The National Catholic Review

Next month I turn 30. While that might seem like an old age to me as I approach the milestone, most people are quick to remind me of how young a friar and priest I still am. That statement of fact is often, but not always, accompanied by some well-meaning remark by a parishioner after Mass or an audience member after a talk suggesting that I’m not like other “young priests” they know.

What generally follows that sort of comment is an expression of concern about the perceived unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained. They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.

What concerns people, in other words, is clericalism.

What I hear in these moments is not so much a compliment or praise for me as the worry people have for the future of ministry. As St. Francis cautioned his brothers, I realize that anything good that comes from my encounters in ministry is God’s work, and the only things I can truly take “credit” for are my weaknesses and sinfulness (Admonition V). And, trust me, there are plenty of both in my own life. At the heart of this encounter is the intuitive recognition that we are all sinners, yet we all have equal dignity as the baptized, and that those ordained to the ministerial priesthood should serve their sisters and brothers on our journey of faith.

While I know many good and humble religious and diocesan priests, I’ve encountered far too many clergy who, for whatever reason, feel they are above, better or more special than others. Pope Francis also recognizes this and spoke critically about it in the impromptu interview he gave during his return trip from World Youth Day.

Catholic News Service reported the pope’s words: “I think this is a time for mercy,” particularly a time when the church must go out of its way to be merciful, given the “not-so-beautiful witness of some priests” and “the problem of clericalism, for example, which have left so many wounds, so many wounded. The church, which is mother, must go and heal those wounds.”

Pope Francis names this the culture of clericalism, which maims and distorts the body of Christ, wounding those who seek God’s mercy but instead encounter human self-centeredness.

In an interview published in America (9/30), Pope Francis suggested ministers could help heal these wounds with mercy. He said: “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

St. Francis of Assisi is often remembered for having had a special reverence for priests, a characteristic that appears frequently in his writings. But he also had a particular vision for how the brothers in his community, ordained or not, would live in the world. His instruction seems as timely as ever in light of the persistence of clericalism.

In his Earlier Rule St. Francis says, “Let no one be called ‘prior,’ but let everyone in general be called a lesser brother.” He also wrote in Admonition XIX:

Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more. Woe to that religious who has been placed in a high position by others and [who] does not want to come down by his own will. Blessed is that servant who is not placed in a high position by his own will and always desired to be under the feet of others.

All members of the clergy, not just Franciscans, should be challenged by these words.

Eight months into Pope Francis’ pontificate, I sense that he is challenging the whole church, but especially its ordained members, to a similar way of living. His call for humbler and more generous priests is a call to work against a culture of clericalism. It is a call for priests and bishops, young and old, to remember that their baptism is what matters most.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including the forthcoming The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering.

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Agustin Paz | 3/10/2014 - 12:38pm

I was once taught a very practical maxim, not necessarily having anything to do with clericalism, that goes like this: when you feel your worst, dress your best. It helps me when I'm down on myself, but also leads me to treat others who are decked out in their best outfits with kindness as well, thinking to myself that they must be feeling very bad today. :)

Appearances are important and Jesus' does actually have specific teaching in this area (i.e., don't look gloomy when fasting; and then there is the very hard teaching in parable about someone not being dress appropriately at a wedding and being thrown out, plus a few others).

I think we are all, by nature, susceptible to some from of clericalism, especially when we take undue credit for the gifts we have received and don't use them for the common good.

Thank you, Fr. Horan, for sharing your reflections and getting me, at least, to always appreciate that all good gifts comes from God and are intended for His use, not my own.

"Encourage each other daily while it is still today." (Hebrews 3:13)

M Beachey | 12/21/2013 - 6:18pm

A true story. There was a man I knew who was a millionaire. Even so, he dressed in rags and pinched all his pennies. He came to the car lot to buy a new truck. My uncle was one of the salesman. As the other salesmen looked at this man -- they did not rush out to serve him because they thought he was a hobo -- my uncle went to him and the man wrote out a cheque for the truck he wanted.

I get so tired of reading and listening to people who think that because a priest wears a cassock or uses fancy vestments (whatever they are for some fancy vestments are much cheaper than plain vestments) he is guilty of clericalism. I know priests who wear fancy vestments and cassocks who are truly humble, caring and hard working parish priests. I also know priests who wear plain vestments and no clericals who are truly humble, caring and hard working priests. The opposite is true.

