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A most clerical layman?

As any informed observer will confirm, vocabulary in the Church is, like any other social community, subject to change. Take by way of example, the ubiquitous use of the term "Eucharistic Minister", with the de facto abandonment of the prefix "Extraordinary". It has to be said, some forms of usage are easier to bear than others. By way of example, in lieu of reference to the blessed sacrament or sacred species, it is not unusual to hear mention of the 'bread' and 'wine'. Clearly, as in all forms of communication, the deployment of language evidences both knowledge and ignorance. For many, the mere mention of the name Malaprop will prompt vivid recall of toe-curling exchanges. The Church is not immune to such encounters. Consider the permanent Deacon who, with unflinching confidence, refers to his participation in the Holy Eucharist as 'concelebration'. Consider also the "Eucharist Ministers" (sic) who encapsulate the purification of the sacred vessels as the 'washing up'. The confidence with which terms such as these are expressed have aided their repetition and, it may said, their usage and acceptance without challenge or contradiction.

During a recent conversation I was introduced to a new term: a "clerical layman". Canonists will immediate recognise the oxymoron. However, being imparted third hand, the precise context was not reported. It was made clear that the term had been adopted as a means of describing a person (i.e. "a most clerical layman"). Lack of detail as to the use of the term precludes any precise judgment as to whether it was intended as criticism or compliment. However, the fact that the term was used at all is rather surprising. Why? Perhaps the feast of All Souls provides the answer.

Throughout the Catholic Tradition, this date marks an occasion in the Church's year which is set aside as a reminder of mortality. In this sense, it may be thought to have something in common with Ash Wednesday. Whilst a timely reminder of mortality, today also marks an occasion when we are reminded of the cause of our hope and the source of our consolation: God's love for us demonstrated by the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Christ Himself.

As the Letter to the Romans affirms: "Hope is not deceptive." The reason for this is clear: because the care of each and every one of us is in the hands of God. All souls are entrusted to Him. However, in order to equip us on our journey He has entrusted the Church with the sacraments as the principal means and vehicle of His grace. For the uniformed observer, it is perhaps worth noting that these sacraments are dependent upon the priesthood instituted by Christ himself. The summit of this grace and primary means by which we participate in the Body of Christ is, of course, through the Eucharist. Contrary to rumour, this sacrament of the Eucharist is also dependent upon the availability of a priest.

It may be thought therefore that all lay people (male and female) are obliged to look to their pastors as the principal dispensers of His Grace. If this reality is considered a form of clericalism, it is one which is required. For those denominations which do not share the sacramental understanding of the Church, the non-inclusivity of this arrangement may be counter-intuitive or unwelcome. For those within the Catholic Tradition, this same exclusivity conferred by Christ Himself has nothing to do with desirability. It is a state of necessity. It is the order of things determined by Christ Himself. It is no optional extra.

Nonetheless, in certain parts of the Church, it is possible to detect a resistance to this reality. Some even go so far as to suggest that the situation is itself ripe for rejection (e.g. the demand for women deacons, priests and beyond).

For constituencies such as these, "clericalism" seemingly rests upon the perception of the priesthood as a a form of exclusivity, elitism or suppression. However, this perception is itself the product of a failure to recognise the true character and nature of the priest (i.e. as one who has undergone an ontological change through the sacrament of ordination). It is through ordination that the priest is aligned to the person of Christ in a unique way; enabling (if not obliging) the priest to minister in persona Christi.

What then of the clerical-laity? Must it denote some form of aberration, deficiency, or criticism? Perhaps instead, the suggestion that a lay person displays a clerical mentality means nothing more than the fact that she recognises her need for, and dependency upon, the existence of the priesthood as the Christ nominated dispensers of the sacraments. Far from being a form of suppression, the priesthood daily makes available to us the sacraments which are essential to our individual call to holiness. Viewed in this way, the term clerical-laity might be commended for inclusion into popular church use as a means of conveying the irreplaceable value of our priests and the role they (and they alone) fulfil in our journey as members of the people of God.

The sacerdotal character and role of the priest is the same whether one's individual vocation calls for participation in secular work, missionary activity or emerging forms of ecclesial movements and apostolates. Without a connection to the sacramental life of the Church all such endeavours enjoy the same value and fate of whistling in the wind. In the words of St John Henry Newman:

"I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created....God has created me to do him some definitive service, he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another; I have my mission..."

The authentic discernment of this service, work, or mission, is not dependent upon some intellectual exercise, or subscription to a political or social ideology. It requires the cultivation of a relationship with Christ. This relationship necessarily draws upon the graces to which the sacraments give us access. The sacraments which our priests minister to us. As the saying goes: "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever." Given this Truth, perhaps we would do well to cultivate a clerical-lay mindset of the type discussed here. In doing so, we might also seek to encourage and uphold our priests for their daily sacrifice rather than sacrificing their sacred office on the altar of an ideology of an altogether more secular kind.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

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