Picking the Low-hanging Fruit

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, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.