Monday, May 3, 2010

"What a Priest Should Be"

I found a very relevant article out yesterday about the struggle in the Church to envision new models of the priesthood in the modern world:
The “year of the priest” coming in a year of great scandal has intensified a struggle inside the church over the image and concept of priests in the 21st century.

Pope Benedict this spring put forward the Vatican model priest at the end of his letter to the Irish church. Jean Marie Vianney, a 19th century French priest who overcame a lack of education to serve his flock 16 hours a day or more and was known for his radical piety, is the model. Mr. Vianney’s talent for reading thought and tales of his levitation have also brought a cult of mysticism and secrecy around him; he is venerated by hardcore groups like the Society of St. Pius X, whose namesake pope beatified Vianney in 1904.

"Vianney is thought to be a useful model for many new Catholic priests in rural or developing nations," says Andreas Batlogg, editor of the Jesuit-based Catholic intellectual journal Stimmen der Zeit in Munich, Germany.

Yet Benedict’s choice of Vianney caused loud and palpable groans in many parts of US and Europe. Modern-oriented Catholics and theologians see the choice as a political model of a priest closed off from society, overly idealized, hard for young Catholics to relate to, and one whose effect will be to increase a sense of distance between priests and ordinary people, and promote a view of priests more spiritually gifted than regular Catholics.

“We need an example, but this is a pastor of 230 people in a small French village in the 19th century,” says Mr. Batlogg.

A different model of priest

Pope Benedict's own experience as a priest dates to a brief post-war period in the almost wholly Catholic Bavarian countryside – a time the pope describes fondly in his writings.

Those pushing a different model say that priests work in a world Vianney had no idea of – crowded urban parishes with high-powered professionals, including women; a world of counseling on drugs and pornography, violence, and the other ills that flesh is heir to in a spiritually confused and values-conflicted world unlike French or Bavarian towns.

At the largest Benedictine school in the US, the education of new priests – which started 10 years ago under the influence of then-Cardinal Ratzinger – moved sharply toward the model of the priest educated in isolation, when Vatican directives began to forbid men and women educated together.

One member of the Benedictine order who is close to the university but was not authorized to speak to the media described the directives, which came out of Cardinal Ratzinger’s office, as part of a “purification of the church concept in which women should not be in the classes. A lot of us feel this creates instead a fortress church, a reclusive model…priests leave school and immediately go into communities and work with married people, and women, but have had little contact with either group in their priestly formation. This all originated in the Vatican.”
The contradictions in such a clericalist model are being noted too:
Frank Flinn, a religious studies professor Washington University in St. Louis and author of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism says that models promoting a mystical class of priests is taking place “in the face of gut-wrenching corruption of priests themselves...”
Maybe we should contact this guy too:
In Cesbron’s view, the current model of the priest “dates to Vatican I, to the counter-reformation, it is a model from the 16th century, and the model needs to finally adapt. That is bound to happen, it will be reformed, there is no logical choice for us."


Pater, O.S.B. said...

"The situation caused French Catholic groups in the year of the priest to launch a public relations campaign depicting “cool padres” – posters with virile and handsome guys with collars and wind-blown hair, looking confidently at the public."

LOL!! This will get us NOWHERE.

A good article, overall. I don't care for the condescending attitude towards the Cure de Ars. He is certainly a great model for a hardworking priest (16 hours!) and the assumption that he represents an UNAPPROACHABLE figure is more indicative of some people's aversion to holiness and a refusal to believe that it is attainable rather than anything else. He attracted people from all over France. His influence went far beyond his parish. I know of no indications that he was a repellent figure to the young. Even if we have married priests one day and a restructured ordering of seminary formation, he will continue to be an outstanding model of holiness and pastoral zeal. If not the Cure de Ars, whom would you suggest as a patron saint for the Year of the Priest?

A Sinner said...

I think the main problem with picking ANYONE as a patron for the "Year of the Priest" is really that there was a "Year of the Priest" in the first place!

Singling out priests for focus in that regard is part of putting them on an unhealthy pedestal; it makes the clergy look like one big mutual admiration society.

The Cure de Ars is a great model of holiness. But holiness is for everyone.

It can get weird when you pose someone as a model for priests specifically, as if contrasted with or opposed to the laity.

"Priests should be holy" is true, but only because EVERYONE should be holy.

Now, people in different situations and states of life need to have patrons that were in the same state, of course, I understand that.

The Cure de Ars was certainly heroically holy, and priests can certainly see in him an example of the holiness we are all called to being manifested in their own vocation. The problem I feel is that his holiness is being equated too strongly with his priesthood, when I feel the connection is more accidental.

In my mind, he wasn't a "holy priest." He was a holy MAN who also happened to be a priest, so of course that was lived out in his priestly ministry. But if he were a plumber, I'm sure he would have been a very holy plumber.

I fear the message being sent is that he was holier because he was a priest, or perhaps that he was a priest because he was holier.

There is an implicit subtext in a lot of Catholic literature (and certainly, until JPII, in what types of people they disproportionately chose to canonize) that seemed to imply that priests are on average holier than the laity. That the holiest men have been priests or that priesthood is correlated with holiness.

So, I think it would have been a very nice gesture, in the Year of Priests, to actually hold up a lay female Saint to remind priests that holiness and vocation are independent, rather than reinforcing the idea of an [illusory] correlation between priesthood and holiness.

Choosing John Vianney strikes me as only reinforcing a Confirmation Bias among Catholics about priests:

I also worry that there is a subtle attempt at pro-priest propoganda in the choice, as if to extrapolate the image of St. John Vianney onto all priests.

Up until Trent, in the Catholic imagination, a priest was at best like anyone else, at worst a lecherous figure. Then came this holier-than-thou image that was built up through manipulation of the Availability Heuristic (

By "stacking the deck" so that the priests who became famous were disproportionately the holy ones (compared to well-known laity, at least) and so that the Saints were priests, and when the fact of their priesthood is emphasized (as opposed to just their holiness as a PERSON)...has tended leave people with a false subconscious impression that priests in general were holier.

Curtis said...

The Cure of Ars also spearheaded a temperance movement in his village, organized charities and support for the poor and other similar things. He wrote a catechism for his parishioners and preached wonderful down-to-earth sermons.

So, somebody says he levitated while praying and suddenly, he is worthless as a model and example, because he now constitutes a clericalist, mystical class? Hogwash, I say.

As I understand it, priests were corrupt and worldly in those days, too - the Cure was not representative of some mystical class of otherworldly clerics. He was not even a product of his formation - do we really think he was trained to spend the time he did in the Confessional, or to fast like he did, or to preach like he did? All those things are in spite of his training, not because of it.

The article could've made its point without fabricating such a fanciful portrait of the saint.

A Sinner said...

"He was not even a product of his formation - do we really think he was trained to spend the time he did in the Confessional, or to fast like he did, or to preach like he did? All those things are in spite of his training, not because of it."

I agree 100%.

BUT my point, at least, is that the message sent by making him the patron of the Year of the Priest SEEMS to some people (including me) to be implying that he WAS, in fact, a product OF the current system rather than holy IN SPITE of it.

It's like co-opting him as an example to try to prove that the current system "works"...when he was actually a huge exception to it.

Although he is officially only named as a supreme example or with any figures held up as the hero of a group of people, there is an implication that he is somehow representative of the qualities of the group as a whole (if extreme). But, in reality, the current system is NOT producing all that many John Vianneys...