Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Staring "Andalusia II" in the Face

Again these days, I was confronted by just how wide-ranging and profound was the impact of the decision, a good year and a half ago, of a priest from the diocese of Münster in Germany, a close relative of the famous Cardinal Frings of Cologne, ("Aus, Amen, Ende? So kann ich nicht mehr Pfarrer sein". Thomas Frings) to abandon a premier parish and enter a monastery in Holland. In the meantime Father Frings has discerned himself out of the monastery and is back into the service of his diocese. 

Middle aged priests, also in Switzerland, continue to discuss their own vocations in the light of questions similar to those Father Frings raised in his book about parish ministry. There is much more to this story than facing the issue of burn-out in the life of hard-working and apparently successful parish priests. Not enough of the conversation, unfortunately, is directed toward bringing to light the nature of the Catholic Church and its profoundly sacramental character. Sadly enough the dignity and sublime nature of Catholic priesthood is often downplayed or ignored in the discussion.

In my position, I hear both sides, both of those whose vision of parish ministry is darker and more skeptical than that of Father Frings, as well as of those who protest/insist upon proclaiming their vocational satisfaction and argue for the value of things as they are in the Church in the Western world. As harsh a judgment (or silly, depending upon your perspective) as it may be, I find both extremes (depression and euphoria) to be tied to the phenomenological, to results, and neither going much beyond categories like productivity and job satisfaction. I have no time for Frings, as he is too sad and awash in a world adrift, but "put on a happy face" or "singing in the rain" is no better and indefensible for the sake of the life of the world.

One of the overarching challenges or temptations suffered by the diocesan priest is located on the playing field of activism. It is only now, fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, that we generally are discovering we have come no closer  through church renewal initiatives to providing the priest in the parish or the diocesan bishop with an ironclad plan of life (a "mirror") to help him confront the ancient malaise which Pope St. Gregory the Great was struggling with nearly a millennium and a half ago: How does one keep the Saving Presence when constantly called to traverse or live life in the public eye, on the public square? What is my specific role in cooperating with the Almighty for the good of Christ's Church in prospering the work of our hands for the sake of the life of the world, of furthering the Kingdom of Christ?

If you believe the testimony out there these days, a significant part of the priestly vocations today come from the experience of Perpetual Adoration. That is good; it is promising. It is often said that a constant in the lives of young and zealous priests is their Holy Hour. That is edifying. However, the Church's Liturgy is rarely mentioned as a font of priestly spirituality, unless of course it is in the context of vocations, not to diocesan priesthood, but to the monastic or contemplative life in a monastery of the tradition, of the ancient usage, of the full monastic office in Latin with Gregorian Chant and the Roman Missal of 1962. Thinking specifically about diocesan priesthood and parish ministry, I ask myself whether all the paring back which took place, supposedly for pastoral reasons, to make the priest more available for his people isn't what is starving our priests spiritually and acting as a counter sign to our lay people, who don't seem to pray at all, at least not by comparison with their grandparents.

Pope St. Gregory the Great had no illusions about his role as pontiff, as bishop, as priest for the world. He knew he could not withdraw as before his election as Bishop of Rome into the great silence of the cloister. 

In cities, generally in Europe and up until the time of the Council, people were often a short walk from church and hence made it there both Sunday morning for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and for Sunday Vespers which ended up being a discursive exercise or educational and a time of intellectual feeding for adults. Not much happens any more outside of the Sunday or the pre-festive Mass these days, too little care or so it would seem for leading people to and from the source and summit of Christian existence. It would seem that we owe our Catholic faithful more by way of an edifice of prayer for their Catholic life. It would seem that Sundays with Holy Mass need to become again what they were for St. Justin Martyr back in 165 AD, namely that without which we cannot live.

Yesterday, I saw a news item stating that on the average 50 religious houses (monasteries or convents) a month are closing in the once Catholic Spain. Demographics and mobility have brought the close of lots of parishes generally in the West (on both sides of the Atlantic). The number of unbelievers in our own midst, whether from defection from the Church or from migration, has destroyed the social fabric which still tends to provide the excuse for a lot of church activity, which has some priests, as I say, woefully depressed and others playing Pollyanna. The success of the Rosary demonstration last Saturday on the borders of Poland would indicate that at least some people understand the stakes in this challenge. 

I am reading a very interesting book these days which documents among other things how the Muslim conquest of Spain devastated Visigoth high culture there, which was ultimately the successor culture of a Christian stamp to the ancient Roman one. Reconquest? No, my object would be another and namely to insist that the vehicle for culture or the life of faith cannot be the parish priest's sense of job satisfaction. We need to realize that we are starving ourselves and our people and need to rebuild the edifice of prayer and official worship which is the Church's glory and works most effectively for the salvation of souls.


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