Christ and his ministers
Priests are sometimes encouraged to see themselves as successors to the seventy-two (or seventy) other disciples sent out by Jesus, as St. Luke relates in his gospel, to all the towns and places that he himself would be visiting (Lk 10.1-20).
The Lord warns them that he is sending them out like lambs among wolves (v.3). They are to take nothing with them, casting themselves entirely on the generosity of those to whom they bring the possibly unwelcome message of the irrupting Kingdom. (v.4ff). Jesus prepares them for the possibility of rejection, and how to deal with it (v.10ff). He identifies himself totally with those he is sending out (v.16).
Luke switches immediately to the results of the mission. The seventy-two return in a state of utter joy in the power of the Lord's name, eager to share the details of what they have achieved (v.17). Jesus greets them with the news that he is already aware of what he has accomplished in them, and stresses that the true ground for their joy is to be the reward he himself has in store for them, by virtue of their faithfulness (vv.18-20).
If, for the purposes of this reflection, priests are to identify themselves with the seventy-two, we can legitimately say that bishops may identify themselves with Christ. The Second Vatican Council encourages just such an identification (Lumen Gentium 21, 27; Christus Dominus 4, 11). Even without such authoritative backing, however, our experience of Catholic life is that, just as Jesus sent out the seventy-two, the diocesan bishop sends priests to represent him, to preach the message of the Kingdom which he has received from the apostles of whom he is a successor, and which, in turn, comes from the Lord himself.
Today, however, in many dioceses, priests do not report to their bishop bursting with joy at the results their preaching of the Gospel has achieved. Instead there is much discussion of low morale among priests, a steady stream are abandoning the mission to which they had dedicated their lives, and urgent questions are being asked about what can return our communities to the enthusiasm and unity of those first ministers of Christ.
This contribution is based on my experiences when I was a fairly recent recruit to the ranks of the priesthood and draws on my own reactions to the diocesan context in which I used to work. I hope that much of what I say will resonate with others who can claim similar experiences.
The dangerous message of the Kingdom
Any examination of any aspect of Church life must base itself on the Word and Tradition which have made our Catholic community what it is. This Word and Tradition cannot be distinguished from the person of Christ, who is, ultimately, the only authority for all that we do. So what was there about his handling of the seventy-two which produced such different results in them from those to be found in today's body of priests?
In their 1993 Glenridding Reflection the Bishops of England and Wales shared with the rest of us the profound truth that "the manner and style of relationships in the Church are part of the sign it gives". Relationships are indeed crucial. It was the relationship Jesus established with the seventy-two which made them zealous, joyous, effective ministers. By the same token, I contend that the nature of the relationship between the bishop and the clergy of a diocese is the primary factor determining the level of morale amongst the latter.
Like the seventy-two, like all my contemporaries, I began my ministry convinced of the value of the message we had been given to share, and eager to spread it among the people to whom I would be sent. The conclusion I eventually reached, however, was that the bishop did not relate to his priests in the way that Jesus related to the seventy-two. This was something which made me very sad.
He did not want his priests to convey the dangerous, challenging message of the Kingdom which threatens to break into our cosy environment. Instead he wanted them to act as a punchbag for all the grudges and hang-ups of a spoilt bourgeois minority of our community. If the Word did not take root he did not blame the stubbornness and pride of the hearers. Instead he blamed the incompetence of the preachers. He did not welcome us back from our labours with interest, consolation and joy. He ignored us for most of the time.
The Sacrament of Orders
What is my justification for such an outspoken series of assertions? Let us maintain our gaze on the seventy-two. These were the first large group of commissioned preachers after the Twelve, charged with bringing the news of the Kingdom to the Gentile nations (of which there were, traditionally, seventy-two). There is an unbroken line of Spirit-guided Tradition from this commissioning to the emergence of the threefold ministry deriving from the sacrament of order, which occupies a "primary position in the Church" (Christifideles Laici, 22).
I believe that the dioceses of England and Wales are in danger of forgetting this primacy, or reducing it to mere rhetoric, in their no doubt laudable anxiety to promote a sense of mission amongst all the faithful. Thus they are in the process of creating, as the Pope acknowledged some participants in the 1987 Synod on the laity feared, "an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded by the Sacrament of Orders" (Christifideles Laici, 23).
