|Giving Thanks for the Good
Walking through a crowded street recently, I saw a father carrying his small daughter on his shoulders. She was literally on top of the world, beaming all over her face as she surveyed the scene from the safety of her perch. It made me think of the Good Shepherd. Pope John Paul II, writing about confession in this year’s Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, uses this very image. "The Father’s embrace and the Good Shepherd’s joy must be visible in each one of us, dear brothers, whenever a penitent asks us to become ministers of forgiveness."
The need for forgiveness must have been on the mind of the Holy Father as he received the latest crushing news about clerical child abuse in the last few months. He ends his letter to priests with an explicit reference to this problem. Interestingly enough, he speaks not only about the urgent necessity that the Church respond "in truth and justice to each of these painful situations", but also of the "dark shadow of suspicion" which as a consequence "is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity, and often with heroic self-sacrifice."
Some commentators have suggested that the problem would be resolved if the rules of clerical celibacy were relaxed. Aside from pointing out, as Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University has shown, that there is no higher incidence of child abuse among celibate clergy than among married or sexually active men, I am not competent to comment on this. But I can say what value priestly celibacy has for me and my family.
It is precisely as a radical challenge to our present culture of cynical self-gratification that the witness of the celibate life is so vital. Now, as perhaps never before in history, we are surrounded by sexualised images. The worst excesses of the ancient world, the lax morality of some Renaissance courts, did not have the modern mass media as collaborators. You can’t open a newspaper, turn on the TV, go to the theatre or cinema, or even simply walk down the street, without having your senses assaulted. A dubious Freudianism has overwhelmed modern consciousness with the idea that sexual urges are something so powerful and dominant in the human psyche that they must either be indulged or savagely repressed.
Yet the power of the soul, the work of grace, the role of self-possession are completely occluded in this picture. Dr. Wanda Poltawska, Professor of Pastoral Medicine at the Pontifical Academy of Crakow, and one of the most influential women in Pope John Paul II’s life (she contributed many of the ideas in Love and Responsibility), has critiqued this materialist notion of the human psyche. "We are not programmed in our sexuality," she writes. "In the human organism there exist no mechanisms forcing us to act this way." This is connected to a second problem. At this time in the West, many young people are the victims of several generations of family breakdown. This gives rise to emotional vulnerabilities which make them prey to a major confusion. Sexual activity replaces the familial love which every heart needs and longs to receive.
Yet our faith offers a different view of things. Christians, for all their faults and failings, seek a love that transcends personal gratification. We have as our inspiration and pattern the suffering and crucified Christ, that shepherd who allows himself to be torn limb from limb, sooner than surrender his little flock to the ravening jaws of the wolf. This type of love can be seen in the protective relationship of a parent to a child. The same qualities that mark out a good father mark out the true priest. His love is outward-looking. This is not compatible with a concupiscent or self-regarding turn of mind. Even if he is not sexually active, if a priest’s mentality is not orientated towards the spiritual fecundity of true fatherhood, he will not be able to function in a Christ-like fashion. You could say that the openness to new life propounded in Humanae Vitae has its counterpart in the spirituality of the priest or religious.
I can’t help wondering whether the notion of psychological testing for young men who present themselves as candidates for the priesthood isn’t slightly beside the point. It would be mad to try and weed out ‘weak’ candidates in favour of a kind of bullish machismo. In my experience, homosexual men are as capable of displaying ‘macho’ traits as heterosexual men – and in neither are these traits particularly attractive. The core of the matter is the fatherly role-model. Surely we would attract (and keep) the right candidates if the right men were in the seminaries to train and guide them. Seminarians today need wise, well-formed and balanced fathers in Christ if they themselves are to receive a wholesome formation.
And they need something else, too. In his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday in 1995, the Pope wrote of the role that women play in a priest’s life. In sharp contrast to those who argue that all would be well if only priests could marry, the Holy Father emphasised the need for them to develop deep within themselves a different image of women (in the following extracts, the italics are the Holy Father’s). "If the priest, with the help of divine grace and under the special protection of Mary, Virgin and Mother, gradually develops such an attitude towards women, he will see his ministry met by a sense of great trust precisely on the part of women whom he regards, in the variety of their ages and life situations, as sisters and mothers."
The Pope also referred to Our Lord’s special invitation to priests as "a path which is not a flight from marriage, but rather a conscious choice of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In view of this, women can only be sisters for the priest, and their dignity as sisters needs to be consciously fostered by him." The following year’s letter to priests took up a variation on this theme. "Love for God’s glory does not distance the priest from life and all that life entails; on the contrary, his vocation brings him to discover its full meaning."
Here we are far from the crisis-ridden image that the media like to foster. This is a picture of blessed normality, in which a priest can be a father to his people. Not a tyrannical, bullying, dysfunctional father, but rather attentive, firm yet gentle. An alter Christus, in fact. Certainly our family have the wonderful privilege of knowing men such as this: the type of priest, who as the Pope has put it, "listens humbly and sincerely to his brothers and sisters, that he may recognise in the drama of their lives and in their aspirations the ‘groans of the Spirit’." It is perhaps time we joined the Holy Father in giving thanks for the fact that the vast majority of priests, under trying circumstances, are still trying to be what God wants them to be.
Léonie Caldecott is a columnist for The Catholic Herald newspaper, and co-edits Second Spring, the journal of the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford.