But how does one do that these days? The image of the clergy has been so battered, especially and understandably by the revelations of child sexual abuse, that any suggestion that they have an important part to play in Church life immediately looks, to some people, like a defence of their “position” or a manifestation of an on-going corrosive “clericalism”. Not that most Catholics are in any sense “anti-clerical”, but those who are that way inclined have been empowered to have their say while those who think a little differently have to choose our words very carefully. Obviously, this creates a bad atmosphere for “partnership” between clergy and their communities.
I have memories of a different time. Back in the 1960s, if you believe all the caricaturing that goes on, the priests ruled the roost and the role of the laity was to “pray, pay and obey”. And all right, in my parish we did have an old Irish monsignor who was an aloof and somewhat haughty figure, but he was old, and he was Irish. You made allowances for that, just as you did, say, for the funny ways of grandparents. Looking around more broadly, the other priests took part in the working bees, played tennis with parishioners, talked to us over tea at the presbytery kitchen table and told bad jokes in their homilies. There was an effective parish council, of which I was a member in 1969 as a 17-year-old leader of the parish youth group. In effect, I was an ally of the curate in persuading the more staid elders of the parish to tolerate the activities of the young people. In fact, my parish pretty much lived up to the boast of the Australian Church that our priests were close to the people.
At home, there was no undue respect for the clergy. My mother didn’t like us to criticise the priests, but she didn’t like to criticise anyone. “If you don’t have something nice to say …” was part of the ethic of her generation. My father was more forthright. Being a priest didn’t make a man smart or wise, and definitely not always right. You could respect the priesthood without being blind to the man’s faults or quirks. And the priests you most liked were the ones, quite a few in my experience, who expected no more special “reverence”. Clearly there were Catholic families and parishes where “the priest’s word was law” and “we thought he was like God”, “we never questioned”. I’m just saying that such was not my experience of the Church in those days, and so for me the reaction against clerical power has something of “knocking over a straw man”. A picture of the Catholic past that focuses on clerical abusers, control freaks, pious frauds or money-grubbers misses the main story, in my view. So does a story that says the laity were passive, frightened and submissive. Such “history” is a poor starting point for thinking about the future life of the Church and how we can be stronger together.
So, on what do we build the future? I’m disinclined to think that hope springs from better management practices, all of which will be old hat in a decade anyway. I lean to believing that we’ll be OK if we focus on some basics of Christian faith. The first of these is Creation. Every single human being is a child of God, and that is how we all must regard each other. Then there’s the meaning of Baptism. Every person in the Church is equally called to discipleship and to witnessing to Christ and to sharing in the life of grace. There’s not a special holy caste, though we may recognise some individuals as personally holy. Third, there’s original sin. We know that we all struggle and that no one is perfect. Fourth, there’s Holy Communion. However different we all are, we share the one Bread and are made into one body in Christ. In short, “Do unto (all) others as you would have them do unto you”, “love one another as I have loved you” and “be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful”. Christian fundamentals have always told us that “We’re all in this together”. Divided we fall.