baptized Christian adult, not just of every ordained priest. Each of us share, in some small measure, in the priesthood of Christ. I'm not the priest I should be yet: to most people who do not know me well or at all, my life makes perfect sense as that of a broke divorcĂ©. But I strive for more, in prayer and in penance. My life is such that I don't need a special ascetical regimen to do that. And I trust that, to some who do know me well, my life would not make sense if God did not exist. Like others who want to be intentional disicples, and thus share in Christ's priesthood, I can be a living mystery by living the mystery of the Truth revealed to us through the Church. That is my goal. If the Cozzens of the world were as committed to that goal as their own vocations call for, there would be no clamor for making celibacy optional—and no shortage of worthy priests in the Catholic Church.

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