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A Church in the Time of Crisis: Appreciation For a Spiritual Priest
Reflection: Good priests remind the laity that they are only passing through the present world as travelers, and are really citizens of heaven.
The laity are called to live in the world, but not to be of the world, a sometimes challenging task as one deals with the burdens of daily life. Good priests remind the laity that they are only passing through the present world as travelers, and are really citizens of heaven.
The French Historian Georges Duby wrote a famous book, The Three Feudal Orders (1978), where he imagined a three-fold division in medieval society that lasted nearly a thousand years. He proposed that roughly everyone in medieval society belonged to one of three social classes: “those who pray” (oratores), “those who fight” (bellatores),” and “those who work” (laboratores). Everyone in society had (and knew) their place and their role, and this contributed to an orderly society in a troubled world. What was comforting then, however, would probably be confusing to many today. Many would be concerned that this division, followed, would be insulting to the laity, consigning them to a secondary, lesser role, and reserving holiness for the professional priest.
Yet, no medieval laymen would have agreed with this complaint or, indeed, even found it comprehensible. No ordinary Catholic in the year 1200 would have wanted his priest to be more worldly, in fact, he was probably rebelling and insisting his priests be less worldly and more spiritual. Popes of the Gregorian Reform Movement found their strongest allies in the laity who wanted holier, more spiritual, and less wordly priests and bishops. The notion that a priest devoted to spiritual matters was a threat or insult to him would have struck the average medieval man as absurd. And he would have been right, both then and now.
Like many Catholics today, my family and I found the long shutdowns and Church closures during Spring 2020 (and beyond) difficult. It was only after some time we were able to understand why that was. After attending outdoor Mass for the summer at our home parish, in the fall, we decided to begin trying a more traditional Mass nearby regularly. The relief was palpable, if for an initially surprising reason.
What stood out most of all about the Masses was how unworldly they were. In practice, the more traditional church followed all the same safety procedures as the others, but there was simply something less distracting about them. They did not dominate the Mass. Even more, the pastor’s preaching put our minds off of this world and onto the next one. Time after time, he reminded us we were citizens of heaven, and only travelers through earth; we ought to keep our minds on heaven. It was not escapism, but a call to perspective. From the early 3rd century Letter to Diognetus, the priest read:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs...And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through... Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country....They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.” We look for salvation from no secular ruler, for Christ is king, We are not surprised when the world seems against us, for the prince of this world is our Enemy.”
In hindsight, what was so important to us was that Mass became for us what it was supposed to be: an orientation to another world in a way that let us live in this one. Fulton Sheen once declared that the vocation of the laity is to live in the world, such that the glory of God is made manifest. Yet, living in the world carries with it a serious danger. As so much of our time, necessarily, becomes spent with worldly matters and concerns, it becomes too easy to lose our perspective and our orientation to that Eternal world. The troubles of the present world can seem overwhelming. The Mass we attended, however, made real, or present, that Eternal world in a way that broke through the noise and almost overwhelming troubles of the present.
This is why the medievals were right. The laity had to live in the world, that was their task. But, if they were to do so and remain unworldly, they needed help. And this is why historically, the laity have demanded their priests be spiritual and not worldly. Pope Gregory VII’s Gregorian Reform Movement to make priests less secular and more spiritual was opposed by entrenched interests, but found its strongest support in the laity. Franciscans and Dominicans were wildly popular among ordinary medieval Catholics for their spiritual lives. Contemplative orders flourished. Even the Protestant Reformation drew most of its propaganda strength from the perception that too many clergy had grown too worldly. All testified to the common need for a group in society, “those who pray,” whose specific task was the spiritual life and holiness, not for their own sake, but for everyone else’s.
It was only on later reflection that my family and I came to understand what it was we appreciated so much in the pastor’s preaching. We learned late, what our ancestors long knew: the appreciation of a priest, spiritual not for his sake, but for ours.