With the world meeting of families underway and the imminent papal visit to Ireland, media coverage has been as diverse in its subject matter as it has been negative. Interviews with street vendors complain of a lack of interest in papal wares and souvenirs. They remark upon how the papal visit is very different to the last; at the same time observing: 'We are a different country now'. There can be no doubt that Ireland, both in terms of religious practice and prevailing social opinions, represents a very different environment to that of the time of the visit by St John Paul II.
Current press coverage has focused upon concerns of historic abuse, episcopal cover up, and is predicated upon the basis that he Church has lost its voice; forfeited its right to lead or opine on matters of social concern or moral value. There can be no doubt that the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the debacle in the handling in allegations in Chile and the publication of material concerning alleged misconduct by an American Cardinal, have all combined to undermine the public perception of the Church. They have each enabled detractors to accuse it of a lack of integrity. There is also said to be an absence of any authentic commitment to not only combat, but make reparation for, historic abuse where it is found to have occurred.
As with any issue of social concern, there is invariably more than one perspective. Equally, no matter how much the controversy is presented as being of a binary nature, there is frequently more than one cause.
Amidst this coverage, my attention was drawn to a broadcast from RTE. The interviewee (an ordained priest of the Catholic Church) was being invited to comment upon current public opinion. Naturally enough, the interview turned to the priest's own adherence to, and practice of, the faith. It has been suggested that in the course of his response, the priest made two statements: a) he 'rarely goes to mass'; and b) he is an 'inactive priest'. The potential impact of such a statement upon the faithful might be thought to be all too obvious. Sadly, it does not stand in isolation.
Over the past two days, a video recording of an interview with an American Bishop has been posted on YouTube. In the course of the interview, the Bishop is being asked questions about criminal conduct directed against minors. There is no suggestion that he is implicated in the misconduct in question. The questions posed are concise, clear and unambiguous. When asked to indicate when he first came to understand that sexual activity with a minor was contrary to the civil law, he responds: "I do not recall". A question as to when the Bishop became aware that sexual conduct with a minor was contrary to the law of the Church, the same response is provided. Both of these interviews are unedifying. Their subject matter is seemingly wholly unconnected: religious practice on the one hand and ecclesial governance on the other. What, if anything, do they have in common?
Whilst in modern understanding 'office' appears to denote a form of status or authority, it has its origins in officium authority(i.e duty). Likewise, in speaking of ecclesiastical office, the Church draws upon the exercise of for the 'care of souls'. As the conciliar pronouncements make clear, 'authority' is the occasion of service; not dominion. The sacrament of ordination (like that of marriage) is conferred for the good of others. However, the Church further declares that through ordination, the priest undergoes an ontological change. He is not acquiring an executive status, being licensed for deployment, or being allocated to a fixed term tour of duty. Through ordination, the priest enters a way of life. One in which he is obliged to make the care of souls his first concern. In this respect, the words of Blessed Paul VI are informative:
"A spiritually tired, a sleepy, sluggish priest, in whom all vibrations are stilled, chronically spiritually out of tune, is a contradiction in terms..."
"The priesthood demands fervor(sic)...[W]e have the obligation to be fervent to make our mission valid."
Doubtless, it was for this reason that he exhorted his priests to:
"Go like arrows to the mark."
But what mark? As Blessed Paul VI was so keen to emphasise: the salvation of souls must be and remain the priest's chief concern. This, of course, includes his own. But, what of Bishops?
In my youth, it was common to refer to bishops as 'princes of the Church'. Indeed, they are. The phrase may in our present times seem a little anachronistic and, it certainly is more commonly encountered as conveying a pejorative meaning. Nonetheless, the term provides some pause for reflection. Today marks the feast of St Louis of France. In the Office of Readings, we are provided with an extract from his Spiritual Testament conferred upon his son. It includes the following exhortation:
"Be compassionate to the poor, the destitute and the afflicted; and as far as lies in your power, help and console them....Towards your subjects act with justice that you may steer a middle course, swerving neither to the right nor to the left; but lean more to the side of the poor man than of the rich until such time as you know the truth. Do your utmost to ensure peace and justice for all your subjects but especially for clergy and religious."
To paraphrase the psalmist: happy the priest who fills his quiver with such arrows. Salus animarum primus lex, indeed. St Louis, pray for us.