Toward A Spirituality For Resigned Priests
I believe that one of the most powerful experiences of Jesus' life was his identification with those who were marginalized, and his unwavering compassionate response to them. When we read the gospels from this point of view, we can discover much of value for us today, for those outside the centers of influence in society and church, and particularly for the resigned priest: almost twenty thousand in the U.S.A. and an estimated 100,000 in the world. I employ the word "resigned" not to infer that they are no longer priests but to refer to their leaving of an official, canonical status. I attempt here to be a possible bridge-builder or breach-mender to the many "lost" shepherds of our age.
Until priests resigned, they did not experience the rejection that comes from being marginal. Only then did they have credit refused, found people no longer deferential, discovered their seminary education counted for nothing, experienced some family members refusing to speak to them for years, were forced to search for employment, and take skilled labor jobs unless they had a friend in the right place or went back to school. Many had to search extensively for employment. Priests left being insiders, those who control the the Mysteries and their rituals: functionaries inside the hierarchical system, for the margins of the church, though seldom for the margins of society. They left a middle class life style where they had many needs for shelter, sustenance, security and social acceptance already met. The transition was a culture shock even for those few who had graduate degrees. I do not wish to romanticize this. Most resigned priests with seminary education and enough friends or family to help in times of difficulties will never experience marginality as did the poor of Jesus' and our time. Few today encounter those who are utterly lost unless they work with the poor, homeless, alcoholics, or other such outcasts.
But many resigned priests feel excluded and marginalized, even if this is sometimes partly their own unresolved guilt about their transition, their individualism or isolation, or their lack of spirituality for a different life style. Some were kept by the local bishop from obtaining local or ecumenical jobs they were well qualified for. They are not now permitted to serve at the altar as an ordinary layperson. Gathering them together for sharing has been very difficult. Only a very small percentage do any networking. One married priest I have known for 25 years has never dealt with his guilt. The way some were treated has caused them to be unwilling to have anything to do with the either the church or other resigned priests. Others have maintained ongoing relationships with priests (and sometimes bishops) who remain within the hierarchy. I want to propose that the transition from the cultic priesthood to a different place can be an incentive for reflection and spiritual growth and a new sense of solidarity and mission with the excluded of the world. But the spirituality based on altar, divine office, and pastoral service no longer fits. No one has yet suggested a spirituality for the resigned priest. This is proposed as a humble beginning. Earlier drafts have been circulated with a number of resigned and canonical priests and their suggestions are being incorporated. The concept of marginality offers a frame.
What does it mean to be marginal? How do the marginalized see the world differently? Do the gospels and Jesus show us the value of being marginalized? What makes outsiders more perceptive? Do we need "the poor" for our conversion? How does the resigned priest respond to being marginalized? Does he have an special incentive for his own spiritual development? How might this be demonstrated? Do we need a new kind of priesthood? We address these questions.
The margin of society is the place where those who suffer inequality, injustice and exploitation live their lives. Or those who are simply "born poor," without the resources of the middle class. They do not have either voice or status to make their experience count. They simply lack power and access to many resources. Only a small group of people in positions of influence, the insiders, control the decisions and shaping of society.
The marginalized, the outsiders, see the world differently particularly in terms of justice and power. They have to respect the rules and privileges of insiders yet they know these do not apply to their own lives. Outsiders speak both languages: that of the insiders and their own. Insiders know only their own language because it gets them all they need. In a perceptive article from which this draws heavily, Jane Kopas states that:
Nowhere is the authenticity of marginal knowledge more evident than in the gospels. There the early Christian community remembers the ways that Jesus heard the voices of outsiders and validated the truth of their experiences. According to the gospel writers, Jesus both allowed the marginalized to speak their truth, and he also experienced that truth by being marginalized himself (Kopas, p.117).Both women and men suffer similar kinds of exclusion through illness, poverty and lack of social status. But women suffer double exclusion, through female "uncleanness", economic dependence upon a husband or son, marital status, education, religious standing, and relationships. Women in the gospels were able to speak both the language of the oppressor and the oppressed. Jesus frequently responded to them and used their voices to speak to the hardened of heart.
