Thursday, August 12, 2004

Christ Makes Us Worthy

My friend, Fr. Brian Stanley, reacted about as strongly to some comments on women's ordination and "modern priestly formstion" over at Amy Welborn's blog as I did Tuesday. Fr. Stanley sent me the following note, with his observations on the matter:

As a priest, I take, too, take offense at the question of worthiness that has been raised, however "unintentionally". Am I to understand that the comments were intended to criticize the institution, but not the individuals who have given their lives over in service to God through that institution? I'm not buying it. That's a little too neatly compartmentalized. And it would seem that since the question of personal worthiness is an internal one, but evidently fair game for blogger commentary, wouldn't the question of intentionality be similarly fair game? Bottom line, how many priests have to blog and say that they were insulted before a comment is acknowledged as an insult? I think that the effects of a statement have as much weight as the intention behind it.

I have a brother, less than a year younger than I, who absented himself from the Mass for my ordination, because he and his wife considered me "unworthy" for ordination. To be fair, he also absented himself from my sister's wedding, my brother's wedding, and my mother's funeral, all because those people were “unworthy.” I tend to have a purely personal reaction when I hear the question of "worthiness" brought up, mainly because I think such question reveals more about the person asking the question than it does the actual object of the question.

Now to the actual object of the question, from my own story. I spent seven years in priestly formation with the Holy Cross Fathers in South Bend, from age 18 to 25. At no time did I ever hear that I was worthy of breakfast, lunch or dinner, let alone ordination to the priesthood. When I left the community of my own volition, my self esteem was pretty low. Who is worthy? No one. Fortunately, Christ makes us worthy. And like it or not, the Church is the instrument of grace for ordination.

Then I went to teach with the Jesuits in Wilmette, IL, for five years. I had a good experience teaching and coaching there. I also had a department chairman who liked to remind me that I was easily replaced, and frequently quoted General DeGaulle: The cemeteries are filled with indispensible men. Who is needed? No one. Fortunately, Christ calls us, not the department chairman. And like it or not, the Church is the instrument of that calling to ordination.

At Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, I had further priestly formation that emphasized service, humility, self-sacrificing love, self examination, frequent confession, peer evaluation. I was grilled, questioned, prodded, examined, stretched, gutted, stuffed, and then we went through the process again... for five years. That anyone gets through that without becoming a complete cynic is the real miracle of formation. I know my flaws and failings better than most know their own, if there is indeed even the slightest inkling of self examination in the modern world. The bald fact of the world today is that, as the blog commentary shows all too clearly, we're far more comfortable challenging others' worthiness than questioning our own worthiness. In a world that has promoted ultimate rebellion in questioning authority (and yes, Joan Chittister does exactly that, and not as logically as has been asserted, either), there are some who are seeking to authorize the questions first. I applaud Fr. Johansen’s responses, which promote the historical record, the hardest thing for liberals to overcome (they generally prefer to ignore that record). For the record, I am with the Centurion: Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only say the word and my servant will be healed. Only say the word, Lord, and I will be healed.

Has recent seminary formation somehow failed to address the issue of worthiness? I suppose if one confuses confidence in the Church’s teachings with personal pride, one might come away thinking that many newly ordained priests are full of themselves. I assure you, they are not. They are filled with the Good News, and proclaim it confidently, boldly. Some hearers take exception to that, because they want their gospel meek and mild. They do not want to hear of authority or objective truth or historical record. Such things do not fit into their preconceived notions, their ideas of ministry which come to resemble themselves rather than resemble Christ.

I think something has to be acknowledged here, a difficult matter of fact -- those who promote women’s ordination will not accept any argument against women’s ordination based on the Tradition of the Church. I have read so many specious arguments for women’s ordination which blithely sweep away Tradition, because they claim the Tradition on this subject is unreasonable, irrational, illogical. They do not substantiate the claim – they merely state it, as if saying it is irrational makes it so. No argument by Fr. Johansen or Cardinal Ratzinger or Pope John Paul II will sway these people, regardless of the soundness of their logic, the accuracy of their history, or the passion and sincerity of their presentation. It is a shame that the defense of male ordination is deemed insufficient, and that according to its critics, no worthy effort has been made in two thousand years.

One gets the sense that Our Lord Himself could return and proclaim the Church’s teaching on television clearly and plainly, and the feminists would respond with, “But that’s not logical,” and would ask Our Lord to defend His statement. The other difficult matter of fact is that Our Lord Himself has indeed spoken clearly and plainly on this topic, in the magisterial teaching of the Church. And it is just as clear and plain that the critics do not acknowledge that Holy Presence in the Church hierarchy, and that they are taking advantage of the incompetent administration in the midst of the Scandal as rationale for their rejection of Tradition.

And they fail to address the problem of precedent: if the Church changes this substantial discipline and doctrine, which discipline or doctrine will be next? This is the program that Fr. Johansen describes, this is the program that the Joan Chittisters of the world promote. And it is a program that is most destructive to the Church.

Fr. Brian Stanley is Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Coldwater, Michigan. He can be reached at frstanley at cbpu dot com.