The Catholic Thing
Picking the Low-hanging Fruit Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 23 September 2012

At the end of the 2009/2010 Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI remarked: “The priest is not a mere office-holder, like those which every society needs in order to carry out certain functions. Instead, he does something which no human being can do of his own power: in Christ’s name he speaks the words which absolve us of our sins and in this way he changes, starting with God, our entire life. . . . As priests, we want to be persons who share his concern for men and women, who take care of them and provide them with a concrete experience of God’s concern.” He meant not only some men and women, certainly not only those who schedule an appointment or who come to Mass.

History shows that tens of millions of U. S. Catholics have been missed or badly served over the years: the families who don’t go to Mass; the politicians with bad theology; the divorced who are not re-catechized; the religious congregations gone astray; the universities who have repudiated their Catholic foundations; the ideological activism in the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ staff; dioceses using textbooks and courses that are not orthodox. The list is shameful – and long. This has happened at least for the last sixty years and, aside from some initiatives by individual clergy, the mess has grown without much comment let alone responsible action.

The Catholic Church in America is so large that there is a whole intra-institutional life consisting of angling for promotions, the old-boy network, the gay network, the bourgeois lifestyle, and the resulting conflicts, all taking enormous amounts of time away from the essentially outward-looking service to the whole of humanity in this country. Distractions often arise in any large bureaucracy, but in the Church they frustrate the spiritual dynamic of a clerical institution.

Its true nature is holy! A clerical institution is founded on the fact that: “Whatever the field of activity entrusted to him, the priest, with the Lord, ought to be able to say: ‘I know my sheep and mine know me.’ ‘To know,’ in the idiom of sacred Scripture, never refers to merely exterior knowledge, like the knowledge of someone’s telephone number. ‘Knowing’ means being inwardly close to another person. It means loving him or her. We should strive to ‘know’ men and women as God does and for God’s sake; we should strive to walk with them along the path of God's friendship.” (Benedict XVI) This is where the secular corporate way of thinking falls on its face.

So where is the knowing core of human beings totally committed to the service of others? There are some such persons, certainly, but why aren’t the majority of clergy or trained laity seeking out the poor; making approaches to politicians; reaching out to every family that never goes to Church; teaching classes for the divorced; reworking the religious institutions that have become mere agents of the culture; recasting Catholic universities according to Ex Corde Ecclesiae; reviewing processes in the Bishops’ Conference?

            I Am the Good Shepherd (Alfred Handel, St. John the Baptist Church, New South Wales)

Where are the public statements in every diocese on the serious issues of the day; the reviews of catechetics programs that actually examine individual textbooks and individual lessons? And much more. Since we are all answerable for all of the baptized – and for preaching the Good News to all nations – these are not trivial questions.

At a guess the U. S. clergy – religious and diocesan – serve 20 percent of the baptized. When did this become acceptable? And directly related to that, why is it that there is such a cringing fear of challenging people on their understanding of Catholicism? Resignation has set in that most baptized people are not going to be served, ever.

Part of this passivity lies in the widespread concession that the Church in America is just one institution among many in this nation, and so should fall in line with the other institutions and operate as they do. This misconstrues the nature of institutions in society in general and particularly the U. S. Catholic Church as an institution.

While the Church is technically an institution, it is unlike any of the ones around it. Hence, as Pope Benedict asked at his meeting with representatives of the Evangelical Church: “God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith?”

Yielding dilutes the faith and the actual day-to-day presence of the Church in society. And contrary to expectations, it does not keep more people in the fold. Why go to Church for what everyone in society is already saying? So who is going to challenge business people, and government people and teenagers and families? Who is going to reach out to the uncatechized and the poor in a personal way?

Pope Benedict’s closing words in his address were: “Help us priests, so that we can remain beside the persons entrusted to us in these dark nights. So that we can show them your [Christ’s] own light.”

Many, many people have been entrusted to us. We will answer for how we serve them.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 23, 2012
A good place to start might be to re-emphasize the idea of the territorial ministry. In France, it is common for a priest to distinguish between his parishioners and his congregation, the former including everyone living in his parish.In this way, he acknowledges that he owes duties to both.
written by Jack,CT, September 23, 2012
No there is no joy comparable to that which the
truly poor in spirit experience." "Hay worker

throws flowers on my lap,perhaps believing
these will inspire poetic thoughts"
"I do not have the joy of FAITH ,I am trying
to carry out the works anyway"
-ST Therese, (Our little flower)
"help us Priests,so that we can remain the
person beside the persons entrusted to us
Father you provoked my memorys of reading
"our little flowers" words of her "Dark
Night of the soul",Do we have a Country
suffering from a "Dark Night" of the Soul?

Father I read your article x3, it was so
I want to thankyou for saying what you
said so plainly, just as St Therese would
Lord we all seek spiritual perfection? NO we do Not!
God bless,Have a wonderful sunday all.
written by David Mayeux, September 23, 2012

Well, if all those priests have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours and thus reading Augustine's Sermon on Pastors of late, they wouldn't need to be reminded of their duties!

