On Clerical Culture

Fr AAbout that abuse report in Australia, commentators and experts take aim at clerical culture.

Father Thomas Doyle:

If you want to recommend one thing, it is that there has to be a primary concern on the care of the present victims, the ones who are there, those whose souls have either been damaged beyond repair or who are seriously suffering.

Listening – letting them cry, be angry, yell, scream, whatever … and trying to help the people understand, you know: ‘You aren’t guilty of anything,'” is “more important than all the protocols, all the structures, all the policies, all the paperwork, all the talk, talk, talk that has been going on.”

Not only victims. But family members, allies, and parishioners who feel betrayed by priest or bishop. We need to make a ministry of listening. And more, telling people it is okay to vent. And we will patiently listen. It is about showing mercy, not just talk, talk, talking about it. It’s the artist’s principle. It has to be about showing, not telling.

More from Fr Doyle:

Father Doyle called clericalism “a virus that has infected the church,” leading to a culture of cover-up because people believe that churchmen “are in some form or way sacred and above ordinary people, and because of this sacredness, because of their importance, they must be held as more important and protected more.”

If I were starting to look at this, I would ponder some serious shifts:

  • Candidates younger than age thirty to thirty-five would be judged as exceptions to the rule. I think there are prodigies in ministry. I don’t think it’s a reasonable assumption for the majority.
  • Close all men-only seminaries and integrate students and faculty into a graduate school for theology. Maybe that means integrating lay people into an existing seminary in a diocese. If for no other reason, clergy, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers could be all reading from the same theological page. The men-only environment fits in a monastery. Period.
  • Before a candidate is considered for priesthood candidacy, there should be a serious component of ministry already in evidence in their lives. A prerequisite for graduate school would be a written reflection on that ministry experience. Something like a Masters’ thesis in length and showing the ability to integrate what a person does with who a person is.
  • During studies, a continuing component of ministry in a parish is needed. Ten hours a week during academic periods, and full time during summers and a pastoral year. The thing is to make connections with people as a primary ministry of the priest. Continuing self-reflection during all this time, and professional interaction with lay people and clergy colleagues: essential.
  • Instead of a transitional diaconate (or perhaps along with it) a thirty day retreat. Annual eight-day retreats while in formation. Needless to say, 6 to 8 day retreats every year thereafter.

I don’t expect these changes to really take root. Bishops don’t listen to me. But if they did, I think we would get better priests, better prepared for service, and maybe only one generation of embitterment as the fallout from the abuse and cover-up crisis. As it is, I predict a lingering discontentment and faltering steps to restoring a moral and spiritual credibility to the institutional Church.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to On Clerical Culture