One can be an outsider in a number of ways: economically, politically, religiously, sociologically or sexually. Jesus exemplified outsider status in a number of ways. Some of these were: the non-traditional source of his ideas, his place of origin: (What good can come from Nazareth? --Jn 1:42), his anti-establishment role as a poor person with no power base, the fact that he chose outsiders as his friends and associates, and finally his death as an outsider. Regardless of illness, poverty, social status or occupation, Jesus assisted outsiders to discover for themselves personal values that transcended the accepted standards of worth set by the guardian insiders. Perhaps the most profound aspect of his life was his identification with the outsiders, all the "poor" of his society. The opening words Jesus selected to describe his mission, which he chose from Isaiah 61, seem enormously significant:
Spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
If we read the gospels from the point of view of the outsider status of the poor, the ill or diseased, the religiously ostracized or those excluded socially or politically, we can see not only how Jesus continually made himself vulnerable, but also how he calls upon the excluded "poor" for an understanding and wisdom not available to the insiders.
According to the perceptive exposition of Kopas, each of the four gospels presents the outsider in a different context, The financially poor were a primary category, comprising 98% of the inhabitants of Jesus world. They were either poor peasants living in fishing or agricultural villages and working class laborers living in the few pre-industrial cities. Beggars and slaves were the most marginalized. In Luke's gospel one finds a number of examples of the voices of the poor challenging the understanding of insiders, particularly widows (Lk 7:11; 21:1, 18;1). It is instructive to read Luke for examples of hearing the truth that the poor have to speak. We discover outsiders know many things the insiders do not. We learn we cannot celebrate in good conscience without considering the plight of those who are outside the celebration (Lk 14:12). The poor find their experience confirmed and the non-poor discover they need to keep on listening to the poor.
During Jesus' time, illness and disease were seen as the result of sin or the punishment of God. Avoidance of others for fear of contamination as well as lack of mobility and energy made the sick truly "outcasts." Those most in need of consolation were the most deprived of it. Mark's gospel offers many examples of this exclusion: dreaded skin disease (Mk 1:40), paralysis (Mk 2:1), demonic possession (Mk 5:1), female disorders (Mk 5:25), and blindness (Mk 8:22).
Many exclusions exist today: victims of environmental diseases (compounded by the lack of response from the "insiders"), the impoverished ill and elderly, those imprisoned, millions in nursing homes, and particularly those with AIDS. Most of these are also compounded exclusions by their status or social ostracism, or lack of access to even pastoral help today.
Matthews's gospel seems to highlight those excluded because of religion: ritual impurity (Mt 23:25), lack of perfect observance of the Law (Mt 12:1), association with unacceptable people (Mt 9:10), and gender inferiority (Mt 5:31). Religious authority of the time assumed that external requirements were a sign of the quality of a persons' relationship with God. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus confronted that posture continuously. He also deliberately associated with those who were considered outsiders: tax collectors, sinners and outcasts (Mt 9:10). He demonstrated that all outsiders: tax collectors, prostitutes, children and women have access to the Kingdom. Even more than access he highlighted that fact that they have particular experiences that open them to the power and the truth of God.
Besides the economical, physical and religious forms of exclusion, John's gospel demonstrates examples of the politically and socially excluded. Jesus conversation in particular with the Samaritan woman of dubious reputation (Jn 4) contrasts with the dialogues Jesus has with men. The interplay between "Jerusalem" and those outside the power center: Galileans and Samaritans is prevalent. Most people in our world are politically marginalized.
What is the particular wisdom of the poor? They perceive the pretensions, vanities and games of the insiders, the inevitable blindness of those in power, how self-righteous and closed they are. Outsiders can more easily recognize their own complex vulnerability and thus a greater need for interdependence. They know that all security given by the world or others is illusory. They know that their safety cannot come from social status, health, wealth, or even religion. They know the good things of life belong to all and can never be enjoyed by excluding others. They, above all, know how fickle is the "good fortune" of the day. Because of their precarious vulnerability they can more easily grasp that their most unshakable identity comes only from God's unconditional acceptance which they are constantly invited by their circumstances to model. Thus they are easily generous with the stranger. They comprehend that this kind of living somehow connects them with a larger Mystery of Divine Hospitality. I am not romanticizing by proposing that all outsiders accomplish this, but that it is more possible than with those who must go through the "eye of the needle."
Consider that we have often distorted the way of Being Christian into a "salvation" exclusively for us, for our group of believers, and further, been ready to judge others as further from God because they do not hold the same beliefs. Rather than a dualistic acceptable/non-acceptable division of people, perhaps the unique way of being Christian has more to do with total equality of discipleship, and that each of us can learn from another, no matter how divergent the path, history, experience, or sinfulness we confront. "There but for the grace of God go I!" But righteousness based upon external observance can never admit that. We must be confronted with personal crisis or the power of our dark side, what Carl Jung calls the Human Shadow, before we can accept that truth. Or those whom the circumstances of life have wrenched into a state of being marginal.
