"We Roman Catholics worry more whether the candidate for this calling (to the priesthood) is male rather than female, celibate rather than married, but we worry not nearly enough whether that candidate has a firm grasp on Christian wisdom."
I found it particularly edifying as we approach Holy Week, when we commemorate Jesus' "dismissal" from his society for suggesting maybe their hearts, thoughts, traditions and religion weren't sufficiently open and big enough to contain God's revelation.
Julia Gatta, THE NEARNESS OF GOD: PARISH MINISTRY AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE (New York, Morehouse Publishing, 2010) 141 pages.
Some books occasion happiness in their readers. Such a one is Julia Gatta’s THE NEARNESS OF GOD: PARISH MINISTRY AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE. For a priest, reading it is much like being on retreat. Julia, with her twenty five years of experience is the retreat master. That she is a woman and married vindicates a complaint I used to mutter to myself many years ago when I was a seminary professor.
We Roman Catholics worry more whether the candidate for this calling is male rather than female, celibate rather than married, but we worry not nearly enough whether that candidate has a firm grasp on Christian wisdom. She has it, and shows it throughout the five chapters that make up this slim volume. In them she reflects on ordination, the eucharist, preaching and prayer, pastoral care, and temptation in ministry.
The central theme pervading her reflections on the priesthood is borrowed from Karl Rahner. “This is the life of the priest: to dwell completely in the explicit nearness of God.” Her companion is Urban T. Holmes who “was one of the first to call the priesthood of the church back to its theological and spiritual roots” so that priests might “reclaim their vocation to mediate the transcendent mystery of God.”
Priests can get bogged down in thinking of themselves as counselors and managers, leaders of their congregations and communities, another ‘helping profession.’ Underneath her reflections, although she never says so, stands a theology of grace, the saving presence of God that gifts every human life. It is to that the priest is related. It awaits the mediation of the priest in the mundane where “we are more apt to discover these blessings in the wide spectrum of exchanges that reveal our common humanity."
“Profoundly religious assumptions,” she later says, “are lodged quietly in worldly concerns,… the kinds of things people talk about when they do not think they are talking religion.” The Trinitarian presence of God embraces every human life, and the priest is oriented toward it as mediator to its becoming explicit in consciousness and behavior. And “Grace often takes us by surprise.”
This might have led these reflections on the priesthood toward a wider field of concern. Reviewing this book in SEWANEE THEOLOGICAL REVIEW (Vol.54, No. 1, p.86), Elizabeth Orens wonders “what she might say about the role of the priest who is called to witness in a social and political context.” In so wondering, she, no doubt, is groping toward a vision of the priesthood that focuses on its essentially missionary nature. While priests are ordained by and within a Christian community, they are not ordained only for it. They are also SENT by the Christian community to the mystery of grace irrupting in the wider world.
The author of THE NEARNESS OF GOD might have had this in mind when she rightly draws our attention to the fact that it is “natural for us to mark the beginning of a new priest’s ministry with a first celebration of the eucharist.” She then goes on to recall “a wonderful scene at the conclusion of the movie PLACES IN THE HEART that captures how the eucharist makes present the ‘age to come’” It looks forward to a final reconciliation of all human beings “sharing in the eschatological power of Christ’s Body and Blood.”
The author comes closest to affirming the missionary nature of the priesthood when focusing on a certain uneasiness she has with the term Pastoral care. “Whatever else ‘pastoral’might mean, then, “ she says, “it is a calling that must keep the paschal mystery well in the foreground.” For, “each human being contains unfathomable depths.” People experience the paschal mystery (often a kind of entering into the death of Christ without any feeling for the resurrection) not quite knowing what is happening in their lives. And, we priests “are invited into these places of pain and weakness simply because we are the priest; were it not for our ordination, we would not be there.”
This little book focuses on the priesthood within the Christian community. It is concerned with parish ministry as spiritual practice. It is here that its author displays both her experience and her wisdom. Nowhere is this more evident than in her chapter THE SUPPER OF THE LAMB: CELEBRATING THE EUCHARIST. She observes: “In some quarters, however, emphasizing liturgy as the ‘work of the people’ has become a pretext for endless human invention, while correspondingly little attention is paid to liturgy as Christ’s gift and action among us.”
This perspective carries over into the way she introduces her chapter on SERVING THE WORD: PRAYER FOR PREACHING. Her opening paragraph situates the two. “Preaching prepares the congregation for prayer, for their participation in the sacred mysteries.” It is clear that she has homiletic preaching in mind. She is quick to explain. “It refreshes the cleansing, transformative grace of baptism. It cultivates our ongoing conversion to Christ. It forms in us the perspective of the gospel. It sharpens our vision of the kingdom of God.”
This most rewarding chapter, wherein she intertwines prayer and preaching, was doubly effective for me because I was also reading Lewis V. Baldwin’s
NEVER TO LEAVE US ALONE: THE PRAYER LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. at the same time. She is helpful and suggestive as to how to go about preaching, but she is not adverse to doing a little scolding. “Those who feel themselves called to the priesthood but who shy away from preaching and teaching are captured more by a sacerdotal archetype than by a calling to the real work of priesthood.”
A final chapter, DEFYING AND DEFINING LIMITS: TEMPTATION IN MINISTRY, is quite intriguing. “Grace confronts on all sides in a world saturated with the presence of the Risen Christ,” she reminds us, but priests must also remember that there is a close connection between ministry and temptation. The synoptic gospels attest to it, and “we would be naïve to suppose that the Holy Spirit is the only spirit around, that all the influences that press upon us are benign.”
The demonic is real, however we want to explain it. We can be tempted by the good. Remember the temptations of Jesus. They now weave their way into priestly ministry seducing priests to misuse their power, or to ask to be saved from self inflicted disasters, and to fail to honor the limitations of their
human nature. All by way of proposing the good that can come from it.
There is one aspect of this demonic assault on the ministry of the priest that remains inarticulate in her reflections. It was anticipated in her preface when she wrote: “For too long…the Church has subscribed to an essentially ethical understanding of IMITATIO CHRISTI to define the goal of Christian life and ministry. Jesus was not first and foremost a teacher of ethics. Part of his ministry was devoted to teaching and part of his teaching was devoted to ethical concerns. But, the last thing a priest wants to do is to wean people away from the cruciform character of human existence. Moral integrity is laudable, but priests have an eye and a nose for how the paschal mystery is woven into the flesh and blood of human existence.
Our ministry is not fundamentally to the moral integrity of humans, as laudable as that may be. Priests have to resist the temptation to undermine the gospel not by way of something evil, but through something good. The satanic temptation comes through when the moral life is promoted as the epitome of Christian living, displacing the mystery of life-through-death. True morality needs the paschal mystery for its foundation.
THE NEARNESS OF GOD is a small book with much in it to be savored, particularly by priests. But, it will surely be welcomed by anyone who wants to spend some time with a true spiritual guide whose wisdom is surely Christian.
John E. Keegan, M.M.