But I wonder if your keen insight on this, in part, stems from your consecration to an order of priests and brothers. While all priests carry the obligations you mention by virtue of their Holy Orders, belonging to an order such as the OMI, a Benedictine Abbey, Augustinians, Dominican or Friars Minor, etc, by vows of obedience to a Rule of life gives priests the discipline and perspective to see exactly what your writing on. St Benedict's Rule comes particularly to my mind for it frequently exhorts the Abbot to care for his flock, reminding him that he shall answer not only for himself, but for all the brothers in his care at the Judgment.
written by Manfred, September 23, 2012
The Blessed Mother, after they had been prepared for a year by the guardian angel of Portugal, appeared on July 13, 1917 and showed three young children a vision of Hell and souls and devils in it. The point: Hell exists, people's souls go there. Devotion to Our Lady of Fatima flourished for forty years. In 1957, one of these children, now Carmelite Sister Lucia, told Fr. Fuentes, her confessor, that "a Divine punishment was imminent." Shortly, a theory of Hell was introduced by certain theologians (Rahner?) that: "while we have to believe that Hell exists, we do not have to believe that anyone is sent there." This deliberately contraverts the message of Fatima. We live in the period of "diabolical disorientation" which Lucia also foretold. As Fr. Bramwell points out so well "Many people have been entrusted to us. We will answer for how we serve them." In my opinion, the punishment of the leadership of the last sixty years will be horrific.
written by Dave, September 23, 2012
Father, if I may, it strikes me that rather than being an institution, the Church is a society within a society; and, like any society, is supported by internal institutions that give structure and direction to its movement. Mr. Mayeux's comments are interesting, but, sadly, the number of religious orders and congregations that have not been faithful to the Magisterium, and to the person and office of the Holy Father, are legion. The Church and all of her institutions -- her organs of governance, her religious orders, congregations and institutes, her exterior works of mercy (hospitals and schools, chiefly) exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to introduce people to Jesus Christ in the fulness of His Gospel and to the sacraments that conform us to Him. This includes giving people the formation to pick up the Cross and follow him -- to engage in ways of knowing God, the world and self that are counter-intuitive and that cut against our desire for comfort -- a comfort which, in the end, is nothing more than stasis. We have allowed the institutions to become ends in themselves; and we have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon and therefore captive to public largesse -- through direct and indirect grants, through tax breaks, and other mechanisms -- in order to finance the operation of our institutions. Most notably, and harkening back to the infamous Land-o-Lakes Statement, we have given in to human respect. Thus we are acting against our own raison d'etre and only its rediscovery will help us clear the cobwebs and pick up the Cross. Our Lord said those who were not against Him were for Him. He also said those who were not for Him were against Him. We clearly are living in times that harken to the latter saying, and so we Christians -- laity too, and, perhaps, laity especially, for we get the priests we deserve -- need to step up to the plate and pay the price of discipleship, come what may.
written by Fr. Bramwell, September 23, 2012
Dave my last column was on discipleship. This time I have tried to put it in the ecclesial context. The Catholic Church could have made this nation a much better one if it had not largely decided to simply acquiesce to the things that occupy the culture and to not go beyond them. Some people write about a new religion - it happens in many countries - that really mixes sacred and secular elements so that the churches blend in with the culture and do not make waves.
written by Graham Combs, September 23, 2012
I've never understood the shocked Catholic reaction that followed Washington's actions this past January. The Church has been ceding ground for decades. It's depressing to hear a life-long Catholic (and I'm a convert) say that her previous pastor didn't want to run a parochial school. Perhaps ending all war forever and ever; creating a nuclear-free world that, you know, won't have war for ever and ever; and ending poverty while opposing economic development and building giant pinwheels has to be more interesting. Where does it say anywhere that Mankind would create Peace. And as we abort our country into senescence Church leaders do not want to hurt the feelings of the President or his unthinking and unfeeling supporters. When you read Paul you don't get the impression that diplomacy was high on his list of concerns, yet many of his successors appear to be a diplomatic corp more comfortable at Foggy Bottom than the pulpit (which has become a dusty piece of furniture anyway). There are Sundays when I enter Mass late and leave as soon as I've received the Sacrament. It isn't because I want to. I want to avoid an occasion of sin. At least in thought. Perhaps this is what Blessed Fulton J. Sheen and others refer to when speaking of "suffering in the Church." How many good servants have been driven away? You read yet another call in the Sunday bulletin for eucharistic ministers or lectors or other work in the parish but hesitate. You simply never know what kind of response or attitude you will meet. You pray, you go to Mass. But it doesn't seem much like a community -- another word I'm weary of seeing and hearing. At some point you have to make a connection between Church insiders' obsessions and the alienation and decline you see around you.