Our prospering suburban Catholic churches often have no contact with these various classes of the "poor." Yet faltering inner city parishes are full of them. Prophets measure the faith of the community by their care for and justice to the poor.
Is this not the sort of fasting that pleases
Your light will rise in the darkness,
(Isaiah: 58, Jerusalem bible)
Some personal crisis, confrontation with the dark Shadow side of personality, or being with the poor enables me to encounter my own still existing place of personal poverty. Remember the sort of people who were open to Jesus' message was seldom the insider, but more likely the marginal, the dispossessed, alienated, excluded, and the ostracized. Consider that to have a sense of our own spiritual poverty is a powerful insight and grace that can open us to the power of God, particularly his unconditional love. It enables us to escape the compulsive need to earn our way to heaven, and the hidden and pervasive ego-centeredness that can mark the path of religious people. If marriage has not yet done it, I propose that Life itself will bring us to an invited or necessary kenosis or emptying of ourselves like that of Jesus (Phil 2). Said one resigned priest at a conference, "I've had a lot more kenosis from my marriage than was ever required by my priesthood!"
Have we as resigned priests accepted the grace-ful-ness of our roles of being marginal, as an incentive for understanding the role of all the outcasts, as a spur for joining in prayerful solidarity with the marginal of the world, and, hopefully, becoming spokesmen for them to the principalities and powers of the world? Are we spending ourselves in any way with the spiritual and corporal works of mercy? Or are we still wrapped in a clerical mentality, secretly yearning to return for the camaraderie, the status, the perks? Are we waiting like ex-functionaries or bureaucrats for someone with authority to give us an assignment? Or do we simply want nothing to do with "church" at all? Yet are we not called even by Baptism but more so by Orders to make ourselves vulnerable to others and their needs? Does Jesus measure our energy for the Kingdom by the extent we respond to the "poor," and are willing to live marginally ourselves?
How active are we in some aspect of the lay apostolate, missions, social work, pastoral counseling, education or service? Some have chosen these fields for their own professional or volunteer endeavors. Yet I have found many resigned priests over the years seldom willing to acknowledge repeated invitations to gather together to learn from each other, share the journey, and even assist the lately resigned in their transition. Disillusionment, if this is what it is, seems massive. Very few, probably less than five percent, are active in two different national organizations: CORPUS and FCM, the Fellowship of Christian Ministries, though many may be active in various ministries.
I have come to view my excluded status as a tremendous gift of grace that has given me perspectives I would never be capable of had I remained within the official structure. By embracing the exile I share the dark journey with countless brothers and sisters. I have found my exclusion a great incentive for prayer, journaling, writing, activity, and new energy for the Kingdom. I can even glory in my exclusion, as Paul gloried in his weakness, because of the many graces and insights it has brought me. And because when I am humanly weak, then am I strong in God (2 Cor 12:9). Strong also in gratefulness, hopefully also in humility, and in the giftedness of everything. Especially with the precious gift of faith, which transforms everything.
In the circumstances of the resigned priest abides a rediscovery of a deeper meaning of priesthood, namely the priesthood of Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us-now-already, a priesthood without authority and without power. The cultic priesthood hindered many from entering the priestliness of Jesus as Emmanuel. The eucharist in the upper room was not primarily cultic. It was the breaking of bread as self for the sake of others. In cultic priesthood one "performs." In cultic worship, the intermediary doesn't have to break oneself. Kenosis is not required. In the priestliness of Emmanuel we have to be broken for others: kenosis is obligatory. When embraced with joy, the priesthood of the resigned is in a profound sense the offering a new "Mass", of a more cosmic order of the mystical priesthood of Emmanuel, more truly now able to be brother with the excluded, the lonely, the lost, the least, the little and the last of the world.
Ched Myers in his powerful political reading of the gospel of Mark,* suggests that Jesus exercised his priesthood intending to do away with priesthood as hierarchy, as a necessary intermediary between the People and God. I propose that this is the realization for our time. We cannot give priesthood to a few without denying it to many. I believe Jesus never intended to create the religious hierarchy of privilege and power that we have today.
Jesus of Nazareth was also a "priest," in that he took it upon himself to mediate Yahweh's healing to the poor and outcast. He unilaterally declared a Jubilee for those doubly oppressed by the symbolic order: the unclean were pronounced whole, the debt-ridden forgiven. And then he liberated Yahweh's presence from its controlled reclusion in the Holy of Holies, announcing that it dwelt among the people. The people could now eradicate debt by cooperating in a new community of sharing and forgiving; the people could welcome the impure and anoint the sick and cast out demons. Jesus role as priest was to do away with priests, to radically democratize the body of Israel. The "blood of atonement" would no longer be a vicarious offering controlled by the temple stewards. The only acceptable sacrifice was that of one's own lifeblood, shed in service to the people and in resistance to oppresssors. So Jesus embraced this priestly vocation: not to rule over, but to be "reckoned with the sinners," and in the end to "pour out his soul to death" (Is 53:12). --Myers, 445.
