The time had come. By 1863, the city of London had reached such density that it demanded a new form of urban transport. Thus was born the world’s first underground railway – known today as the London Underground, a hallmark of the city. What began as a few underground steam train lines is today a 402 kilometer system of passages, where some 500 trains carry more than five million people a day.
As many London Underground platforms are curved, where they meet the straight ‘rolling stock’ of the train line creates a gap – small enough to go unnoticed, but big enough to cause mischief. It was for this reason that in 1968 an audible warning was introduced to ensure passengers were careful when entering the gap between the train door and the platform landing. Any traveler on the London Underground is by now well accustomed to the iconic voice which, addressing you with a terse pronunciation: Pay attention to the gap between the train and the platform.
Although “spirit” is not common parlance in America, it conveys the basic meaning of “reminding” us of something easily forgotten, something that is not necessarily apparent. Used in the imperative, it invites us to attract more attention, and more precisely to consider the quality or the nature of a thing.
In the wake of the priestly scandal and in an increasingly secularized society, many Catholics are once again wondering how they should think about priests. In a sense, the layman is invited to disturbs priests again, trying to understand the singular and paradoxical state of life of those they call fathers. And there are three basic ways to think about it.
The first two ways
First, a Catholic can consider priests naively. They see the greatness of the office of priest, from the Latin desk, meaning “the performance of a specific task”. What is this task to which these men are assigned in function? They are consecrated in the Sacrament of Holy Orders in order to make God present in our lives. Preeminently, the priest exists for the Eucharist; to be in person Christi, he crafts the mystery of his own voice and holds it in his hands. When the mystery of this office goes hand in hand with a life of paternal sacrifice, a Catholic cannot be moved to a place of deep reverence for the miraculous work that God does through ordinary men.
But if a Catholic were to limit his thinking to this alone, he would remain naive and idealistic about the reality the state of the priesthood in the Church. It is a noble thing to recognize the objective radiance of the office of priest; but to do so in an enthusiastic, inexperienced or immature way only leads to the inevitable collapse to which all illusions are destined.
Second, a Catholic may consider priests critical. If the first point of view prevailed in the Church before the Second Vatican Council, the second is manifestly evident today. A critical view of the priesthood is one that focuses on the the person of the priest, not of the office. They see things subjectively, not objectively – that is, they see the subject who assumes the position. This view is further exacerbated by the recent scandal, where the utter fragility (and even viciousness) of a man taking on the job has never been more apparent. For many Catholics, the priest is a man — simply a man — a sinner like everyone else; hence the resulting criticisms.
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The problem with this critical vision of the priest is not the criticism itself; it is the implicit rejection of what the naive person has clearly sensed. For the critic sacrifices the objective dignity of the function when he persists in the subjective unworthiness of the person. Left to its own devices, this type of criticism leads to skepticism which can in turn harden into cynicism. What is most remarkable these days is how this critical vision of priests plays not so much with the secular progressivism of the left, but with the radicalizing traditionalism of the right. In the end, both miss the mark.
What is needed is not a return to naivety, which only pacifies Catholics out of the real and difficult reality of the Church. It is not “purer” to put priests back on a pedestal; which offers only a cosmetic veneer. For in truth, it is just as insufficient to focus on the office at the expense of the person as it is to eclipse the office in the exaggeration of the person. What is needed is a healthy disenchantment of naïve Catholic life with a more authentic critique. Healthy criticism is part of Catholic education; for, as Luigi Giussani notes, “to criticize is to take hold of things”—an act that is not negative.1 Moreover, Hans Urs von Balthasar concludes: The critic “is scandalized by everything ecclesial and must spiritualize everything in order to be able to bear it. Indeed, one must commit oneself to the Church precisely because of the scandal. The Church is God’s perfect instrument: she deserves our greatest love and absolute obedience and, at the same time, is the most highly qualified to humble us and break our mania for perfection.2
The Third Way of Assent
Priests are walking paradoxes. If they succeed, they become living miracles. Unlike those in the lay state (those in the world) or those in the religious state (those out of the world), priests exist in a middle state between the two – half in the world, half out of the world. of the world. Hence the paradox of their existence, ruled by an unparalleled and quite unique tension. For both lay (married) and religious base their state of life on vows — acts of personal and subjective freedom. But this is not the case with priests, who are not made by themselves, but by the Church (hence the reason why they do not take vows). The office of the priesthood, which belongs only to Jesus Christ, is conferred on them despite their unworthiness. The office is the objective dimension of their life, never coextensive with human subjectivity. And that’s appropriate; for if Christ had expected men worthy of his office, the Church would still have no priests.
No one has expressed this paradox more brilliantly than the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. “Priestly existence, he writes, is rooted definitively in the gaping gap between the function and the person and therefore in an ethos which stems radically from humility and is maintained by the constantly renewed humiliations which manifest and actualize the lasting inequality between [official] dignity and [personal] accomplishment. In his effort to be worthy of his office and, in doing so, to sacrifice and submerge more and more his subjectivity, the priest can expect his only reward to be conscience, not that he has become the equal office, but that the office was able to succeed despite its shortcomings. In the ethos of the priest, the contrast between function and person dominates to the end – a static dualism that no existential effort can overcome or weaken. His self-sacrifice first takes the form of humility.3
In short, the priest is marked by a fundamental tension or a “gaping gap” between the charge he assumes and the man he is. There is a “gap” in his priestly existence, which not only constitutes him intrinsically, but constantly humiliates him. It is this lacuna that Catholics must consent to, an act that demands a response of trusting love in the Triune God. Assent is saying “yes” to the whole reality of the priest, office and person in their endless and paradoxical union.
So what is the third way to think about priests? The path of assent transcends the other two. Like the naive Catholic, they love the office for all its glory and honor. Like the critic, they recognize the person who remains absolutely unworthy. Anyone who really wants to love and understand priests has only to make this act of assent. Or as the British would say, watch out for the gap.
- L. Giussani, Education risk: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny (New York: Herder and Herder, 2001), 9.
- HU of Balthasar, The grain of wheat: aphorisms (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 126.
- HU of Balthasar, The Christian state of life
(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 269.