Shepherds as Fathers

The five men looked intently at the table in front of them as they sat side-by-side before the assembled audience. They seemed deep in thought as the attractive middle-aged woman read out to all the definition of clericalism, then asked who wanted to respond first. Coughs, uncomfortable shifting in the seats, and then one looked up. “‘David’, shall we start with you?” she asked him gently.

He stood up and looked at the people. “I have been a member of the clerical state for 47 years, starting with my tonsure many years ago,” he began by way of explanation. What followed was a rambling account of those years — happy years, busy years, the rich years of a priest who has answered the call to serve, but now is struggling to define that priesthood to people who see hierarchy, authority, and outward marks of “caste” as obstacles to the faith.

This, dear reader, was simply one among many Voice of the Faithful meetings in a small state rocked with its own priest scandals. Despite a population that is nearly three-quarters Catholic, the lay faithful are confused and seeking answers from a variety of sources. Thus Voice of the Faithful has found rich soil in which to plant its own solutions — for better or worse.

On the assumption that clericalism — falsely defined as any marked distinction between priests and the laity — is at the source of the present problems, these priests mulled over how they had allowed that distinction to affect their lives in the past. Following one another in turn, the ordained men admitted that the collar can make a difference when police pull them over, in the past it has gotten them into Broadway shows, has opened doors in the emergency room without question, and yet now has declining effect in getting discounts at the drug store, which different men deal with in varying degrees of frustration. What could have led to this mundane account of the state of Holy Orders? How can a discussion of those called to configure Christ Himself and provide grace to a fallen world find itself at this level of inanity?

In answer to subsequent questions, they moved on in their defense to offer glowing testimonies about gifted members of their parishes who had stepped forward to share talents of all kinds, and their openness to such help was a hallmark of their fight against clericalism. From changing light bulbs, to visiting the families of the deceased, the laity had myriad talents, which were profiled and praised, culminating in the remark by one pastor that he simply signed the checks (written by others) and said Mass when asked.

All five stressed the importance of the Mass but again — in their effort to be seen opposing “clericalism” — explained that lay-participation was maximized in their parishes and that rubrics that set the priest apart from the rest of the assembly were frowned upon. They pointed out that the priest — as host of the meal — was rude to eat first in front of his “guests.” One apologized for the priest standing during the consecration while the rest were asked to kneel. Such “clerical” rubrics, they realized only divided people, instead of uniting the People of God as was needed. All that was missing were the whips for the self-flagellation.

As I watched this sad display, I was struck by the similarity of the state of the priesthood with the state of the family, and the common point is the attack on fatherhood. For whatever reasons, men who function as fathers are taking a beating. They are the butt of countless jokes, ridiculed widely on sit-coms, emasculated by women and children, and forced to prove themselves worthy only through their concerted rejection of authority, leadership, strength, and firm principles. Fathers can find acceptance in society only insofar as they follow direction well, avoid promoting their own preferences, and refrain from intimidating others — which can prove difficult when their very masculinity sets many women's teeth on edge.

The rubrics are not the issue. The division of labor is not the issue. Whether or not to wear the collar outside the rectory is not the issue. These are distractions from the fundamental fact that masculinity is being systematically destroyed and that men have been so brow-beaten that the very idea of fatherhood has been corrupted by accompanying assumptions about bullying, intimidation, and abuse of authority. Men have allowed this notion to keep them from taking up their fatherhood from God, from whom all fathers get their name, and from exercising the firm leadership that the Church so desperately needs. The fathers of families refrain from leading for fear that they will be confused with dictators, and the fathers of souls similarly cannot speak clearly about distinguishing good from evil for fear that it will undermine the consensus dynamic that their flocks insist upon.

So here we sit, watching grown men squirm — insisting that the laity can really do most of the work of the Church and that delegation is the name of the game. So many men in this “modern world” are near anachronisms, bound to spousal unions of one sort or another, yet unable to guard and guide their brides and offspring because of the widespread fear of authentic masculinity. The loving care, gentle guidance, and latent courage that they bear within goes stagnant and withers until it is no longer available to the world. Poor sad world, poor sad fathers who have lost sight of the magnificent men that they are called to be. Poor sad Church, left to wander until her priests take up the mantle to restore fatherhood to all its glory.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Mrs. Kineke is the founder and editor of Canticle Magazine for Catholic women.

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