Given the season, this day will doubtless mark the anniversary of priestly ordination for priests far and wide. In a recent conversation, one such candidate -celebrating in excess of 3 decades of priestly ministry-commented on how felt the closeness which he experienced on the day of his ordination, between himself and the Diocesan Bishop was a thing of the past. In the intervening period, the identity of the bishop had changed on perhaps 3 occasions. But the priest was not speaking of the personal dynamic between himself and the office holder. Rather, his remark was directed to his experience of the relationship of incardination. There has been no conflict; no 'falling-out' or disagreement. Nor is his situation the product of a divergence of opinion on ministry or obedience. To the contrary, the sentiments he expressed were those of regret rather than recrimination or complaint. It was his experience that the office of bishop had become increasingly one of administrative oversight; with any direct communication or interaction taking place between the vicar general and rural deans; eventually including those in parish ministry like communiqués transmitted through a chain of command. His concern is not isolated; nor is it unique. In other dioceses, one hears of Diocesan Bishops who have acquired the label 'Foreign Minister' on account of their devotion to matters outside their jurisdiction, or country. Others bemoan the fact that their diocesan bishop refuses to appoint priests to ecclesiastical office; such that the necessary stability for priest and people is denied.
In contrast, in other dioceses, the Bishops themselves have met with collective and individual resistance solely on account of their orthodoxy. Criticised for their piety, such bishops are confronted with antagonism from incardinated clergy who are - it appears - affronted by the Bishop's impertinence in interfering with their work, their plans and even their parish.
This dissonance is not confined to those who align themselves to competing or conflicting theologies or notions of ministry. What they have in common, however, is that they serve as a means by which the meaning and effective of both priesthood and Church are undermined. The result is one which recalls to mind the extract from Shakespeare's most dystopic tragedy: King Lear. In Act 1, Sc 2, Gloucester remarks:
"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide..."
As any experienced pastor will attest, within any faith community division is corrosive; never more so than when it arises between those who are entrusted with the spiritual care of the faithful. It is fuelled by personal preferences, prejudices, and misplaced expectations and unfounded claims of entitlement. Within our modern society, these are typified in the 'me culture'. According to this pervasive mentality, I will accommodate the requests made of me by another, only if they coincide with my own inclinations and do not inconvenience me. As others have commented, there is a theme of rights detached from responsibility or accountability. When demands are placed upon us which are inconvenient or require a deeper personal investment, our modern society tells us to 'do our own thing'. What has this to do with incardination?
As St John Paul II was wont to emphasis, the rite of ordination expresses a mutuality of commitment which involves the adoption of sacred ties and obligations. The lifeblood of the relationship is unity in belief and dedication. These cannot simply be taken as words. They must find expression in action. Even more so, the recognition of the office of diocesan bishop as in persona Christi. In consequence, a Bishop's disregard for the care of his priests offends the law, and is fundamentally irreconcilable with the nature of his office and the duties he has assumed. So too are the agendas of priests who - for their own ends -seek to detach themselves from the hierarchy of the Church in order to marshal their own brand of Catholicism in the interests of popularity or social appeal. Contrary to such views, the hierarchy of the Church is intended to communicate both authenticity and communion of purpose. The structure which it represents is - for both priest and bishop-irreplaceable. It furnishes both with the spiritual canopy which shelters them and those they are called to serve, This is not to say that there will always be consensus or there will not be occasions when disagreement calls for difficult conversations. However, a failure to fully embrace the interconnected character of Bishop and Priest, can ultimately give rise to a spiritual blindness. In this blindness, the office of Bishop is reduced to the status of functionaire and the priest, that of a disgruntled employee or trade union convenor. Where this occurs, the secular mindset has taken hold and distorted the relationship of incardination beyond recognition.
Perhaps the solution to this difficulty lies in a re-engagement with the nature of office (i.e. officium/ duty). As the Council Fathers observed, authority within the church constitutes service; not dominion. At this critical time in the Church's history, our need is for priests and bishops who are prepared to not only embrace this truth, but also recognise that the sacred bonds created at ordination and consecration provide the spiritual platform for this same service. In the words of Fulton Sheen:
"For only the mind which humbles itself before the truth it wishes to impart can pass the knowledge on to other minds. The world has never known a humbler teacher that the Word of God himself..."
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.