11. [En]countering Priesthood

From the neural level of potential for ecstatic valuing, where deep dreams and mystic awareness and the energy of selfhood all find their basis, must also come the potency for living out both the priesthood of baptism and the priesthood of ordination. Our parish priest, with his homespun but subtle homilies, full of stories exactly in touch with parishioners’ moments and needs, his kindly ways, his hearing of confession like a guardian angel always on our side–he must be one in a thousand. What his life costs him he never says. We see it always at the consecration when he lifts the chalice, in his eyes and his soft gestures. The cost is very high. He suffers anxiety attacks. How can we help? Somehow, outside of liturgy and sacrament, there’s a line for him between ‘parishioners & their affairs’ and ‘refuge & relaxation for me’–we’re on the wrong side of it to help much. He’s afflicted by a notion that many Catholics have. People think priests and religious are supposed to float always four feet off the ground and never take a pee.

Why is the priesthood of ordination so different from the priesthood of baptism? The second is improvisational, the first more fixedly coded. The second leaves us on a loose tether, free to play at different subject positions and talk their talk, able to gyrate at different angles of self-actualization in the love of Christ. The first imposes, on the one called, the full violence of the institution.

Cultural theorists say that institutions–whether a hospital, a church, university, post office, or whatever–they typically enact a kind of force or violence on their practitioners, especially the leaders. The institution calls someone into feeling a certain way, into a certain subjectivity–as professor, as nurse, priest, or whatever. The person comes to feel the way that is right and useful for someone in that position to feel. He or she is ‘subjected’ to that role, pressed into it at a high psychic cost, but also thereby becomes a ‘subject’ of a certain voice, gains new forms of power, energy, agency. Then the task is to invent counter-strategies, so that one can stand up to, as well as stand up for, the institution. So one can let its energy flow into life-enabling rather than destructive living of its patterns. For our church, a very old and violent institution–also one with the stored libidinal riches of countless practitioners of its sacraments–someone in ordained priesthood will need all possible helps to maintain such a balance. When none but the rarest can walk the tightrope, and that often with agony, it is time for reform.

Because of the priest shortage in many regions worldwide, priests are currently being loaned out from Africa and elsewhere (the Irish supply having dried up)—the Vatican orders a sort of global busing, to meet the arguments and the need. Recently at a Newman Center, the young priest Tongele from Nigeria, on loan for five years, was giving his homily on the lectern platform. Midway, he invited up the former co-director of the Newman center, a nun who was visiting for the day. He said earlier workers had planted what he was now only watering. He had her stand, first beside him, then on her own, to offer her reflections as the second half of the homily. She told of her time since being fired from her job here because the bishop had decided that only a priest should run Newman. Afterwards Tongele was saying the consecration in his rich voice, with the sun coming through the window behind him and the congregation’s small children gathered around the altar. As he held up the large white circular host. It reflected intense sunlight onto his purple vestment, and from there up onto his eager face, giving it a violet sheen over deep black. The kids were wide-eyed, and everyone concelebrated in silence.

In many parts of the world, in the midst of changing views of priesthood, small jokes of the Holy Spirit are happening. When the Anglican church began ordaining women, a contingent of male priests in protest converted to Roman Catholicism and, complete with wives and children, are continuing their calling as catholic (and Catholic) priests. This was always possible for converts, by canon law, but rare. “Huh,” say the other British priests, “why can they be married and we can’t?” Through just such local wrinkles, wrinkles in time, priesthood will slowly change, until one day a pope will realize it has happened, and say something to confirm it.

Sexual renunciation has different meanings according to time and place, being as culture-specific as anything else. In current wealthy societies it does not carry value, while in peasant and capital-accumulative societies it apparently still does–the priest there is revered, gets compensating perks and admiration, his renunciation being seen as, in itself, a spiritual power. Here, no matter how warm and vital his relationship with his parish, he must carry everyone’s trouble, be dumped on by foolishness, then go home to an empty apartment, a t.v. dinner, and a dirty toilet with only himself to clean it. The pope rides atop all popery, and sees that many Catholics in some cultures would not be ready for a diversified priesthood. Opening it out into various practices will happen slowly.

Of course, some people have a calling to celibacy. It’s a particular psychic economy of making one’s very body an ideal, as if the carburetor of the metabolism is set so that all energy goes straight into engaged activity, quiet or intense, depending on the person’s temperament. A film of Mother Theresa shows her training novices, her eyes alight, shaking a young woman by the shoulders, repeating, “You must only love Jesus and do his work. Only love Jesus.” Shake. “Only love Jesus. ” Shake, shake. All that intensity, all that drive. Night and day only her calling, her libido dispensed entirely into it. But such “eunuchs made eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” are few–that call is for those who have ears to hear, Jesus said. Many people have a call to priesthood and pastoring, but no call to celibacy.

St. Paul was not that kind of eunuch but a man who suffered a “thorn” in the flesh, he said. Perhaps in his case, through his suffering, he was led to close the gap between Jew and Greek and between slave and master. He discovered a theology of Christ on the cross as cross-cultural. This was shocking for his time. Paul combined ‘Zeus the savior’ and God the lawgiver in the ultimate love-sacrifice. (Paul’s Letter to Philemon is a telling cultural document, saying that the runaway slave Onesimus, whom he now dearly loves, has been converted, and asking that Onesimus be received by his master as a brother in Christ, that he be forgiven and not whipped, as he returns to his slave duties.) Besides slave – master and Jew – Greek, Paul declared that he had also achieved a third fusion–of male and female–though he only partly did so. How did it come about? In the economy of his own psyche and libido, he became the staging place for these high-energy cultural inventions. It was done at an agonizing cost of reinstating, in even more deadly form, another dichotomy—homosexual – heterosexual. He called homosexuality not so much a sin as a punishment of God for human sin. To enforce his new order of things, Paul thundered that all and only God was decreeing the new dispensation he taught, that He was calling only certain elect, predestined people into it.

We need not continue Paul’s particular negotiation between the Hebrew denunciation of homosexuality and the Greek idealizing of it. That has seen its day. Rather, our call is to carry on his vision of the all-encompassing love of God, from which “neither things present nor things to come nor anything else in all creation” can separate us–his view of the cross as cross-cultural, as the power of God’s love for everyone, making peace between “those who are near and those far off”–between all who are estranged by difference and fear. And we must carry that peace into priesthood just as into the whole of the church.

If we use our resources to work and talk, slowly and patiently, to start new conversations about different ways of being church, to allay old fears, to forge new recognitions, we can begin to leave behind twelve hundred years of classification violence, that has crushed so many people’s spirits, driving them to misery and hypocrisy. And then homophobia and forced celibacy can go the way of slavery and stoning. And the call to lift the chalice can begin to be for everyone who sees the throne high and lifted up, and the cherubim of Isaiah singing “Holy, holy,” and finds the tongs with hot coals being brought, to burn and cleanse one’s unclean lips–Jew or Greek, ‘slave’ or ‘free’ (translate, white or of color), male or female, gay or straight.

We may not live to see this day. But by faith Abraham believed the offspring from his post-menopausal wife would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, though he did not get to see them. By faith Moses believed his people would reach the promised land, though he died short of it himself. By faith (says the author of Hebrews, doing his amazing hero catalogue) Rahab the ‘harlot’ concealed the scouts who were preparing the chosen people’s entry to the ‘promised land,’ though she could not know what their presence would bring. And by faith Jesus died asking why he had been abandoned–but is with us now, most present of presences. Let’s say we’ll cheer among the cloud of witnesses whenever the day comes at last.