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Our Marist Priesthood: Reflections on a Neglected theme

July 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Featured, John Thornhill

In our branch of the Marist Family there is an essential link, I have come to recognise, between our Marist calling and our vocation to the priesthood – a link that has been little reflected upon.

Many Marists, I am sure, have had an experience similar to mine.  It was a decision to become a priest that took me to the Marist Seminary – a decision that I now recognise was filled with the ambiguity of youthful idealism.  Why a Marist?  The Marist Fathers who taught me were a happy band; why not join them?  There was much that needed to be clarified before I began to appreciate the ‘gracious choice’ of our Marist vocation.

Living for a couple of years with Jean Coste, in the International Scholasticate, as he was beginning to bring to light the origins of the Society of Mary was a remarkable privilege.  It brought a new appreciation of the greatness of the Marist calling.  In the years that followed – as Coste’s researches brought to the Society at large a recognition of the inspiration that is to be found in the Marist charism, some Marists opted to defer ordination, thinking this would make it possible for them to live their Marist life independently of the status and influence associated with the priestly ministry.

These developments challenged us to reflect upon the link that exists – in our branch of the Marist project – between our Marist calling and our priestly ministry.  My reflections along these lines have led me to the conviction that this link is basic, and that it has great significance for our living of the Marist vocation.

Some things are so obvious that we overlook them.  The band of young men who planned the foundation of the Society of Mary were clerical students who were preparing to serve God’s people in the priestly ministry.  Their Fourviere Pledge was made at the time of their ordination to the priesthood.  In the early days of the Society scores of diocesan priests chose to continue their ministry as Marists.  Finally, and most importantly, it is clear that the reflections of the one who was to emerge as the inspired leader of the group were a response to problems associated with a style of priestly ministry and privilege that had long been taken for granted.

It was only to be expected that, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Church in France – long established in a situation of influence and privilege – should seek to revive its old way of doing things.  Jean-Claude Colin, however, saw that the mood of the times called for a new style of ministry.  And he was led to recognise that the new Society, bearing the name of Mary, could point the way forward in this style of ministry, if it identified with the ways of Mary living in the midst of the Church of the beginnings.

If the essence of the gift of prophecy is a recognition of the relevance of the truth of the gospel to a concrete historical situation, Colin’s insight was truly prophetic.  One of the signs of a prophetic gift’s authenticity is the fact that it not only illuminates a particular situation, but it sheds a light that goes far beyond that original situation.  Our Founder was addressing difficulties of the French Church in the early 19th century; but his insights can help us to come to terms with problems that have troubled the life of the Church for most of its history – problems that had their origin in the middle of the first millennium of the Christian era.

In the judgment of the Benedictine historian, Jean Leclercq[1], a development of immense consequence took place in the Western Church of the 5th century.  Prior to this development, ordained ministers – who wore no distinctive dress – shared a common life with other members of the Church community.  In these centuries, the laity had available to them the same facilities for Christian formation as the clergy and they enjoyed direct participation in the Church’s life in many practical ways.  Far-reaching changes were inevitable, however, after Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire.  The conversions that followed this establishment made it impossible for the old relationship of clergy and faithful to continue.  The clergy became a sociologically distinct group that had to assume responsibility for the initiatives called for in the life of the communities that crowded the large basilicas constructed for them by Constantine.  The assimilation of the barbarian peoples, in the centuries that followed, only accentuated the pattern that had emerged.

In the space of a few generations, a revolutionary change took place in the Church’s life; and it was probably impossible for those involved to recognise the momentous long term consequences this change was to have.  In the words of Leclercq, the Church was ‘clergified’.  The old collaborative relationship, taken for granted in the previous centuries, disappeared; the principal initiatives in the Church’s life passed into the hands of the clergy; and the baptised were reduced to a purely passive role in the Church’s life.

The Church of the early centuries certainly had its problems and shortcomings.  Its fundamental unity, however, was grounded in an awareness of the mystery of its common life ‘in Christ’, realised through baptism. And those who ministered in that Church had as their ideal the words and example of the Saviour concerning the servant-leadership.  ‘Do not lord it over the group which is in your charge’, we read in 1 Peter, ‘but be an example for the flock’ (5:3).  This ideal was still alive in the 4th century, finding expression in words Augustine used more than once, ‘With you I am a Christian [through our common baptism]; for you I am a bishop [called to serve you by fostering the blessings in which we share]’.

