Leaving the Priesthood: Why Priests? Why God? (Sunday Homily)

thebodyofchrist

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Gn. 14: 18-20; Ps. 101: 1-4; I Cor. 9: 23-26; Lk. 9: 11B-17. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060213.cfm

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. I can’t review the prescribed readings without relating them to the question of the Roman Catholic priesthood which I embraced as my vocation from the age of 14 when I entered the junior seminary to my ordination on December 22, 1966, to when I finally the formal priesthood ten year later.

The readings remind me of why I entered the priesthood, and why I left. (If interested, see my blog entries on the topic under the “Personal” button just below the blog masthead.)

My reasons for entering the priesthood are connected with the vision of Melchizedek referenced in today’s first reading from Genesis and in the responsorial Psalm 101. Melchizedek was the first one called “priest” in the Jewish Testament.

The idea of a great priesthood going back to early biblical times was the one impressed on me when I first became aware of priests at St. Viator’s Catholic grammar school on Chicago’s Northwest Side. There I was taught for nine years by the wonderful Sisters of St. Joseph who were responsible for my earliest ideas about priests and God. (I remember those sisters each by name – Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Rita Marie, Cyril, Irma – every morning in my prayers.)

Those good sisters encouraged me to attend Mass each day, and to become a “Knight of the Altar” eventually advancing me to the exalted rank of “Vice Supreme Grand Knight.” That had me “serving Mass” regularly and watching the priest at close range rehearse each morning the narrative Paul recalls in today’s second reading. “On the night before he died,” Paul says, “Jesus took bread into his hands, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying ‘Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you’.”

The St. Joseph sisters told me that those words transformed bread into the very body of Jesus. Similar words changed wine into Christ’s blood. The Mass, the sisters taught, was a “sacrifice” – the re-presentation of Jesus death on the cross. It was the “holy sacrifice of the Mass” making present for us each morning Jesus’ heroic act which his Father’s justice demanded because of the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

Priests not only had the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, they could also forgive sins in the Sacrament of Penance. Moreover they participated in Christ’s “sacrifice” by giving up marriage and family in order to imitate Jesus and dedicate themselves more completely to the service of God.

I believed those things with all my heart. I wanted to please God. Nothing else could possibly be as important. I loved the sisters who taught me; I admired fathers Burke and Fitzpatrick. It all made me want to be a priest. That’s why I decided to enter the seminary.

My reasons for leaving the priesthood are connected with Luke’s account of the feeding of the 5000 related in today’s gospel reading.

You see, during 13 years of preparation for the priesthood – four in St. Columban’s high school seminary in Silver Creek New York, four in the Columban College in Milton, Massachusetts, one in our “spiritual year” (a kind of novitiate) in Bristol, Rhode Island, and four more years of theological training also in Milton – my ideas matured.

Especially those final years in the major seminary, with their daily classes in biblical studies, raised questions for me. So did the Second Vatican Council, which ran its course (1962-1965) just as I was approaching ordination in 1966. The Council and the debates surrounding it seemed to call into question everything the sisters had taught me. Those questions were sharpened for me when I was sent to Rome for more study (1967-’72) following ordination.

The Rome I found was still electric with the aftershock of Vatican II. The questions I had vaguely become aware of in the seminary were now shouting in my ears each day as I attended class and widened my study and reading to include Protestants and non-Christians including atheists. And besides, my uncertainties within spread as my own experience of life outside stretched beyond the hothouse atmosphere of the seminary where I had lived during my most formative years.

How exactly was the Mass connected with Calvary and Jesus’ sacrifice? After all, what Paul recounts was a final meal shared by Jesus and his friends, not some kind of sacrifice. And why did God require the death of his son anyway? That didn’t seem very loving or God-like. And by the way, why mandatory celibacy for priests? (I had learned that the reasons had more to do with protection of church property from the potential claims of pastors’ heirs than with the following of Jesus who might well have been married anyway.)

In the end, I realized that “priesthood” and sacrifice are misplaced in Christianity. True, the early church used the imagery of “sacrifice” to make sense out of Jesus execution by Rome. But that was an image – a metaphor – which the church subsequently and inappropriately took literally – just as it did the words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper.

In fact, I concluded, that was the root of so much of what was wrong with the church – taking metaphor and interpreting it literally. Metaphor, image, myth and story I realized, were beautiful and necessary elements of human expression. They are the only language we have at our disposal for thinking and speaking about the Transcendent, the divine. But to take metaphors literally distorts and misleads.

