As the saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. But what of lack of familiarity? It can take various forms. On one level, it may be taken to mean an absence of knowledge, acquaintance, or, experience. In each case, lack of familiarity may be seen as synonymous with a lack of information, knowledge or instruction. But lack of familiarity is not confined to such situations. It can equally be the result of abandonment, neglect or disregard.
Take for example the driver who, having satisfactorily completed his driving test, fails to practice his driving skills for a decade; only to find that when he attempts to do so, he is lacking in confidence and unable to call to mind the training he once received. This may seem a facile example. However, the principle has equal application to our own journey in faith. No more so than in the lives of priests and religious.
Some years ago, Fulton Sheen was giving a retreat to priests in the US. His theme was the neglect of priesthood. Not by the laity, but by the clergy itself. In developing his theme, he referred to the aspiration of some priests to foster the fashion of the day. These words might have equal application today. However, in driving home his counsel, he identified the chief threat to priesthood as a form of complacency. Warming to his theme, he remarked on how soon human love ‘cools’. Applying this observation to the priestly life, he remarked that clergy had become ‘used to’ their priesthood. This was not the ‘settling in’ of becoming accustomed to a way of life, an order or routine. Rather, it was a form of complacency or stupor which reduced the priesthood to the mundane. It was this same mindset, he said, which caused certain priests to acclimatise themselves to the thinking of the world, its practices, its vocabulary. Instead of seeking to be separate from the world, they had become part of it.
For many priests today – and doubtless their formators also- there appears at present to be a desire for the priesthood to become more ‘relevant’. In the pursuit of this goal, scriptures are paraphrased, the teachings of the Church diluted and points of distinction obscured. This is, it would seem, a search, not for informed understanding and dialogue, but homogeneity. The result is something akin to the forms of ‘ecumenism’ prevalent in the 1970s; in which doctrinal differences were not mentioned for fear of causing offence. The product is not dissimilar. Instead of acceptance, affirmation and integration, the voice of the Church is lost. Authentic teaching and doctrinal orthodoxy are replaced with a pseudo-sociological ideology; on a par with the Tao of Pooh. Its influence is, however, much more long-term. In the enthusiasm for relevance and acceptance, those pursuing this course display not only their own lack of understanding of the priesthood with which they are entrusted, but irretrievably undermine their ability to transmit an authentic understanding of the Church and its mission. In short, it leads to a form of institutional amnesia. The once familiar ceases to be so. What was once treasured as irreplaceable is no longer accessible.
The desire for relevance and acceptance deflects our focus away from that which makes the Christian message unique: the words of Christ Himself. The task for all members of the people of God is and remains to respond to the call to holiness and participate in the salvific mission of the Church. If our response is to be relevant, it must first be authentic. The authentic transmission and preservation of the faith is not dependent upon fashion or celebrity. It is rooted in Tradition and a recognition that we are entrusted with the faith. As we await the Amazon Synod, we do well to keep in mind that the faith demands our adherence, in and out of season. In the words of John Paul II:
“What really matters in life is that we are loved by Christ and that we love Him in return. In comparison with the love of Jesus, everything else is secondary. And, without the love of Jesus, everything else is useless.”