In the wake of a crisis in our Church that continues to unfold every day, I find it interesting that all three of the Liturgical Readings for this week focus specifically on the notion of priestly service and ministry.
We see the Apostles asking the community to select some of its own members for the ministry of service, so that they could concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4) This fits a pattern for the early church: the priests would serve the community by being persons dedicated to prayer, teaching and presiding at Eucharist. Members of the laity, both men and women would take ownership of the other aspects of their community life.
According to scripture scholars, the First Letter of Peter was written between 70-90 A.D. to the Christian communities located in five provinces in Asia Minor, and addresses the difficulty of living the Christian life in a hostile, secular environment that upholds different values and subjected the Christian community to ridicule and oppression. The author reminds the people: "…let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ," And he assures them: "…you are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises' of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."
The Second Vatican Council gave us the opportunity to rediscover the original model of church. More and more lay men and women have been invited to use their gifts and charisms for the service of the community of believers. More and more, the laity understands that they are the Church. Ordained clergy, priests and deacons, along with religious men and women, do have special roles within the community, but they are servants, and they are not the Church. We have come to understand that our faith rests not in the organization that we call "church" but in the Person who gathers this community - this church - together.
Today's Gospel is a scene from the Last Supper, occurring on the first Holy Thursday, which is seen as the traditional celebration of the institution of the Priesthood. Scripture tells us that Jesus did two things that night which define the sacramental nature of the priesthood: He commissioned his disciples to bring His healing power of forgiveness, allowing us to reconcile ourselves with one another and with God; and He commissioned them to gather the people around His table, break bread with and for them, and make present among them once again His Body and Blood.
The first disciples gradually came to understand their special role as "priests," and from what we find in scripture and tradition they had no problem sharing the other aspects of that priesthood with others.
Somewhere throughout the years of history, these original notions of self-understanding were lost in an organizational structure that separated the people of God into two classes: clergy and laity. Somewhere along the way, the priesthood of Jesus Christ became seen as a special gift offered only to a few, rather than the duty and responsibility of all baptized Christians.
This becomes painfully evident as we watch our Church leaders struggle through the mire of a scandal that they alone have brought upon themselves. The crisis within the Church today is not one of priesthood. The sacramental priesthood is alive and well, and there are thousands of good priests struggling daily to bring the Good News to God's people... The scandal of this crisis is not the fact that a very small percentage of Catholic clergy perpetrated these crimes. We know that there are those in every religious faith - both clergy and non-clergy - who abuse the weak, the helpless and most vulnerable. And by law we know how to deal with them.
The scandal lays in the mindset of a clerical state that views priesthood as a privileged way of life, a protected zone that sees canon law as absolute.
And so, the U.S. Cardinals returned from Rome with a working paper of guidelines to be presented to the nations' bishops at their June meeting. They have called upon priests and bishops to strive for holiness. They have told pastors that they need to strongly reprimand those who spread dissent. Seminaries should carefully screen applicants, and should insist on strict adherence to Catholic moral doctrine. Celibacy was reaffirmed as a gift from God to the Church.
At the closing press conference, the cardinals talked about many things. They spoke of a "zero-tolerance" policy for abusers; they spoke of a "one-strike and you're out" approach to clerical abuse, but really couldn't define to the satisfaction of many just exactly what this means or whether they were in complete agreement about this. They talked about a sub-culture of homosexuality in the priesthood and in our seminaries, and what they plan to do - or not do - about it. And they did express their regret "that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal."
It's what they didn't talk about that's so discouraging and embarrassing. They should have been talking about leadership and the issue of what to do about bishops who protected priests who abuse. They should have spoken about responsibility and accountability. They should have spoken about a clerical system which allowed those abusers to continue to minister.
The final statement of the cardinals' document calls for a day for prayer and penance throughout the Church in the United States, in order to implore reconciliation and the renewal of ecclesial life. Don't they know that the people of God have been praying for our priests - and our bishops - all along?And we have been begging for ecclesial renewal for almost 40 years.
One wonders if they missed the point. The victims of clergy sex abuse and their families are rightly disappointed.
In our Gospel, Philip speaks one famous line that is recorded for all time: "Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us." These words sum up the entire purpose and direction of the human journey. They enunciate the basic longing of our hearts to see God, to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him. Philip speaks for all of us when he says to Jesus: "We really only need one thing - to see God; show us how to do that, and that will be enough!"
Jesus answered with words that are equally critical for us: "Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me?" <