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Interspersed with our regular commentaries we are presently running excerpts from a lengthy, detailed and interesting analysis by former priest, Dr Anthony T. Padovano, which looks at the progress of reform in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. In this third extract from his essay Dr Padovano explores the position of former priests who retain a love for the Catholic Church but who felt called to leave active ministry to marry or exercise their gifts in different ways. What he has to say will be of interest to former priests in Australia — does what he write 'gel' with their experiences? Perhaps we can take that up in later commentaries or discussion in our forums? — but it will also be of interest to the wider readership of Catholica. Much of what he writes fits comfortably and usefully with our own on-going discussion on the changing understanding of priesthood today…
What happened and who are we now?
Three powerful influences: God, Church, Conscience…
Three powerful influences have shaped our lives and enabled us to become who we are: God, the Church, and our conscience.
We were convinced many years ago that God called us to the Church and that we would find God more intensely in the Church than anywhere else. Our love of God and the Church conspired with our life experience and conscience to convince us we were called to be priests. God, we believed, spoke to us through the Church and the Church would clarify and even correct, if need be, our conscience. There is a powerful intersection in us of God, Church and conscience.
The Church summoned us to priesthood where God was encountered with great joy and certitude. The Church and its administrators were trustworthy guides in this regard.
Were we still working with a pre-Vatican II paradigm we would be today clerical, canonical, celibate priests. This earlier paradigm equated resignation with going against God, the Church, our conscience, our calling, our promises. We could not do that, not without losing ourselves irretrievably.
The difference wrought by Vatican II…
But Vatican II gave us a different God, a different Church, different access to conscience and commitments and calling and promise. It gave us a whole new way of evaluating our life experience. We were not seeking this. It was the Church, ironically, which changed all this and summoned us in another direction, even though this may not have been its explicit intent.
The most striking element in this new paradigm was not God. We could see many of the aspects of this different God (compassion, love, the Spirit) in the former God, so to speak. Nor was it conscience. We were told, rightly, on the way to ordination, that our conscience must help us discern if God was calling us, if we could meet the requirements of priesthood, if our motives were correct, if we could be happy.
The most startling development in this new paradigm was the Church's new understanding of itself. We had never anticipated this possibility. This new understanding jolted us, surprised and delighted us. If the Church saw itself in a new way, then the God it proclaimed and the human conscience it sought to enlighten would also be seen in a new way.
In a sense, the Church told us in Vatican II to see it as a less total reality than we once thought it was. Its document on the modern world, its instruction on ecumenism and world religions, its declaration on conscience and religious freedom taught that the truth of God was in the secular order (even without the Church) and in other religious institutions (none of which were Catholic) and in our own consciences (even when the Church did not officially approve). Once we grasped this, we would never again be what we once were.
If our relationship with the Church is less total, it is not because we love it less or because we do not yet find meaning there. A total Church, however, alienated us from itself and from ourselves at critical junctures. It did this before but we were not as aware as we are now and we did not then have alternatives, which we have now.
We see the Church as less total because we know more about its limitations but not without gratitude for the graces it brings with it.
A child comes of age accepting its parents as less total, loving them nonetheless even as one becomes ever more conscious of their limitations.
Simply stated, we have become more confident about God and ourselves. Did Jesus of Nazareth not seek to teach us this?
We, married priests, taught the People of God how to believe but seldom listened to how they believed. We were so eager to instruct them that we did not hear them.
Now we seek verification and validation from the People of God.
The acceptance of our ministries by the People of God and their endorsement of our decisions is a new way of belonging to the Church.
We have seen how the former concept of ministry, clerical and celibate, obedient without reservation to Church administrators, uninfluenced by lay concerns; this ministry has been rejected by the People of God. This rejection is not organized or overt. And, of course, there are always those who prefer pre-Vatican II priests. But the rejection of this former paradigm for ministry is evident in the severe shortage of priests. The old model has little appeal to Catholic parents and even less appeal to their sons and daughters. A further sign of the rejection of the old model is the escalating number of laity who choose not to attend Church if they are given only priests of a pre-Vatican II, John Paul II vintage.
