by Guy Brinkworth, S.J.
wHATEVER harsh and hasty epithets were used by some of our on-the-spot reporters concerning the recent Synodal Assembly of Bishops, no one can say that the back room has dragged its feet. During his general audience of November 24, Pope Paul expressed his wish that the final conclusions of the bishops should be made available to all the people of God.
And here I am, eitting in a London suburb a fortnight later with two beautifully produced brochures in front of me. They are prefaced by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Vi Mot .
lie writes: "The Holy Father has carefully examined the two documents containing the proposals expressed by the Second General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the themes 'The Ministerial Priesthood' and 'Justice in the World' which has been put before the Assembly for
study . .
"His Holiness now accepts and confirms all the conclusions in the two documents . . . The Holy Father reserves to himself to examine carefully in due course whether the proposals — and which of them — contained in the recommendations of the Synodal Assembly should bc convalidated as directive guidelines or praotical norms."
In a short artiole of this nature one can only consider one booklet at a time. I begin with the first one: "The Ministerial Priesthood," which, for the sake of convenience, will be referred to as "the document." As it contains just over 10,000 words I can only comment here on some of the salient features. It is well translated into English and we can only congratulate the printers (Vatican Polyglot Press) for its excellent format. The introduction clearly enunciates some of the confusion and difficulties concerning the priesthood which appear to be facing many of the faithful, including priests themselves.
What is the fundamental nature of the priest? What is his real image and to use the in-word, his "identity"? Wherein lies his function and relevance in the Church and the World as we approach the end of our second millennium?
Is he necessary? — or, like some of the so-called "low Churches" -"Would it not be enough to have for the service of Christian communities
presidents designated for the preservation of the common good, without sacramental ordination. and exercising their office for a fixed period?" Indeed, no punches are pulled.
It would be difficult to attempt in the space of this an adequate summary or paraphrase of the already fairly
compressed argument of the document with its innumerable references to the Scriptures, to tradition, to the decrees of the recent Council and to papal.letters.
And as one reads the pages one begins to wonder what all the pother is about. Must the "identity" of the Driest be continually chasing after a rapidly "changing world"? Particularly when one finds so much of the change is superficial, shallow and ephemeral as well as fickle. Do we really need a Synod of Bishops to propose something new and "trendy" about the nature of the priest?
There grows upon us a conviction that it is possible the gales of secular and technological change which blow about us have numbed us and robbed us of firm foothold: that. to alternate our metaphor, we are being brainwashed into a state of mindlessness which demands that everything has to be novel
and tind e new to be viable and rel v
An infiltrated by-product of the current competitive age of "productivity," when it would appear that to survive we have ever to be coming up with something new — some new formula or gimmick : "Whiter
than white" . . "it's biologi: cal" . . . "the tang that the others haven't got!"
Anyway. the document produces no new rabbit out the hat. It quietly and firmly reminds us that if we wish to know what the "identity" of a priest is, we already have the necessary criteria a n d guidelines. indeed, doctrinally there is little that is "new," as the constant references to the last Council 'betray.
The proposals of the bishops are a vote of confidence in much of what we should already know: and this is not in any way to say that it is a disaster. The sadness tics rather in the fact that it should have had to be made at all. "To ride the flood-tide, check up on your anchors!" Must we drift?
And so we come to the guidelines proper. For convenience we can divide them into four main norms. First is the historical fact of the sacramental priesthood with its permanent charism and seal of
the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is a vast subject: but the document certainly gives us an excellent and well-documented conspectus of it.
The second guideline is on the Eternal Sacrifice. We are reminded of two important doctrines enunciated so clearly in Vatican 11—first, that the Eucharist is the goal, the source and the centre of all Christian living, and secondly that although Baptism confers on the People of God a royal priesthood there is also a superimposed ministerial priesthood conferred by another and quite different sacrament of Orders.
That the focal act of the Church of God — the Eucharistic Sacrifice — has literally incorporated in it the accredited ambassador, accredited by his "orders," the recognised and acknowledged priest who lends his hands and voice to Christ, the "one Mediator" and High Priest and His Body which is the Church.
This is the Paschal Christ represented at the altar, pinpointed. as it were, in space and time. This incorporation of the priest with the Eternal and Risen High Priest is so inherent in his identity that "even if the
Eucharist be celebrated without participation by the faithful, it nevertheless remains the centre of the whole life of the Church and the heart of priestly existence."
So whatever we may think about the priestly "identity," it must square up with this great guideline of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
And 'as a corollary we come to the third principle. The priest as the alter Christus, sharing in the office of Christ the High Priest also must share in the activity of Christ the Prophet and Teacher of all mankind. He teaches the Good News to all by his word and the witness of his own life: "The witness of faith on the part of the minister in his entire life.", Again, a clear norm by which we can assess the nature of a priest's life as part of the universal missionary Church of Christ — a standard which might well have to be used to clarify the priest's involvement in secular and even political activities.
And finally we come to the fourth and. practically speaking, probably the most important criterion and principle. The priest must be a man united to Christ — a man of prayer. No amount of activism. however exalted, is of any avail without this real, day-to-day union with His Master.
DISCIPLINE "Therefore, in the priestly life There can be no dichotomy between the love of Christ and the zeal for souls . . . let them be assiduous in personal
prayer, in the Liturgy of Hours, in frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance and especially in devotion to the Eucharist" (p. 20).
All this. of course, has been said before: we priests all know this. Cardinal Newman made the famous distinction between notional and real assent to a proposition. And here, surely, lies a first question before we begin asking: "What am I doing as a priest?" . . . "What is my identity?"
In this context, a very experienced old pastoral priest said to the writer only a few days ago: "Nearly all this so called 'bewilderment' is only a camouflage for or the direct result of a lack of serious personal prayer." One wonders: even if one makes no judgment !
The document devotes two closely reasoned but cryst;t1 clear pages to some of the arguments which had impelled the assembled bishops to vote so overwhelmingly to preserve the discipline of celibacy of the priesthood in the Western Church.
The public media, eyes ever glued to the box-office and the tills and uninterested in such things as sacraments, sacrifice and prayer, have given this particular aspect of the priestly identity so much airing that we do not propose here to go into detail beyond saying that those two pages are worth reading and praying about.
But our Jeremiahs have wailed so much on the subject 'of the "close vote" over "Formula A" and "Formula B" concerning the ordination of mature and worthy married men that one is tempted to point out that perhaps the very close voting was due to the fundamental similarity between the two formulae.
For the writer, at least, the voting amounted to 194 votes to leave the matter to the charism of the Vicar of Christ. "Excepting always the right of the Supreme Pontiff . . ." and "It belongs solely to the Supreme Pontiff . . .": surely these are the operative words
they • are:certainly the first. The door may not huve been opened: but • it remains unbolted, and. Peter has the key.
It may be a sad commentary on the .general. reaction of the People of God to the recornmendations of Vatican II which concluded its sessions exactly six' years ago that so much of the practical pastoral proposals made by the Synod are only repetitious emphases and expansions of those already made by the Council.
But it is clear that in the light of the experience gained during those six years the bishops of the Synod are convinced they are on the right road and intend to press on with the strengthening and widening of the "vertical lines" within the Church of God: between the bishop and his priests, between the priests and their flocks. This is surely a triumph rather than a frustration.
If there is a regret after reading this inspiring booklet it is this: that we were not given the benefit of the enormous and manifold experience of the Synod Fathers in the very difficult task of instilling the "guidelines.' laid down in the document in vocation promoting and the training of the next generation of our priests. For in both spheres of the apostolate we surely need a maximum effort and efficiency.