In later centuries, however, this tradition became a distant memory, as Catholicism came to take for granted the ambiguous relationship that had developed between the clergy, as a separate and privileged group, and the body of the faithful.  Jean-Claude Colin and his companions were confronted by a situation that has had many variations in the Church’s long history since the 5th century.  And there can be little doubt that this dysfunctional relationship between the Church’s ordained ministers and the body of the faithful contributes to many of the problems facing the Church today.

Our Founder’s dream of a ‘new Church’, animated by Mary’s spirit, gave expression to a great faith tradition, going back beyond our reading from Revelation.  The prophets likened Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord to a marriage.  And according to today’s biblical scholarship, the ‘Woman’ figure of our first reading – reshaping the old theme of espousal between God and God’s beloved people – reflects New Testament awareness of Mary’s place in the plan of God.  In our time, John Paul II, in a significant address to the Roman curia, urged a renewed expression of the Marian profile of the Church – to balance the Petrine profile that has come to dominate Catholic awareness.  Recently, the Benedictine theologian, Guislain Lafont made a similar point.  Discussing the challenge of renewal, he remarked that too often Mother Church seems to the broader world community to have ‘a worrisome face’; whereas, if she gave expression to her true self, the Church would present ‘a desirable and beautiful face’.

The dysfunctional relationship I have referred to has had many consequences.  One of these is the fact that it has tended to rob us of the confidence we should have in our ordained ministry and its crucial importance in a renewed Christian community.  The ministry of the ordained is essential to the very being of the pilgrim Church. This gift of the Spirit makes possible the sacramental life of the Church; it should find expression in the enabling leadership that is essential to the Church’s effective presence in the broader community; and when this gift of the Spirit animates a life totally given to all that the Church is called to be, it has provided a symbolic presence of immense importance in the life of the pilgrim Church.  It is clear that the style of ministry we adopt is crucial for the renewal to which the Church is being calling in the coming age.  For that reason, a correction of the dysfunctional relationship that has long existed between the ordained and the body of the faithful is essential to Church renewal.

Jean-Claude Colin’s vision of a ‘new Church’ was truly prophetic.  And – given the truth of what I have been saying – it is my conviction that the priestly ministry was an essential component of the Founder’s prophetic vision for the Society of Mary.  This does not mean, of course, that his vision did not include those who do not exercise the ordained ministry.  The original plan of a Marist movement with several ‘branches’ makes this clear.  We have a glimpse of how real and practical was the Founder’s understanding of the relationship between the ordained and his people, when we learn that some of the people who attached themselves to him during his ministry at Cerdon added ‘S.M.’ to their signatures.

There are many ways, of course, in which we can give a new depth to the themes of our Marist tradition, when we relate them to an understanding of what our priestly ministry should contribute to the life of God’s people.  Let me share one that struck me forcibly, as I listened to what Justin Taylor had to say in the splendid retreat we have just completed.  The mission of the Saviour, a mission he shares with the pilgrim Church, was to make a reality the ideal that, in today’s world, seems an impossible dream: ‘to gather together into one the scattered children of God’ (John 11:52).  Called together to share in the Saviour’s outreach to the world, the first Christian community – for our Founder the ‘sole model’ of the Society of Mary – was drawn instinctively to give a witness to this great ideal by the quality of their life together – ‘united in heart and soul’ in ‘the teaching of the apostles, the brotherhood, the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 4:32; 2:42}.  And, in their midst, Mary’s selfless presence fostered their unity and fidelity.  Under the leadership of the apostles, they showed the world for the first time the ‘desirable and beautiful face’ of God’s Church – and ‘they were looked up to by everyone’ (Acts 2:46).

The ministry and leadership of the ordained is absolutely crucial to the renewal and vitality of the Church.  The tradition that was established for us by our Founder teaches us how this ministry can become the inspiring force it should be in the Church’s life.  His ‘whole world Marist’ was not an idle boast, but the expression of his desire to share his vision with the whole Church.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether our neglect of the link between our priestly ministry and our Marist calling helps to explain the fact that we have had such little success in sharing our Marist way with the faithful to whom we minister.

John Thornhill sm
Homily at the Jubilarians’ Mass, Hunters Hill, 9 Sept. 2005

[1] ‘The Priesthood in the Patristic and Medieval Church’, ch 4 of The Christian Priesthood, eds N. Lash and J. Rymer, London, 1970.

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