This is what happened to us in our post-Vatican II journey.
And so, who are we now?
Who are we now?
We are Catholics and priests who surrendered some aspects of our ministry in order to reclaim gifts from our baptism and rights from our humanity.
Our ongoing commitment to Vatican II and to Church reform comes from our desire to serve God and the People of God without violating our conscience. It is energized by a hope of making our choice and life style a prophetic testimony for the future.
We are also those who grieve over some aspects of our lost ministry. We accept these as the only way we can give concrete witness to our vision and in the hope that this suffering will serve the Reign of God.
There are four aspects of our ministry, of our former lives, we miss more than others and they are experienced in this order:
- the regular and public celebration of the Eucharist
- the opportunity to preach at these celebrations
- wide availability to the laity and their pastoral needs
- solidarity with other priests
We do not, however, miss these so painfully that their restoration would prompt our return. In their absence, we endeavor to restore as much of these ministries as opportunity allows, as the needs of others require and as respect for the Church at large dictates. We are reformers, not rebels; disciples, not dissidents.
Who we are now includes an awareness of what our resignation has reclaimed:
- a powerful sense of personal freedom
- authenticity in how we identify who we are and in what we say we believe
- marriage and children or the right to this
- a new solidarity with the world, the human family, and Catholic laity
- a ministry of inclusivity and charism, allowing us to serve openly those we could not have served had we remained canonical priests, within the system.
To say this is not to make a judgment against our brothers who remain in clerical and celibate priesthood and who must find their own way to God and to their own integrity.
We must confess that many times before we resigned, we asked ourselves if this was right and if this was warranted. Would we lose God or the Church or even our deeper selves? God, the Church, the priesthood were and are so indelibly a part of us that we did not know how we could live without them.
We asked ourselves about our motives, about the effect our decision would have on those we loved and led and served and even how to go about resigning in a manner that would cause the least amount of damage.
We loved all we were and did not want that to end. We would gladly have remained where we were before if the gifts we reclaimed by our resignation could have been realized within the official structures of the Church. We sought to retain as much of our ministry and former identity as possible, much as our youth is always a part of us even if we cannot have it now as we once did.
We continue to ask ourselves if we acted rightly. I believe we would have asked ourselves this, perhaps more often and painfully, had we remained as we were. We continue to ask ourselves if we were justified in going our own way and of finding so much happiness there, especially when there is so much suffering among those who remain. Had we stayed with them, in solidarity, fraternity, and friendship we might ask ourselves often if we had lost the courage of our convictions and had allowed the official Church to control too much and if our lives had fed into its authoritarianism.
There is no easy path to follow and no need to be triumphalistic about the path we chose.
In a word, we are priests, members of the Church, disciples of Christ, prophets and pioneers, who hope for a reformed and renewed Catholicism.
NEXT THURSDAY: In Part IV of this essay, Dr Padavano explores the legacy of the large number of priests who have now left active ministry to marry
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 3 of 5
PART I | PART II | PART III | PART IV | PART V
FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO SKIP AHEAD: For the impatient the full text of Dr Padovano's address is available in pdf format on his website at: apadovano.com. The website also contains further background information.
IMAGE SOURCE: The background image for the quote, entitled "Black and White", was sourced from stock.xchng. The photographer is T. Fresnell, Cophenhagen, Denmark.
Dr Anthony Padovano was the first elected president of one of the oldest reform groups in the United States — Corpus (www.corpus.org). He is presently Ambassador for the organisation. He holds doctorates and professorships in theology and literature. He is the author of twenty-eight books including three award-winning plays, translated into eight languages. He has been visiting professor at twenty-five American colleges and universities, lectures world-wide and appears regularly in the media on both sides of the Atlantic. Dr Padovano will be visiting Melbourne for a conference next year. This essay was originally delivered as an address to the 2006 Annual Conference of Corpus but will be largely unknown to our Australian readership. We thank Dr Padovano for permission to republish his analysis on Catholica.
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©2008Dr Anthony Padovano
[Index of Commentaries by Dr Anthony Padovano]