As a person who is shy and has suffered from anxiety all my life as well as being an introvert, I am tired of people who accuse me and others like me as being aloof when they first meet me. I am not aloof and others like me are not aloof. We are who we are and we are as capable of love, mercy and kindness as the self-confident extroverts.

Michael Barberi | 12/22/2013 - 6:08pm

M Beachey…excellent points.

Jesus said it was not what went into one's mouth (as in those things forbidden to eat at that time) but what came out of one's mouth (in terms of what one says). I would add that it is not the cloths that one wears that is important but one's actions. This does not mean that there are not examples of extravagant dress or forms of living to be condemned, but rather the importance of one's virtuous character and voluntary human action. One is not more virtuous merely because one is practicing an extreme version of it. Virtue is best practiced by one's adherence to its mean, chosen by prudence and not in contradiction to other virtues.

Michael Cobbold | 11/23/2013 - 7:43pm

"What generally follows that sort of comment is an expression of concern about the perceived unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained. They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive..."

## A by-product of euphoria after completing what is, in a sense, a rite of passage, maybe ? It sounds as analogous to the psychology of conversion could be behind these attitudes - converts can be very sniffy about their former religious life.

Jim McCrea | 11/23/2013 - 6:00pm

This might be a good place to post these reminders:

The noble simplicity which reflects authentic art should be a major factor in selecting (church) furnishings (Roman Missal 287)

The beauty of a vestment should derive from its material and form rather than from its ostentation. (Roman Missal 306)

Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments. Sacrosanctum Concilium (no. 124)

There is substantial difference between those instructions and these practices:

Michael Barberi | 10/15/2013 - 4:33pm

According to a common definition of is a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy. Much debate over clericalism appears to dwell on the consequences of clericalism.

As such, it is usually a pejorative term. It is not merely the lifestyle of the clergy or the cloths they wear. The term is often used to criticize the clergy as a group because few clergy ever challenge the hierarchy on any important matters concerning the laity especially the issues of: the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic reception for the divorced and remarried; the responsible use of contraception after spouses have children and want no more for good reasons; in vitro fertilization for spouses with fertility problems; and abortion to save the life of the mother when the fetus is not viable under any circumstances.

The problem of "clericalism" has it roots in the role of the Pope as the authoritarian dictator (and a sycophant Curia) where the Synod of Bishops have effectively no role in decision-making with the Pope especially with respect to doctrine formation and reformation. The Pope makes all the decisions and any challenge to teachings are silenced.

Clericalism is indeed the silence of clergy in fear of retribution from hierarchy. No priest is ever made a bishop if he whispers any opinion calling for a re-thinking and responsible debate on any teaching. Clericalism was also the cause of the irresponsible policies of hierarchy where the Church must be protected against scandal at all costs...witness the clergy sex abuse scandal and the bishops who covered up such crimes...and the lack of any justice as demonstrated by the fact that no bishop has been defrocked or condemned or rightly punished.

Clericalism is also responsible for the lack of any voice of the sensus fidelium. Let's hope that Pope Francis will significantly reform the Roman Curia and break the destructive web of clericalism in the Church.

Michael Cobbold | 11/23/2013 - 8:19pm

@Michael Barberi:

"The problem of "clericalism" has it roots in the role of the Pope as the authoritarian dictator (and a sycophant Curia) where the Synod of Bishops have effectively no role in decision-making with the Pope especially with respect to doctrine formation and reformation. The Pope makes all the decisions and any challenge to teachings are silenced."

## The Papacy, and the super-exaltation of it, and its gradual swallowing up of all authority lower down in the Church, and the idolisation & divinisation of it, are to blame for a lot of the clericalism, AFAICS. The Papacy has become a "kingdom of this world"; but the "kingdoms of this world" are under the control of Satan (St. Matthew 4); something the makers of the Imperial and secularly-ambitious Papacy seem to have overlooked. The Church exaggerates & distorts the doctrine of the Papacy in the same way as Protestant Evangelical Fundamentalists exaggerate & distort the doctrine of inspiration; it is Papian, rather than Christian. The all-ruling Pope-god-Emperor of Rome is not what the Church needs.

