SPIRITUAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD (Pt. 4: Why I Left the Priesthood)

Last week I argued that under the last two popes, the church has proven tone-deaf to completely reasonable arguments against mandatory celibacy. As a result, the end of that requirement and its attendant disasters is as far away as ever. Equally distant seems any practical recognition by the official church of the profound spiritual conclusions inescapably drawn from the ecumenical movement and its powerful expressions over the last century and more.

Closer to our own day, read the current Pope Ratzinger’s reactionary Dominus Jesus (DJ) written in 2000 over the signature of John Paul II. It’s a clear reassertion of a pre-Vatican II vision. Discouragingly it identifies the Roman Catholic Church as representing virtually the only path to salvation. It insults Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam with criticisms about their “superstitious” content. Meanwhile, protestant churches are identified as failing to qualify as “church in the proper sense of the word.” Additionally, Dominus Jesus is totally Eurocentric, and overlooks almost completely not only the documents of Vatican II (e.g. on Revelation, Mission, Ecumenism, and the Church in the Modern World), but also theological developments that have taken place in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, where the majority of church members reside.

This is pretty much the point where I came in nearly 50 years ago, when I took my first hesitant steps towards the priesthood and membership in the Missionary Society of St. Columban. But as indicated in earlier posts, I’ve changed a great deal since then. More importantly so have the Columbans themselves, the church in general, the priesthood – and the world. There is no going back. Attempts to do so as articulated in DJ and elsewhere not only cannot work. They signal as well an irreversible crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, of the priesthood, and of groups like the Society of St. Columban. A crisis is “irreversible” when new consciousness has dawned, problems have been reframed, and old answers prove irrelevant. In the case at hand, nothing less than new forms of church, priesthood and understanding of mission are demanded by the signs of these particular times.

And what would those new forms look like? At the most basic level, they would incarnate a theology and spirituality suggested by Vatican II and its emphasis on the normative value of Sacred Scripture. That means recognizing the reality of the Divine Spirit’s universal revelation. That revelation, I’ve come to understand, is quite simple – “beyond belief,” as Elaine Pagels puts it. Here there is no room for exclusivity in terms of 4th century doctrines and dogmas. Instead, understandings of revelation must connect with personal experience founded on a deep spirituality, and nurtured by practices found in all the world’s Great Religions. Those traditions tell us that all creation is one. The world itself embodies and communicates a Revelation open to everyone. We are brothers and sisters with one another and with life forms in the rest of the universe – which means with everything that is. It’s as simple – and as profound – as that.

The simplicity, profundity and mystery of it all have haunted me since my participation in a seminar at the Atheneum Anselmianum, my second year in Rome. The topic in this very international setting had turned to enculturation – making Christian faith understandable across cultural lines. A young priest from India asked a simple question. “How do you make the uniqueness of Jesus understandable to Hindus? They, after all, believe that every human being is a God-person.” That simple question drove me to examine my faith at the deepest level. I wondered: if I were to translate my Christian faith concept for concept into something truly understandable to Indians, would it come out Hinduism? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I know it’s way more complicated than I suggest. However, my musings sent me on a Merton-like quest to understand what the East had to offer in terms of understanding God and spirituality.

Eventually, all of that brought me to a position I’ve (re?)discovered over the last fifteen years. It’s centralized the practice of daily meditation, but in a form much simpler than the Ignatian method introduced to young Columbans during our “Spiritual Year,” when we all were about 20 years of age.  Other elements include repetition of the mantram (aspirations), reading from the world’s great mystical traditions, training the senses, slowing down, practicing one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and association with those who are following the same spiritual path. It’s all explained quite simply, for instance, in many books by Eknath Easwaran, but especially in his Meditation. However I’ve been drawn to this path, not on someone else’s recommendation, but because my personal experience has shown its effectiveness in terms of changes in my life and behaviour. Absent that, I’d stop the practices.

I sometimes wish that form of spirituality and spiritual formation had been the foundation of my training for the priesthood. In that case, I might still be a Columban, simply because such practice would have resulted in a radically different form of priesthood. Instead, the spiritual direction I experienced in the seminary and especially after ordination was as heteronomos as the (non)instruction offered us about celibacy. For the most part, both were formal, uninvolved and lacking in real insight for young aspirants desiring to lead genuinely spiritual lives. By no means was this the fault of the good men who tried to guide us. It’s just that the prevailing spirituality, the method of prayer and meditation, the books offered for “spiritual reading” and the spiritual practices we followed were all grossly tainted by dogmatism, formality and legalism.

Those are the very characteristics that eventually drove so many of us away from our supposed priestly calling.

Next week: Series Conclusion

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “SPIRITUAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD (Pt. 4: Why I Left the Priesthood)”

  1. Mike,

    I read your priesthood article during a break in reading War and Peace (third time). I’m fascinated by many of Tolstoy’s ideas about history as he reflects on what Napoleon and the Russian generals thought was going on–which turned out not at all to be what they planned or expected. My latest idea about the Church and the future of the priesthood/clergy is based on some pretty obvious math. The New York diocese ordained one priest this year. The Lexington Diocese ordained 26 permanent deacons–most I presume are bringing wives into that ministry. Parishes are closing and Catholics want Eucharist. What do you thing the next step will be? It will probably be quite a while before our dense Bishops do the addition, and the subtraction of catholics will probably continue.

    Hope you are still having a good summer. We are in the heat, but I don’t entirely dislike it–in fact “you gotta love it”. If I can’t get out, I’ll enjoy Tolstoy.

    We miss you and Peggy and look forward to your return.

    Guy

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    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Guy. Peggy and I are keeping busy here in Westport. We often find ourselves wishing you and your Peggy could visit us in Michigan before our return to Kentucky.
      The Catholic hierarchy is truly hopeless in every sense of the word. In the meantime, people will continue leaving the church in a steady stream. And those who remain will take it less and less seriously. Many will seek “church” elsewhere, but the majority there will become disillusioned finding it easier to leave behind their second commitment than their first. Some of us will attempt to remain “Catholic” by forming our own communities in house churches. Those really concerned with spirituality and the inner life will move eastward. But then again, the Holy Spirit might intervene with another John XXIII. I don’t know. I do know however that you and I will continue discussing these things with each other to our graves!

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  2. In a spiritual reality, nothing can be lost and therefore, nothing can be taken, but while we perceive this physical reality, the idea of losing when you give or gaining when you take, are inbred into the worlds thinking.^

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