Friday, January 18, 2008

Where is he going with this?

I was just watching World Over on EWTN where the had an interview with Very Rev. John Berg, the General Superior of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. While the interview itself was quite good and Fr. Berg conducted himself most eloquently, it was something he said that has only a tangential involvement with the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite that really set my mind moving.

As they were discussing Summorum pontificum and some of the training the FSSP is providing Fr. Berg mentioned that when priests come to their seminary in Nebraska they are exposed to the full sacramental life of the older books including Vespers and the whole of the Breviary. It is interesting, he mentioned, that in Summorum pontificum the Pope specifically gave permission for any priest to pray the breviary using the older book - that this was, in a way, an effort to help priests in their spiritual lives. Light bulb.

You see, some time ago I heard the situation of the Church put like this: Trent set out the ground rules for everyone; Vatican I clarified the roles of the Pope and the Bishops; Vatican II clarified the roles for the laity. The starkly missing portion in this is anything directed to the priests themselves. The suggestion was made that, to one extent or another, priests have been left to face a laity empowered with the possibility of greater roles and a newfound importance without a concomitant empowerment of the priests and thus were relatively powerless, or at least left to so feel, to clearly delineate between the "new" role of the laity and their own role. The suggestion, of course, followed that what was needed was a sort of "Vatican III" to clarify the roles of the priests and religious, to fill in the last gap left by Vatican I & II.

While I don't think the world could handle another Vatican Council at this time, the question of, per se, rudderless priests steering against a rush of both well- and mal-intentioned laity does seem at the very least plausible. In the most egregious cases the laity have usurped for themselves the duties and rights of their priests, leaving the priest to do nothing more than confect the sacraments and attend meetings. Even less egregious but equally dangerous is the more prevalent case where priests have improperly shared their duties out of a misinformed sense of inviting participation, where they have decided that options allowed for in abnormal circumstances were to be used regularly - see, for example, extraordinary ministers, non-installed lectors, and the choice in music. And oh, the committee meetings - talk to a priest today and you're likely to hear that they have at least one if not two or more late-night committee meetings that night, stretching their energy to the limit. The question must arise at some point, are all these meetings necessary - are the committees even necessary, and even if so, does the priest really need to be at each one? There certainly are tasks which require only supervisory oversight by the priest with occasional deeper investment - deciding which task is of which type is a delicate task indeed, and since most priests have a certain workaholic mentality the simple answer is to attend to all of them. Dangerous, for all involved.

So. In one document the Pope has told priests that it is their responsibility to look after the liturgical life of their parish and also that they must look after their own prayer life in the manner that fits them most correctly. He is, in a sense, saying "priests, be prayerful shepherds, not middle management." He is reminding them that when they were ordained they accepted a terrible responsibility and telling them to take it upon their shoulders - but always, always to do so properly prepared in prayer. Could this be the beginning of a clarification of the role of the priesthood that surpasses anything any altar rail or vestment could ever do? We can only hope.