Petrine function in the Church - Si
All-ruling Divine Caesar as Priest-Emperor of the Church - No

Lily Wilson | 10/15/2013 - 4:03pm

Fr. Horan, you said, " I’ve encountered far too many clergy who, for whatever reason, feel they are above, better or more special than others." I'm sorry, but I find this very hard to believe. You really have encountered clergy who have said this to you about themselves? "Father, I really feel that I am more special than others, that I am better." Otherwise, how would you know? Unless, of course, you were judging their hearts by what they appear like on the outside. Because in my experience meeting priests who appear unapproachable or who fit the other appearances you describe, they have been priests of immense love for God, for the church and our Holy Father, and of deep love for people, very much aware of their weaknesses and rejoicing in the fact that they, too, are desperately in need of God's mercy.

Annie Selak | 10/18/2013 - 9:02am

I can't speak for Fr. Horan, but from my own experience, I have actually had words similar to what you hypothesized said to me. While I was in theology studies, I had a priest sit me down and tell me that I would never be able to minister as fully as he could and I would always be a replacement. I recently heard a priest advocating for more rules for lay ministers and less for priests because priests are able to follow the "intuition of ministry" whereas lay people are fundamentally incapable of this and need guidelines. I see clericalism mostly in small ways, but occasionally, I have experienced it in overt ways such as these moments. While I would hope that my experience of overt clericalism is rare, sadly, I know that it is not.

I think Fr. Horan speaks truth to an area that is intimidating and difficult to address, and for that, I thank him. Part of our challenge as a church is to be able to address the smaller moments as well as these larger occurrences. Horan's call is a worthy and difficult one.

A.J. Flynn | 10/15/2013 - 3:32pm

Clericalism, according to the definition put forward in the article, is a priest thinking he is better than others. I am confused how wearing a cassock automatically makes one 'clerical'. Sure there is an appropriate time and place, but I am allergic to these generalization. Diocesan priests don't wear a habit like the Franciscans or Dominicans, but wear a cassock, if they so choose. Pope Francis recently spoke of a newly beatified priest and how courageous it was for him to wear a cassock as a public sign. Clericalism applies to priests of all ages and ecclesiological backgrounds. I experienced this recently when I went to Reconciliation at a church run by a religious community in the downtown of a major city that provides the Sacrament all day long. The priest made up his own variation of the words of absolution. I'd say that smacks of clericalism.

Bruce Snowden | 10/14/2013 - 3:24pm

Father Flynn, I agree with you, some (many?) Religious, priests and the non-ordained Religious tend to live high off the hog doing things and going places most Diocesan priest and laity cannot afford to do, despite their Vow of Poverty. A group with whom I am very familiar used to warn the friars weekly in the reading of the Order's Constitution that, "they should not be poor in such a way as to want for nothing." Many in effect are poor in such a way as to have everything, except maybe a wife! Those who are good are very, very good, but those who are "bad" are pretty lax.

But this doesn't excuse from the other abuse - clericalism which in its own way creates pomposity totally contrary to simplicity and humility. Humility as you know is the acceptance of the moral truism that "I am who I am, nothing more, nothing less." For the Church, ordained and non-ordained that means servanthood, a fine sounding ideal, but by golly, really hard to practice in fact. But again, Father, thanks you for all you do for God's People. I trust you image Jesus in all ways, at least sincerely try to. No more postings on this subject for me. I'm done!

A.J. Flynn | 10/14/2013 - 2:08pm

I appreciate the comments that have been made. My fear is that the term clericalism is actually shielding a bias against preferences. I am a firm believer in what Cardinal Bernardin espoused as "common ground" that the Church is big enough for people of varying tastes and perspectives (even though I may not agree completely with). An article such as this espouses clericalism in a narrow view, without taking into account that clericalism exists in those who are both conservative and liberal in ideology. While I may be turned off by the those with fussy liturgical tastes, why are we not as scandalized by the cleric who merely throws a stole over his habit to concelebrate in liturgy? Or the religious who - when not in religious habit - sports brand name clothes and then writes about the need for the Church to embrace poverty? Or the members of religious orders who are forever sharing on social media their summer excursions to Martha's Vineyard and Broadway? As a diocesan priest I certain couldn't afford such luxuries or don't socialize with such wealthy circles. Clericalism is alive and well, and not just in sacristies.

William deHaas | 10/15/2013 - 2:03pm

First, the points and thesis of this brief article are fine and it does balance things.