  1. Brendan Kelleher svd says:

    Almost a day has passed since I read your post. There is much in it that I agree with, but also feel there are a couple of untouched areas.
    I write as a former minor seminarian, the last of those who graduated and went on to ordination. After a year at home, on the recommendation of the director of formation (he was known as the Fr Prefect) I entered Novitiate/Major Sem at the age of 19. The formation program, for the Society of the Divine Word, in the UK and Ireland was very different in those days, indeed experimental would probably be the best way to describe it.
    During the summer we were sent out to work, and while living in rented accomodation, I worked in a candy factory, on the production line of a Daimler-Benz factory in Germany, and in a hospital, where as a ward orderly on a geriatric ward, I was present at the death of around 20 patients over a three month period. I was still at the tender age of 24, when I was ordained to the presbyterate in 1975.
    My mission assignment – one I asked for myself, as is the SVD custom – brought me to Japan in February 1976, and apart from a spell back in the UK from 1987-1991, where I worked in formation, I have worked here in Japan ever since, initially in the parish apostolate, and then until health issues saw me retire from teaching, for almost 20 years in the education apostolate as a High School teacher (English and Religion/Christian Thought).
    The SVD formation program has changed quite radically since then, but even with some variations, it is much longer, with 28yrs of age probably the youngest age at which members are ordained. One integral part of the program, something that was being experimented with when I was in formation, is what we call Overseas Training Program/ Cross-Cultural Training Program (OTP/CTP). The program, which is of two years duration, sees the confrere in formation leave his home culture and cross over to another, for example seminarians from Japan, in recent years have gone to the Philippines, Korea, Ghana, Kenya and Australia. The seminarian who went to Australia spent 6 months in PNG, and also participated in our ministry among the Aborigenes.
    All seminarians do the Spiritual Exercises during Novitiate, make an annual retreat for a week before renewing their vows and before Final Vows in the Spring; there is a another mini-retreat, for three days at the end of the summer break. Apostolic work experience, including work with the homeless, at food banks, and with the migrant-foreign worker community, is part of their weekly schedule. Also, insofar as their schedules permit, in recent years, they have also spent time working as volunteers following the quakes, typhoons, and tsunami, that are part of life here in Japan. All helping to let them know “the smell of the sheep” they will work with after ordination.
    In religious life no job or assignment is forever. Provincials, Rectors, Directors of Formation return to the ranks when there term of office is over. In the formation community they live with former Provincials, University Presidents and High School Principals. While it isn’t totally absent “Clerical elitisim” is possibly less present in religious communities.
    Living in a religious community that is open to the world can be a formative experience. Even back in my time in formation – 1969 – 1976 – we had lay students living with us, who were free to bring their girl friends to meals, and within the residential area there were coffee lounges where friends and guests were often encountered between or after classes, or on Sunday morinings after Mass. I edited the student newspaper for almost two year, with my room acting as the editorial room; female students who worked on the paper with me were allowed in as long as I left the door open, and they left the building by 10:00 – the dormitories in which some of them stayed had 10:00 curfews.
    Your 30 – 35 age limit as exceptions would become problematic for a community like my own since men over that age range tend to find adaptation to community life and to a new culture difficult. In our apostolates in some countries, following language work (two years if the language is Chinese, Japanese or Korean), professional training may demand further studies. I was already in my forties when I moved into the educational apostolate, and had to work and study, at the same time, to obtain the necessary professional qualifications that meant I could be employed full-time.
    There are a few other areas I could comment on but hopefully what I have written will give some idea of what has been done and what is possible.

    • Todd says:

      Great witness, Fr Brendan. I have known many fine religious men, clergy and brothers. I think the age of 30 thing can and should be handled differently for those committing to religious life. Mainly, I’m thinking the diocesan clergy, those who actually don’t change their job much: they are assigned to pastor parishes. That’s a big job, no doubt, and might vary in details. But it involves the ability to work as a lone priest in a setting of lay people.

      I suppose in a healthy environment, religious and diocesan clergy might have occasional exchanges if a bishop and superior discerned that well. Less for the sense of poaching dissatisfied folks, but to give a taste of the different ways of life.

      • Brendan Kelleher svd says:

        In the diocese where I work the Bishop assigned a young diocesan priest to a deanery where the other priests are Carmelites, Franciscans and Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC). His lives in a small Franciscan community, and co-ordinates youth ministry in the area. It is a good four hours from the parish on the furthest east side of the deanery to that on the west. Winters in the area are harsh, first snow late November and still where when we have an early Easter.
        The Bishop would like to expand the program, and is still exploring possibilities; there are more religious and missionary society priests in the diocese compared to diocesan priests. My predecessor in the parish I was assigned to after language studies was a diocesan priest, and a parish I worked in Tokyo in the early 90’s often welcomes deacons, for pastoral placements, from the national seminary, which is about 20 mins away by car.
        The days of “hothouse” seminaries should be over. And the rationale that sees seminarians being sent to the PNAC or the English College (also known as the Venerabile) is the one policy that need to be reviewed. On a visit to Rome once, when I spotted some PNAC students near the Vatican, I remarked to a confrere, “Future ‘Officer-class’ candidates at the US Church’s West Point, I presume.” The seeds of elitism were already being sown.

  2. John Donaghy says:

    An Italian bishop at the Council of Trent recommended that “transitional” deacons serve as deacons for two or three years before being ordained presbyters. Maybe this suggestion should be taken up.

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