Our advantage is that we are "reckoned with sinners" willingly and joyfully, scattered throughout the work world: the worker-priests needed everywhere to resurrect Cardinal Suhard's great vision of the 1940's. Resigned priests are in a unique position to show that priestliness is not cultic nor hierarchy. The first priests were tentmakers, fishermen, tax collectors, masons, etc. In fact, are we not the Mass already, because our lives are the bread? And all we need to do is say: fiat. yes. let it be. amen. Is not Mary our prototype? By her "YES," she turned bread and wine into the body of Christ.
Could it be that because of the kenosis required in our transition (and
in marriage) that those priests who left can have a more intimate participation
in the priesthood of Jesus than is available in the typical expressions
of the cultic priesthood. By accepting and embracing our marginalization,
do we not live a deeper priestliness?
Only prayer reveals the precipitous depths of our poverty. Submission to it involves an awareness of someone else. We are so poor that even our poverty is not our own; it belongs to the mystery of God. In prayer we drink the dregs of our poverty, professing the richness and grandeur of someone else: God. The ultimate word of the impoverished man is: 'Not I, but Thou'."
...We'll be poor when we can rejoice
--Louis Evely, 67ff
Many resigned priests with whom I have spoken are doubtful they would return even if it were possible without serious changes in the current structure of the cultic priesthood which they now see as restrictive, self-alienating and unjust. As insiders we could not perceive this state of affairs nor our part in it. Yet I suspect that this verbalized attitude has the aspects of "sour grapes," and that if the opportunity were ever given, few would withhold their gifts and energies from true pastoral needs. Holy Mother Church has often been a harlot selling her soul for the sake of secular privilege--which those in hierarchy could not and can not yet see.
Could I justify before God withholding the Word or the Eucharist from the people of God simply because I believed the system was corrupt or dysfunctional? Once a priest, always a priest, but called now to be broken and to share brokenness, truly vulnerable as Emmanuel, with my only authority being my life, my connection with the God-within, and my willingness to live marginally and compassionately. God forbid that I have such pride as to use the insight I obtain through grace to distance myself from those who need me and call me--that is, from Christ, becoming Christ!
This past spring I celebrated the 34th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood as my call to imitate Jesus in the washing of feet of others. I have been enabled by grace to minister in untold ways to countless people I would never have reached if I had stayed in the official cultic priesthood. I praise God for grace: always and everywhere: mighty and surprising, and pray the Magnificat daily.
Could it be that the some condition of marginality--either economic, political, social, physical, religious or sexual-- is necessary for the emergence of radical discipleship? For the apostles and the early church, the experience of marginality was an intrinsic step for genuine conversion. Without some kind of hardship or setback, few persons will be open to the radical invitation of Jesus, and few will discover the profound beauty of Life and deep laughter of soul offered by faith and the grace of unconditional love. If this is true what does it have to say to our protected suburban middle class churches and Catholics today? How should this truth affect our study, reflection and action?
It is hardly necessary to remember that the official church has always marginalized its prophets and any scholars who went against the grain: the John Courtney Murray's, the Teilhard de Chardin's, and many others. It is still doing so with plenty of recent examples: Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff, Hans Kung, Schillebeeckx, etc. It remains a totalitarian system, since we do not have a theology of dissent, of how dissent is necessary for renewal and change. Totalitarians fear contrarians. So we have joined an honorable and distinguished company, soul-mates, if you will.
One priest responded to these notes in a letter: "...the movement of the Spirit is always on the margins.There is no other place to look...all other issues are secondary...We have been responding these many years that God is the opposite of what the Temple religionists and their lawyers have been teaching and enforcing. The result, as it was for Jesus, has been inevitable--ostracisim, marginalization, repudiation, loss of license and finally, social death. For Jesus, God was the negation of these negations. God is not only out on the margins. God is the margin."
Final question: Have we as resigned priests accepted the grace-ful-ness
of our roles of being marginal, as an incentive for understanding the role
of all the outcasts, as a spur for joining in prayerful solidarity with
the truly "poor" of the world, as a call to humble service that does not
depend upon position-power or expert power, and, hopefully, when led, becoming
spokesmen for those without voice to the principalities and powers of the
world? --If not we, who?
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