OTOH, Trigilio is hypocritical in making some of these points:
- just because he was a pastor and assistant for 20 years means little. Never confuse length of service with competence
- so, why does he now work for a private entity whose mission is to broadcast a skewed and predominantly marked conservative (if not traddie) message. Some would argue that EWTN preaches its own version of catholicism...and, by the way, its own version of clericalism?
- Trigilio has never worked in a seminary; has not been nor is he qualified to be a formation director. Thus, he weighs in and makes generalizations that just don't hold water.
The sweeping swing by key seminaries (large archdiocesan seminaries) to conservative staffs, faculty, and screening processes has created seminary environments that do not invite or welcome the typical young man who finds himself in the *center* - neither left nor right in today's polarized circumstances.
Both documented and anecdotal stories tell of the difficulties in many major dioceses with newly ordained clerics - their brand of catholicism creates waves in parishes, creates divisions among staffs, creates ongoing tensions in local parish communities where their pieties, devotions, dress, manual driven moralism, and even theology is pre-VII e.g. STL over the last few years have had a significant number of newly ordained have to take medical leaves to treat psych issues because of the personl trauma involved when they tried to minister. Their form of clericalism was challenged creating internal discord, identity questions, even faith questions.

So, yes, let's be balanced but let's also recognize that there are serious issues.

Matthew Sanders | 10/14/2013 - 6:43pm

Fr. Trigilio seems to vent about something Fr. Horan didn't say directly. The point was the young clergy who come out of seminary appearing and acting remote from the lives of God's people, not just about their sartorial proclivities. It just so happens that many choose to reinforce their alienation and separation by means of titles, formalities and cassocks. (I know how that works, too. I was in seminary for six years and wore the cassock whenever I could. I also know the polyvalent reasons why I wore it.)

Yes, one can be tyrannical with a liberal agenda too. No argument there. But the empirical and anecdotal evidence of young priests has to count for something. I fear Fr Trigilo's full throated defense of traditional practices overlooks the real problem: the alienation of many young men by means of a strongly prevalent systematic interpretation of the Program of Priestly Formation in US seminaries.

Bruce Snowden | 10/14/2013 - 9:13am

Martha, thanks for your affirmative response to my original post. I appreciate also those who may disagree, often sharpening my perspectives., a good teaching devise, allowing the Spirit to move where it wills. Unfortunately, too much counter-productivity happens in some seminaries producing instead of servants, princes, doomed to wither on the vine of ministry in a few years, wearied in the battle against the spiritual tide set in motion by Vatican II. But let us pray for all priests, especially those inadvertently misdirected.

Anne Chapman | 11/22/2013 - 10:13am


Would you please explain exactly what you mean by this comment - ".... wearied in the battle against the spiritual tide set in motion by Vatican II."

Daniel McMahon | 10/13/2013 - 3:54pm

Thank you for this piece. My experience with clericalism has been the belief by some priests (rarely brothers or friars) that their vocation is more important or inspired than my vocation to the married life or another's vocation to the single life. There are too many priests (even if there is one!) who assume an air of superiority because of the way they answered their call. If each of us engages in a process of discernment, how can the voice of God be more significant to some than others?

Lily Wilson | 10/15/2013 - 6:12pm

Daniel, what I can't understand is how one arrives at the conclusion that someone has an "air of superiority" without formally judging that person's soul, which we are not to do. Isn't that "air of superiority" in the eye of the beholder?

John Swope | 10/13/2013 - 3:37pm

I truly appreciate this commentary. I think that when we downplay some aspects of self-presentation by clergy, we can tend to comment that some aspects of a priest's self-presentation are "only" a matter of style, and somehow not truly reflective of the person. I think this understanding of style is problematic. The eminent Jesuit church historian, John O'Malley, SJ, frequently comments that style is always an external representation of a person's deeply held personal values. From this perspective a priest's bearing, clothing, etc. are a reflection of his deep understanding of priesthood and his ministry.

Bruce Snowden | 10/13/2013 - 7:23pm

Dear Father Flynn, This was initially addressed to "Fr. West" totally surprising as I don't have the foggiest idea where that name came from! Fortunately I can edit my posts, and having done so I salute you for having a shepherd's heart, which clearly you have, so please keep moving forward not hesitantly, that is, with a kind of "make me truly shepherding, but not yet." But really, really, really, a shepherd all the time. Clericalism IS about attire, about frilly albs that's so girly looking etc., but true, its mostly about ATTITUDE. I know a priest who likes to walk around with a long, ankle length black cape, looking more like Dracula than Jesus! Gentlemen dress simply too - they don't need cuff links to prove gentlemanly behavior. We laity love you, we need you to make the poor, humble, crucified Jesus tangible by what you say, but mostly through HOW you live. Where else can the Lord be found? Thanks for all you do!