And that brought me to the question of God himself. First of all I realized that God was not a “himself;” that too was imagery bequeathed by the extremely patriarchal culture found in the Bible. And so were the ideas I had inherited which put God “up there” as a person in the sky. God was not a person, I realized. “Person” is a category completely wrapped up in human experience. “Existence” was similar; it was too human and finite to apply to the divine. I found myself agreeing with the theologians I was reading who observed that it is truer to say God does not exist than that “he” does. Was I becoming an atheist?

Not really. I was coming to embrace the truth of Paul’s words about God’s subtlety and omnipresence: God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We live in God. We are part of God just as we are of our parents. We best relate to God in meditation and contemplation rather than as Knights of the Altar.

What then of the Mass? Today’s gospel reading gives us a clue about its nature. “The Lord’s Supper” is a recollection of the fact that when human beings share bread and wine, God happens. That’s what Jesus meant by those words at the Last Supper as recalled by Paul this morning.

Sharing food and the most palpable experience of God is what the feeding of the 5000 in today’s gospel s about. It’s what church is about. When strangers gather in small groups intimate enough for everyone to introduce themselves and get to know one another (in today’s reading, Jesus put the number at 50), Church happens. Sharing happens. God happens.

In the end, then, since there is no need for sacrifice, there is no need for priesthood. We ourselves are the body and blood of the Lord for each other. The Lord is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Jesus provides the example of the consciousness of unity with God that each of us can make our own. Jesus’ example of sharing and self-giving shows us how to get from here to there.

Coming to those realizations caused me to leave the priesthood – and to continue my vocation in its present form.

Have you made a similar journey? What were its steps? Please share.
(Discussion follows)

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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.

12 thoughts on “Leaving the Priesthood: Why Priests? Why God? (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Mike…mutates mutandis, my story tracks yours. While I left the seminary after second theology, I too had a sense that the “parts” of official Catholic theology didn’t quite fit the whole. I was fortunate enough to study Yves Congar’s Lay People in the Church in college. It was the only theological textbook that actually made sense to me. And this was in 1957! I concur with your views of Eucharist and priesthood. The Eucharist is a meal, and we don’t need a cultic priesthood. I used to be for women’s ordination. Now, I agree with Gary Wills that we don’t need any priesthood. Let the community call forth a presider each time they sit down to commemorate Jesus’ love for us. Keep articulating your vision of what the church can become. Someone needs to shine a light in the darkness.

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    1. WJM: Your conclusion about letting “the community call forth a presider each time they sit down to commemorate Jesus’ love” is what our current experiment with our “Ecumenical Table” in Madison County, Kentucky is trying to implement. So far, so good. It is much better than hearing the same voice and experiencing the same approach to liturgy each Sunday.

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  2. Hi Mike.

    Re: “God (is) not a person”

    I feel this a such a sad conclusion for you to come to. Surely God is not less than personal? Is not “personal” the highest plane of reality for human beings? … the highest plane in which we are able to relate to anyone or anything, including our Creator? Cannot the Ineffable One come down so low as to express Himself in human terms as personal? To construe God as impersonal seems to strike at the Jesus’ core revelation “the Father” and of Himself as the incarnate Son.

    Further more cannot God express Himself to us as male rather than female, if for instance He wants to portray Himself as the husband of humanity? A sexist position? Yes – but IMO, just because typical sinful human construction of gender can be oppressive, that does not mean there is not some other God-ordained gender differences that are worth exploring and embracing. IMO, if there is role overlap between genders, description rather than prescription, and a context of freedom and love, gender differences can add to human richness.

    “.. when human beings share bread and wine, God happens.”

    Again I find this a sad conclusion for what it leaves out. IMO, God can and does happen in human interactions, but only because “God is” long before we were.

    Here’s a link with some other perspectives on the sacrament of the Last Supper.

    http://www.jub.id.au/practicalities/communion/

    best wishes,

    John

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    1. Thank you, John. Actually, I was thinking that God is not less than personal, but more than that. I agree that “person” represents our highest human category. But as such it falls infinitely short of the divine reality. Person is a metaphor. So I’m not feeling sad about the conclusion that God is not a person. The conclusion invigorates me with the energy of the ineffable and mysterious. — Mike

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  3. I entered the Holy Cross (Passionist) Preparatory Seminary, in Dunkirk, NY (next door to Silver Creek), in 1958; and left there in January, ’61 as a high school junior, having had the clear leading (well, it became clear after I spent two weeks of all my spare time in the chapel, praying for clarity) that while I wanted to serve God, putting these people in charge of my intellectual and spiritual journey was not the way to do it. I liked them as persons, uniformly, and admired many of them: and they didn’t have what I was seeking, however unarticulated that “what” was.

