It was one of those chilling moments. I was seated across from my parish priest, who had just gotten back from an extended “time away”—yet unexplained. When I mentioned my interest in a more disciplined prayer life, perhaps to buy a breviary—the standard daily book of prayers for priests—he said there was no need to do that. He had a set and never used them; I was welcome to them.
When the four leatherbound books arrived a few days later, followed in a few more days by an indictment on a child pornography charge—for which he was eventually convicted—his words pounded dully in my ears. Here was a man who had clearly lost his bearings—both spiritual and moral.
If that was a time that diocesan priests needed to be spiritually anchored, the need has only become more acute in the 10 years since I sat across from that sad man. There is little affirmation from the outside world, and with the scandal of clergy sexual abuse, the Roman collar often serves as a lightning rod for mistrust rather than a beacon promising help. The trickle-down theory of Vatican orthodoxy can additionally make parish life burdensome. So the need for a consideration of what exactly comprises and nurtures the spirituality of the diocesan priest is certainly great.
While Father Aschenbrenner’s book contains a number of good insights into this life, I fear it misses a key distinction that, if not confronted and understood, will continue to push our church on a path back to Vatican I, instead of forward from Vatican II.
While the diocesan priesthood has certainly changed (first-name usage, even without “Father,” and the ability for priests to wear civilian clothes to the office and in public, for example), the clerical culture that separates us lay people from priests remains stubbornly in place. The apostolic way of “raising one from their midst” to serve the community gave way to a pattern of taking men from family, friends and familiar circumstances, educating and indoctrinating them, and then superimposing them upon a community at the bishop’s behest.
The mystical, standing-in-the-place-of-Christ, ontological-sign, theological approach still dominates church teaching and exacts its own toll in the continuing defense of this kind of separateness. So Father Aschenbrenner’s consideration of the spirituality of our diocesan priests—parish priests for most of us—to this lay reader seems to spend far too much time dealing with their separateness, when the time may be at hand to try to lighten, not darken those lines.
I spend a lot of time in rectories and I know many parish priests across the country, both through my writing and through a recent study I conducted on local church excellence. What I see are men who—while they are set apart in certain ways—are the last to claim or play upon that separateness, their uniqueness. They see their ministry—and that of those with whom they serve and beside whom they work—as more rooted in their baptismal call to be part of a community that lives the life of the Master and works to bring about a heavenly kingdom here on earth.
Those who continue to insist on their clerical prerogatives may find themselves surrounded in admiration by the voices of Vatican I, but distant from those who are beginning to understand the Vatican II mantle which we all proudly wear: the priesthood of all believers.
So when Father Aschenbrenner writes of the priest’s sacramental ministry: “The priest’s dramatization is not of self but of the flame of holiness in God’s deeply personal love always radiant in the presence of the Risen Jesus, which invites special glowing expression in the sacramental encounter of the here and now,” I certainly understand the fervor beneath those words. But it seems to waft up from the level of honest human experience only to disappear in the vapors.
This is not to say that there should be no ordained clergy or some lifeless slurry of people, all equal (of course they are under God), with none “set aside” to lead, preside at our wonderful array of sacraments and rituals and generally devote themselves full time to ministry.
For those who are set aside and must live in the tension that is the current reckoning of the diocesan priesthood, Father Aschenbrenner has wise words dealing with what must be a most difficult aspect: celibacy. His three suggestions should be taught to all seminarians and allowed to refresh the already ordained. Don’t think that celibacy is being lived out in your 1) loveless, cynical, misanthropic bachelor-oriented life, 2) workaholic attitude that equates business with holiness and 3) sense of superiority for the choice you made to be a priest.
But what I think would have been additionally valuable for this book (dreaded words for any author, myself included, to hear)—and I’m sure Father Aschenbrenner, in his work as director of the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, Pa., as well as his experience in spiritual formation of ordained clergy and with novices, could amply supply—would be to have grounded these considerations in the real-life experience of diocesan priests. How, for example, does this play out in a parish, on a tribunal, in a staff position? How do the words learned in seminary apply today? Where can the diocesan priest find a deep spirituality in the midst of a day when he is expected to be manager, counselor, taskmaster, perhaps cook or maintenance man in addition to ordained minister?
Being a priest—especially a parish priest—is a wonderful job, to have daily access to what truly matters in people’s lives. And it is demanding: “As if equipped with a pager for the Holy Spirit, the priest resounds in the midst of people, not with interruptive static, but with the welcoming accessibility of God’s love.” He is one charged with “making God present in the healing balm and power of Jesus’ love for one and all in an almost infinite variety of situations.”
This is about heroism, and that is exactly what the diocesan priesthood calls for. It is why men take on this life, to live for something beyond their needs and desires. We should honor them, we should join them—in the now-limited way in which we are allowed—and persist in moving toward a time when the plenitude of gifts from men and women will be fully employed.