A.J. Flynn | 10/12/2013 - 4:45pm

This presents a narrow view of what clericalism is. It contributes to an immature understanding that perpetuates a view that clericalism is about vestments, clerical attire or deportment. What usually arises is that aesthetic preferences and differences get labeled as clericalism. In full disclosure, I am a priest in his 30s. I like to think of myself as pretty middle of the road. I take care to ensure that the liturgy is celebrated with care, festivity and according to the rubrics of the Church. I work hard in my parish and feel that I do a good job at responding with a shepherd's heart to the needs of my people (at least I try). Do I have nice vestments? Yes. Even St Francis insisted on things of beauty to be used in the service of the liturgy. Do I some times break out a pair of french cuffs when I get dressed up for a special occasion? Yes. I think a priest should look like a gentleman. I know good priests on both sides of the spectrum who are hardworking and pastoral. I may not always agree with them, but I admire the way the live out their priesthood. Likewise, I know priests who never wear a collar, make up their own liturgical styles, throw a stole over their dirty alb (or religious habit), talk about the poor all the time and ridicule those who don't share his view of things or ecclesiology. That's just as much clericalism than someone in a frilly alb.

P McGuire | 10/13/2013 - 4:25pm

Maybe it's as simple as referring to the parishioners as "God's people" instead of "my"...

Richard Kluk | 10/12/2013 - 1:47pm

From the Pope's 1st interview: "This is also of great benefit of confession: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better." if we truly desire to help the world and the Church, we need to do it like the early Christians by our witness to God's commandments. If we seek God's mercy, it is always available from any and all priests in the sacrament of Confession.

John Corr | 10/11/2013 - 10:50pm

It seems to me there has been a resurgence of clericalism in the Church in past decades, as part of the inward-looking Church. Moreover, too many priests appear not to have a spiritual life. Many also do not seem to relate to the problems of contemporary society and what the Church has to say to the World. I think it is time for a review of just what priests are being taught in the secular seminaries. There are times in history when the Church cannot prevent society from travelling the wrong path; however, it is necessary that the Church have something to say publicly about what is happening. In Pope Francis, the Church has found its tongue at the top. It's time for trickle down.

Mike Evans | 10/11/2013 - 12:28pm

Our new Pope has set a high bar with his plea to administer and pastor with 'mercy.' As the face of the official church, our priests are the 'alter Christus' who sat down to eat with prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and lepers. To them he preached the good news that God loves them and seeks them out to forgive, sustain and heal. We have a lot to say it seems about how people fail to live up to the gospel and commandments but very little to say about how we share their pain and suffering and want them to worship and celebrate with us. Clericalism seems to just create 'damn fool gatekeepers' instead of welcoming lovers who enable people to find a way back to God.

Bruce Snowden | 10/12/2013 - 11:01am

Rather than sending "feet washers" like Jesus and shepherds that smell like their sheep, dishearteningly some seminaries are cranking out Photostat copies of princely clericalists who love long flowing tasseled robes, pom-pom birettas, cardboard-stiff gold encrusted vestments, loving "first places in synagogues" and "to be called Rabbi!"

Attired that way, when Christ comes again. will he recognize the Church of the Upper Room, the one in Acts, that he left behind? It's been suggested that he'll more readily recognized the Church he left behind in those little ecclesial off-the-sidewalk assemblies found in ghettoes, than in the grandeur of cathedrals shimmering in gold!

Well, I don't believe that entirely true, but there is something in simplicity and humility that breathes authenticity. But unfortunately, somehow, some seminaries seem defiant of the mood of the Spirit revealed in the teachings of Vatican II. I find that troubling.

Martha ST Onge | 10/13/2013 - 4:55pm

" But unfortunately, somehow, some seminaries seem defiant of the mood of the Spirit revealed in the teachings of Vatican II. I find that troubling." I think you have pointed out a valid observation which in my mind, contributes to some of the rigidity in the priests being ordained today. I miss the Spirit Who was so alive in the church after the reforms of Vatican II. Hopefully, with the guidance of the Spirit through Pope Francis, the message of the good news will be central to what is preached. And hopefully the non-essential which distract from our faith will fall by the wayside. Recently I heard a priest preach how important it was to have the cross on his chalice facing him during Mass.

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