    Forward 2 years and I am at Amherst College. I knew of two Catholics (myself and the football coach, who I would see at daily mass). Toward the end of Freshman year, the contradictions between hierarchical Christianity, in particular Catholicism (all I really knew at the time) and what I experienced as God’s will for me, were at odds with each other.

    Back home in Chicopee, Mass (approximately 80% Catholic at the time), I didn’t go to mass that first Sunday. My mom, who went to mass daily (having made a vow that if I were healed, at age 6, of a disorder that is almost always cancerous when discovered in children — it wasn’t cancerous, and she kept her vow when not incapacitated by heart attacks, for the rest of her life), was upset. She was also understanding, to a point, telling me, “if you will go see Msgr. Divine (president of the local Catholic college, and adviser to the local bishop at Vatican II) and talk with him about it, then I will be OK with it.”

    I did, and he (a genial irishman, known to like his alcohol, but sober when I talked with him) said in response to my explanation, “that’s great. We’re both pursuing the same goals, with the same values. The only difference is that you are doing it outside the Church, and I’m doing it inside. God doesn’t care how we do it, only that we do it.”

    It’s a long journey from where the story above ends and my encounter with Quakerism, where everything we do comes from our leadings from what we most often call spirit, but which most of us acknowledge as being ineffable, and also acknowledge as always present. What I’ve related is how it began,and I’m grateful for every part of it.

    Hank Fay

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Hank. I remember the Passionists in Dunkirk very well. We played them in football a time or two. My mother too was an important influence gently nudging me towards my vocation. The Quakers in our town (Berea) have always been a source of inspiration and activism in our community. I can understand how and why you eventually made your spiritual home with them. Again, thanks.

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  4. Glad you were able to show your mom how much you cared for her by speaking with her about your struggle with following the path she chose. Msgr. Divine (is that his real name?) was truly a blessing for you to meet so that he could help you on your journey. He saw God as being bigger than the Catholic Church. How wonderful. How did your mom take the answer you got? I would be interested in how you found Friends, although it seems that attending Amherst may have been in that story, too.

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    1. Hi Free,

      yes, that was his real name, and he was one of many blessings placed in my life. My mom took it great: she respected his opinion. Amherst trained me to think well (or at least better than I did before I went there ). Quakerism came much later (1999). Getting from there to here will take us at least 3 SAYMA’s.

      Hank

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  5. oops. I commented on Hank’s comment. If you wish to delete it, that is find. I sent him my comments via email

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  6. Once I was angry and ranting at God; blaming Him for my problems, and His (Incompetence?) in helping me solve them. And I also threw in all the problems and evils and horrors in the whole world that He seemed to have neglected to improve or correct. Still angry I went further and asked Him why the name “God.” Why did He pick such an innocuous name? Why not “Bob” instead. I was being sarcastic. Then I recalled how I had over the years heard different ways people pronounced “God,” some stretching it out like “Guh-aaahd” or “Guh-awed” which irritated me when I heard those mispronunciations. Then something amazing happened. I did not hear an audible voice, but I “heard” an interior “voice” which said to me, very gently and kindly, “That is not My name.” I was astonished!! “What? Not your name? Well everyone thinks it’s Your name!!!” He responded: “Those are My initials. G.O.D. “Good Old Dad!!” I was so comforted to receive this message. He was My Father! A loving Dad!! So kind and forgiving towards a naughty child. My Papa!! Not reprimanding me for being disrespectful towards Him, but affirming what Jesus taught us–that He is “Our Father.” And Jesus also said: “I and the Father are one; whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” The great mystery of the Holy Trinity. Father/Son/HolySpirit. We cannot comprehend on a natural level, but only on a Supernatural level. We must be open to receive the Grace so that we will have the supernatural Gift of Faith–so that we can believe. So that we can then embrace with Joy our Good Old Dad who “loves us to death!” The death on the Cross. He suffered up to His last breath; then His heart burst with Joy!! He died for you!! He died for me!! For everyone!! His moment of death was a triumph of Joy. He had accomplished the great plan of redemption for the humanity He loved. Everything was changed!! Creation was renewed!!! The gates of Heaven were opened and in flowed His dearly beloved Children, His sons, His daughters. The angels rejoiced in Heaven as the Saints came “marching in!!”

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