Charity: our new secular religion
Members of the Christian churches at present are apt to be judged by outsiders not in terms of their faithfulness to received Christian doctrine, or by the conformity of their behaviour to the norms of classical Christian morality, but by their willingness to participate in the apparently ever-increasing number of good causes that aim to improve society in some aspect or enhance people's material and emotional well-being.
Certainly it seems that there isn't a school or workplace anywhere in the country which isn't doing something "for charity".
Vast televised fund-raising marathons are now major feasts in the secular liturgical calendar. In supermarkets our shopping is packed by listless and inarticulate adolescents collecting donations for their youth and sports clubs. The high streets of our towns and cities regularly play host to bands of inebriated young women in fancy dress, noisily rattling plastic buckets full of loose change which they are collecting, they declaim, "for children in need", "for the E.M.I. unit" or perhaps, even more obliquely, “for cancer”.
Within the Church there is often great enthusiasm for this modern philanthropic impulse: love of neighbour and practical compassion, as advocated by Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, are rightly regarded as central Christian values.
But Jesus also declared that man does not live by bread alone. His attitude towards earthly existence was the traditional religious one: it is not especially important to improve conditions here below or enhance our present sense of contentment.
Our outlook, rather, should be dominated by the prospect of eternity. Jesus constantly exhorted people not to store up treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but to set their sights on the life to come, which lasts forever.
Stewards of deeper mysteries
In our society today, where disorientation is rife concerning even fundamental questions about the meaning of life, and the everyday priorities of most men and women are very far from the perspectives of the gospel, it becomes even more essential for Christians to resist the temptation to reduce our faith to the dimensions of contemporary humanitarianism and charity work.
We are stewards of deeper mysteries, and this is all the more true of those charged with leading the community, those whose God-given vocation is to preach the message and celebrate the public prayer of the Church. I mean, of course, our priests.
The Catholic priest today has to be a type of prophet. Nourished and directed himself by close and constant communication with God, he has to remind the believing community of priorities and perspectives which, more often now than previously, it seems apt to forget.
A purely secular humanism, especially in the watered-down, incoherent and sentimental forms we find today, is not enough. The great Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain used to speak of the need for an integral humanism or a true humanism, by which he meant a humanism that is emphatically not restricted to enhancing the quality of our lives here on earth but is, rather, open to the transcendent aspect of human existence - open, ultimately, to God.
The priest, of all people, must appeal constantly to contemporary men and women to embrace such an integral humanism.
The context of the priest’s ministry
Difficulties arise for today's priests not only from the secularisation of society, but as a consequence of the secularisation of the Church community itself.
Modern Catholics often exhibit a spiritual minimalism that is content with mediocrity and impatient with the specific - and rigorous - content of Christian spiritual life. Anxious to modernise and appear relevant in a Godless environment many Christians believe we must jettison even essential truths about the damaged state of our nature, our need for repentance, our dependence on God's grace since we are powerless to redeem ourselves.
But the priest's role within the Church itself, as preacher of the word and minister of the sacraments, is meaningless outside this framework of Christian belief. The fact that so many Catholics have effectively uncoupled themselves from the faith of which the Church is custodian has perhaps contributed to the current tendency to misconstrue and sometimes to frankly denigrate and resent the priest's vocation and role.
Of course we also have to admit that the clergy have often proved themselves adept at betraying their own calling! Initiatives organised by our bishops, for example, frequently appear as a tedious, poorly thought-out amalgam of modern humanitarianism, management theory and pop psychology.
Our present leaders seem possessed of an unhealthy respect for worldly high-achievers. No longer content to simply proclaim the message of salvation to a world steeped in darkness our bishops appear eager to embrace the techniques of modern marketing instead, or enlist the involvement of some babbling celebrity in their various campaigns.
God's Kingdom overturns the world's priorities
In these circumstances the ordinary priest, labouring at what Cardinal Sanchez has called "the precious outposts of evangelisation", has to keep sight of the fact that he is not required by God to exhibit the acumen of the self-made millionaire or the charisma of the television personality - to name two “iconic” figures of modern culture. These qualities are more likely to obscure rather than reveal the true character of his vocation.
The truth is rather that God prefers to "take the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to him", to adapt the Roman Missal's Preface of Martyrs.
God's Kingdom has never been continuous with the values and priorities of this world but always disrupts and overturns them. The priest who never forgets his own reliance on divine grace will keep the rumour of God alive in a world that chooses to ignore him. His words and actions, constantly pointing away from himself, towards the source of all being, will always resonate with the genuine seeker after God's Kingdom - and by the same token, will always bewilder and unsettle those whose goals in life lie elsewhere.
Writing of the priesthood the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner asked rhetorically: "must not some of us say something about God, about eternal life, about the majesty of grace in our sanctified being, must not some of us speak of sin, the judgement and mercy of God?"
Amid the many fatuities of modern church life priests who are striving to be faithful to their vocation, in the face of numerous inner and outer obstacles - some universal and some peculiar to our own time - may take comfort from this short but profound summary of what God is really calling them to do.*
Notes and References
* The National Office for Vocation (England and Wales) reports a steady rise in the number of young men applying to train for the Catholic priesthood, from 24 in 2003 to 44 in 2006. While the Catholic bishops and their policy-wonks have been busily promoting "lay leaders of prayer" to conduct Sunday services in the projected - and for some, longed-for - absence of the priest, it appears that the Holy Spirit has different plans: the priest is not going to be “absent” after all, on Sundays or on any other day of the week.