To Govern in the Church

Back in May 2010, Pope Benedict XVI slipped a little nugget of essential teaching into the piles and piles of words all around us these days. To wrap up the Year for Priests, Benedict gave catecheses on the Offices of Christ. First, he spoke of the participation of the priest (bishop) in the two offices of teaching and sanctification. Then, he addressed a crucial and often overlooked dimension: governing. The nugget involved the word “hierarchy” – an important term little understood in our independence-crazed culture. One can build a whole love-hate relationship with the Church on a misunderstanding of this word.

The pope explained: “The word hierarchy is generally said to mean ‘sacred dominion,’ yet the real meaning is not this, but rather ‘sacred origin,’ that is to say: this authority does not come from man himself, but it has its origins in the sacred, in the Sacrament; so it subjects the person in second place to the vocation, to the mystery of Christ; it makes of the individual a servant of Christ, and only as a servant of Christ can he govern and guide for Christ and with Christ.”

Thank you professor! So this is how authority is to be understood in the Church. The priest (bishop) is called by Christ as servant and the way in which he serves is to lead and guide the faithful to Christ. This is how the Second Vatican Council understands that the hierarchy “by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.”

This dimension of the participation in the kingly office of Christ is  much more than informing the faithful (teaching office) – although that is a full-time job in itself, given the appalling lack of understanding of the  faith, even among many Catholics. The kingly office involves doing all the things that bring people into one in Christ. Benedict actually lists some of these things: “there is no greater good, in this earthly life, than to lead people to God, to reawaken faith, to lift the person out of his inertia and desperation, to give the hope that God is near and directs our personal histories and that of the world: this, in the ultimate analysis, is the deep and final meaning of the task of governing that the Lord has given to us.”

            The Holy Father ends the Year for Priests

Then within this broad vision of the Catholic hierarchical leader, Benedict notes that it means: “To form Christ in believers, through that process of sanctification that is a conversion of criteria, scale of values, and patterns of behavior, to allow Christ to live in every one of the faithful. St Paul sums up his pastoral action in these words, ‘my little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you’ (Gal 4: 19).” There is a very real sense of bringing the people along, in every sense: meeting them, accompanying them, challenging them, welding them into the one Body of Christ, as well as, of course, informing them about Christ (teaching office) and sanctifying them.

John Paul II visibly illustrated the complex of kingly activities by using his crosier which, you will remember, was topped by the crucifix designed by Lello Scorzelli. John Paul was showing us Christ by every action that he performed. As a theologian, he knew this and deliberately used the crosier, originally made for Paul VI, to make this truth present in visual form.

John Paul II was pointing to a particular kind of clerical presence, one that is both personal and that manifests actual leadership at the same time. This is not the sentimental idea of leadership, however, that permeates so much of parish life, namely that, the “priest is your friend.” Often this perception is accompanied by the implied arm- twisting that only if he is my friend am I going to pay any attention at all. 

This is where catechesis has failed the community. The fact is that the priest or bishop may or may not be a friend (in the casual sense), but he is a leader by sacrament and by commission. The order of leadership is independent of sentimental attachments even though the latter are useful. But Christianity is not primarily a sentimental thing. Vatican II did not sugarcoat the truth: “The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God.” When people speak of the “spirit of the Council,” as if it authorized religious free-lancing, they deliberately have to overlook passages like this one.

Thus, in the end, Benedict could remind priests: “Do not be afraid to lead to Christ each one of the brethren whom he has entrusted to you, certain that every word and every action will bear fruit if they come from obedience to God’s will: know how to live in appreciating the merits and in recognition of the limits of the culture in which we find ourselves, with the firm assurance that the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest service to render to man.”