This is clearly not envisaged either in Christifideles Laici or in the conciliar Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Whilst the vital presence of lay voices and expertise in the direction of the Church is clearly recognised, there is no suggestion at all that the position of priests as the closest collaborators with the bishop, constitutive as it is of the very nature of the Church, is to be jeopardised. Indeed the bulk of Vatican teaching on the laity stresses their irreplaceable role of providing a Christian presence in the domestic and socio-economic spheres (cf Lumen Gentium 33-36; Apostolicam Actuositatem passim, Christifideles Laici passim, esp. 2,15).
It is therefore unfortunate that we were ever encouraged to take the vision of the Church in the 1995 document The Sign We Give as normative. The document does a disservice to all members of the Church - to the laity, in offering no more than a nod in the direction of their vocation to be a Christian presence in the home, the office, the factory, the courtroom and the council chamber; and to the clergy (or, more precisely, to priests), in that it continually returns to them as a source of difficulty, as obstructive, as men lacking in the skills that would make them adequate to their task:
"One of the most painful experiences...is when progress...is then halted or reversed by a new priest arriving." (The Sign We Give, p.24);
"...new difficulties can emerge when priests work with competent, qualified laypeople. Priests may feel threatened or inadequate alongside skilled and expert laypeople,...(The Sign We Give, p.25);
"...competent and qualified laypeople [them again] may be more successful in animating some aspects of pastoral life than priests" (The Sign We Give, p.34).
To say the least I find it regrettable that nine priests and one bishop were prepared to let this document be published in the form that we now have it. While still actively engaged in my priestly ministry I considered myself to be at least as competent and qualified in my own field as the laypeople I worked with and for were in theirs. The vast majority of them had no other resource to turn to in matters of Scripture, doctrine and faith than the specialised knowledge which I and my brother priests provided.
In addition, if key workers in an organisation are thought to be lacking necessary skills, the usual response is to look at that organisation's training arrangements, rather than to criticise the workers themselves whilst simultaneously denying them the opportunity to improve.
Marginalising the ordained pastors
However the truth is that in the dioceses of England and Wales The Sign We Give simply assisted a process which was already well under way. Priests have been circumvented for a long time now. Positions on diocesan commissions, school governing bodies, instruments of diocesan government, are denied to them in favour of a relatively small cadre of laypeople who, by their very nature, are unrepresentative of the bulk of the Catholic faithful. I do not think it is unfair to say that most priests would be better able to represent true lay opinion than this small clericalised group.
The matter is not helped by the feeling which some priests have that the bishops find this segment of the laity far more congenial socially than most of their clergy, that these lay elites in turn find it easier to gain access to the bishops, and that the bishops are more prepared to listen to what they have to say than to the honest reports of their appointed pastors.
To have carefully studied Scripture and Tradition, to have endeavoured to listen honestly to the people I was sent to serve, and then to be conscious of no interest on the part of my superior and - let us remember, "chief shepherd" - was for me a deeply demoralising experience. For myself, looking back, I believe that many of the more obvious culprits for low clergy morale, such as a lack of physical intimacy or domestic privacy, would be less significant if the priests' place in the scheme of things was as assured as that of the seventy-two.
The various diocesan newspapers and other official publications exemplify very conveniently what I have been saying. In many cases, the majority of priests have no idea that such organs of propaganda are being planned until a day or two before the first editions are delivered to their parishes. They are typically controlled by an editorial team who are unknown to the clergy but frequently presume to speak in their name. Clergy are largely conspicuous by their absence both on these editorial teams and in the bulk of the publications. Worst of all they invariably offer a sycophantic "view from the top" approach to the life of the diocesan church. Their effectiveness and relevance can be measured in feet, by the piles of unwanted copies left at the back of our churches.
Back to Jesus
What do I have to suggest in terms of a way forward? Well, it's back to Jesus again. Whatever it is that stops the development of a relationship of intimacy and trust between the bishop and his priests needs to be cast out by His Spirit of perfect love and truth. This would be best achieved by a serious effort on the bishops' part to get to know their clergy, with all their different viewpoints, gifts and idiosyncrasies, and to keep up the contact on a systematic one-to-one basis. In helping the bishops to fulfil their responsibilities to the Lord, in the particular section of his vineyard that they oversee, the pastoral leadership of priests is vital. Meetings of various church quangos and tête-à-têtes with Catholic society figures are not.
If clergy as a body felt needed, valued and listened-to, their morale would rise. In turn, they would ensure that the people of the cities, towns, suburbs and villages of their dioceses would come with them in carrying out the task of bringing Christ's authentic Word to a world which needs it so much.