I’ve been meditiating on Benedict’s “Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests” while re-reading Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols. The combination has led me to reflect on both the form and the “formality” of the priesthood. The contrarian in me enjoys the fact that Benedict promotes without embarrassment precisely those priestly ideals that discomfit many priests of an older generation. Through his exposition of the life of St. John Vianney, he underscores the greatness of the priesthood: it is nothing short of “the love of the heart of Jesus.” If we truly understood the gift, “we would die: not of fright, but of love.” A good priest is “one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” “After God, the priest is everything! …” Benedict admits that such words “might sound excessive,” but he does not retract them. He implies that St. John Vianney’s “high esteem for the sacrament of the priesthood” is more nearly true than its functional alternative.
Every priest I know well (I am not myself a priest) is haunted by this perennial form in some fashion; the priest always represents something greater than he is. This introduces a fruitful tension in his life between the frailty of his person and the greatness of his gift. For Benedict, the sign of having surrendered to this fruitful tension is the “complete identification of the man with his ministry,” an identification that does not forget, of course, that the “efficacy of the ministry is independent of the holiness of the minister.” Nonetheless, the “objective holiness” of the ministry calls for the “subjective holiness” of the priest, especially through sacramental availability, asceticism, and the life of the evangelical counsels.
This creative tension, however, tends to be relaxed in one of two directions. On the one hand, the priest can cease to believe in his own frailty and assume that he has already become what he represents. From this relaxation emerge the clericalism and hypocrisy so odious to contemporary American sensibilities. It has few defenders presently and thus merits little attention. On the other hand, the priest can seek to diminish what he represents until he can “wear” the priesthood more casually. This strikes me as the relaxation for which we Americans have developed a taste.
Re-reading Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols has sensitized me to the ritual aspect of this re-tailoring. Because the priesthood is a public role within the body of Christ (an ordo given at “ordination”), a priest cannot be entirely comfortable wearing a re-sized priesthood until the expectations of others are likewise adjusted. He might signal the desire for such an adjustment through a subtle transgression of the social ritual: e.g., “Just call me Bob …” As Mary Douglas observes, “Rituals have the function of celebrating the whole over the part.” The avuncular style marks an assertion of individuality rather than a surrender to role. Anti-ritualism is therefore the “idiom of revolt” against social expectations. Observing the student uprisings of 1968, Mary Douglas noted that true revolutionaries were not content simply to “update” the old symbols; the scope of their discontent made them “undiscriminating in [their] sweeping condemnation of formality.” A general rejection of formality still signifies, of course, the elevation of personal feeling over communal order.
These social rituals factor heavily into the (oft-exaggerated) generation gap in the priesthood. Generally, the generation of priests still young in 1968 don a certain priestly “informality” more readily than the younger. They, having grown up in a culture that considered the priesthood from a reverent distance, seek to reach out by presenting themselves as “regular guys.” The image of sacrality and priestly dignity impressed upon them in youth endows their present folksiness with an air of noblesse oblige. “Just call me Bob …” In their experience, everyone leaves edified by such a humble priest.
The only problem is that the younger generation, lacking the experience of role distinctions universally ritualized in title and garb, are scarcely aware of this gracious sacerdotal condescension. They tend to take the priest at his word when he plays at being just a “regular guy,” and they leave the encounter yawning. They know lots of “regular guys” already. Understanding this dynamic first-hand, the younger priests insist on the social ritual. But what they see as re-enchantment, their elders see as neo-clericalism.
As Benedict and St. John Vianney remind us, because the priesthood was given by Christ to the Church, it has a perennial form. And as Mary Douglas implies, wherever people experience their identities as “received” in and from the Church, the priesthood will have a corresponding “formality.” The expression of this formality may be “accommodated” to cultures and cirumstances, as the older generation would rightly insist. But a public role that finds no ritual expression ceases to exist for the next generation. And what the next generation cannot “recognize” through ritual markers, they cannot embrace as the “love of the heart of Jesus.”