As for ceding ground -- ever tried to find an open church when you wanted to pray somewhere other than your bedroom or on a walk? The Church is closed even to its own people. The Adoration Chapel is critical but does all prayer have to be organized by the Church? It was the one thing I liked about New York -- there was always a side chapel you could duck into when you needed to get away.

But I bet every parish in this archdiocese has a robust recycling program...
written by Dave, September 23, 2012
Fr Bramwell -- thanks: I remember last Sunday's article! And I agree with your article here, too: we have been ill-served by senior clergy, going back decades. The Land-o-Lakes Agreement was a key capitulation, as was the acquiescence -- or was it that, or something else -- to the dissent around Humanae Vitae. Cardinal O'Boyle was told -- by Rome -- to stand down from his defense of HV and his disciplining of dissenting clergy. Roe v. Wade came our way in just about the same timeframe. And the principles that animating Land-o-Lakes had been taught and learned by those who became senior clergy long before they were prelates. All this of course takes us back to Leo XIII and his dire warnings about Americanism and modernism -- warnings that were blithely ignored. Still -- we laity get the clergy we deserve: we need to pray for our holy priests and religious, for those who are not so holy, and for the young, that they may respond to the call; and we need to let our bishops know we will work and pray patiently with those shepherds seeking to change things -- for change does not come quickly.
written by Fr. Bramwell, September 23, 2012
David I appreciate your comments about religious but history is against you I am afraid. As a really general comment that will not be just to everyone I think that religious, except for some to be found in the more recent orders, have as much to answer for as other clergy.
written by chris, September 23, 2012
my dear Manfred,Sister Lucia,one of the three children
that was told by our HOLY MOTHER about HER son's chastisement,
passed away in 2005.
FATHER,continue your chastisement.please though,LORD, in the
name of YOUR SON,JESUS CHRIST be merciful.
written by mary, September 24, 2012
What we forget is that Christ did NOT "blend in with the culture" and certainly did NOT "not make waves", everywhere he went.

Our Lord was accused of eating and drinking with the low class "taxmen and fallen women"; not keeping the sabbath; and starting local dissention among the people against their church.

We have all fallen into the trap of aquiesance and tolerance of the secular in the hopes of gaining their trust and bringing them into the fold. This has backfired on us so that we now find ourselves more secularized than they sacred.

This leads me to think that a more authentic Christ must be presented in our liturgy. A Christ of love for the underpreviledged, etc., is a must, but also the Christ who was impatient with smuggness, piety and pride should also be shown. The Christ who came to save "those who had been lost", was a warrior on our behalf and not just a child loving, peace giving or healing man. The Christ who tore through the temple with a whip was not showing us that he was just a peaceful man either.

Christ was not ready to aquiese to, nor be tolerant of secularism, why are we so ready to do both?
written by Dave, September 24, 2012
Fr. Bramwell -- I agree with you about the religious orders. The papacy has been tirelessly teaching against philosophical modernism since modernism first appeared; many religious orders for a long time considered themselves a second or counter-Magisterium. I hold back from naming a few of the more egregious offenders. Still, the care of the general Church falls to the bishops and diocesan clergy -- who didn't act sufficiently well when heterodoxy appeared, who acquiesced to laity when they should have been teaching them, and who did nothing about Land-o-Lakes or the HV scandal. But it should be pointed out the laity have tolerated and, in many cases, fostered the lax climate. So now we laity have to pray and sacrifice that the priests can rise to the Holy Father's requests for the New Evangelization, for his requests are His requests.
written by Fr. Bramwell, September 24, 2012
Senex - agree with you a hundred percent. One of the issues in the US Church is not viewing the full consequences of a concept. If one teaches that abortion is immoral then one should offer women an viable alternative. If one introduces RCIA then everything else in the parish has to shift accordingly to fully use the great power that lies in the RCIA. If there is a papacy then there must be a routine way of getting papal teaching to every last member of the Church
written by chris, September 24, 2012
All that is wrong with our beloved church can and must be cured with the HOLY ROSARY.It may seem so irrelevant,but
I am not the one promoting the cure.Our HOLY MOTHER asked this from us when her SON sent HER to FATIMA in 1917.
This is a mandate from GOD HIMSELF.
written by Matthew P. Schneider, LC, September 26, 2012
Father, I think the only realistic way for a priest to serve more than 20% is by getting a good portion of that 20% active.

If even a tenth of them went out and reached 15 others the priest couldn't, the percent would jump from 20% to 50% served. Not perfect but better.

I agree that we clergy (or soon to be clergy in my case) can-t waste our time on stupid networks. However, with one priest for every 3,000 or so Catholics, we can't serve each one individually and survive to 65.
written by Fr. Bramwell, September 27, 2012
Matthew you raise a really great point. I did not offer any solutions but yes I agree that it has to be community based rather like the Church itself strangely enough. Also I think that we would get many more vocations as we demonstrate to the day to day world what being a Church means. I suspect that we are not even vaguely aware of what individualism has done to the priesthood and to religious life and to the Church 'community'. Yet it is the presupposition of our culture.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author