I became a bishop, a burden was laid on my shoulders for which it
will be no easy task to render an account. The honors I receive are
for me an ever present cause of uneasiness. Indeed, it terrifies me
to think that I could take more pleasure in the honor attached to my
office, which is where its danger lies, than in your salvation,
which ought to be its fruit. This is why being set above you fills
me with alarm, whereas being with you gives me comfort. Danger lies
in the first; salvation in the second” (St. Augustine, Sermon 340,
1, PL 38).
When I reflected on this text from St. Augustine in the
Liturgy of the Hours a few days ago, my thoughts were
immediately drawn to the scene in the Gospel where a dispute arose
as to whom should be reckoned greatest among the disciples. We are
familiar with Jesus’ reaction, recorded in each of the three
Synoptics: “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over
them, and the great men make their authority felt. This is never to
happen among you. No! Anyone who wants to be great among you must be
your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be
your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to
serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25-28).
Recently I attended a very formal yet somewhat disturbing
Eucharistic Liturgy with the sanctuary packed with men decked out in
scarlet, red and purple, with titles of Eminence, Most Reverend
(or in some places, His Grace), Very Reverend (or His Lordship),
Very Reverend Monsignor, and finally just plain old Reverend. Where,
when, how and why on earth did these appellations of privilege,
distinction, rank and honor trump Jesus’ designation of “servant”?
With a little research anyone can readily discover that such titles
are rooted in and reflect long bygone days of royalty, kingship,
princedoms, fiefdoms, landed gentry, political power and wealth.
.So we are left with His Holiness, His Eminence, His Grace, His
Lordship, Most Reverend, Very Reverend and Reverend...... sacred,
pedestalized personalities often far beyond the reach of ordinary
“laypeople” and exempt from customary accountability (e.g. clerical
sexual abuse and financial “mismanagement”).
I am in no way suggesting that we do not need popes, bishops,
priests and deacons. Furthermore, I do not wish to diminish their
dignity nor their essential function as ordained ministers within
the church community. On the contrary, my purpose is simply to
assert their dignity and their function within the ecclesiology of
the New Testament.
continued use of these outdated and irrelevant titles only serves to
prolong the degrading segregation of church members into hierarchy,
on the one hand, and laity on the other. This segregation between
clergy and laity inevitably results in a perceived division between
those who sanctify and those who are sanctified. The resulting
perception, of course, is that the church’s singular focus is
centered on the liturgy, to the point where the church appears to be
a sacramental supermarket rather than a community where all the
baptized, graced with faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit,
together share power to transform the world into God’s new creation.
The Roman Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of
the Sacraments is entrusted with the important task o: fostering the
sacred liturgy and safeguarding its valid and licit celebration.
However, its obsessive preoccupation with the meticulous observance
of non-essential trivial rubrics, many of which clearly confuse and
conflict with the central symbolism of the Eucharistic celebration
itself, is just another not-so-subtle attempt at clerical control.
USCCB’s document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:
A Call to Political Responsibility establishes sound moral
principles for the formation of conscience, but as the
Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly teaches, these
principles must be applied with right reason so that the final rule
of morality for each individual is the certain judgment of his/her
own conscience (n. 1800).
Unfortunately, a growing number of bishops, who make a case for
one-issue politics or openly oppose a political candidate, violate
their own guidelines. Moreover, these bishops neglect, or choose to
ignore, the distinction between moral principles and the application
of those principles in the political order. Moral guidance by the
church’s teaching authority, well and good. But for individual
bishops to manipulate another’s conscience by threats of
excommunication and damnation, absolutely not! For example, to a
bishop who recently ordered every priest in the diocese to read a
letter warning that voting for a supporter of abortion rights
amounts to endorsing homicide, I say “bishop, your threats amount to
an abuse of authority!” We don’t need any more “shock and awe”
Meaningless, antiquated titles expressing clerical domination
obviously do not embrace the job description of a “table-waiting”
and “foot-washing” servant given us by Jesus. The prophet Isaiah
reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways
are not our ways (Is 55:8-9). But church authority had best rethink
its thoughts and redirect its ways or, I fear, it will continue to
lose credibility and to appear more and more irrelevant, not only
among church members, but before the world as well. That would
indeed be disastrous!
Bert Ebben, OP