Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University. His most recent book, with co-author Kevin Burns, is Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood.
When the Oxford Dominican and former master-general of his order Timothy Radcliffe was interviewed about his new book, Alive in God: A Christian Imagination, he observed that the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church “was the worst crisis for Christianity since the Reformation.” This is a view widely shared by the prominent and prolific church historian Massimo Faggioli and countless others.
The recommendations that went forward to Pope Francis from the recently concluded Amazon Synod in Rome requesting the ordination of married men in certain regions and the reopening of the investigation into ordaining women as deacons are important initiatives.
But the Roman Catholic priesthood as it currently exists – its credibility crisis, its diminished appeal in attracting the best and most promising to a life of ministry – suffers from a dearth of inspiring models.
Just a quick scan of movies and novels of the previous and current century will show how the public’s understanding of the role and personality of the Catholic priest has changed seismically.
Priest protagonists played by Bing Crosby (The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Say One for Me), Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), Gregory Peck (The Keys of the Kingdom, The Scarlet and the Black), Spencer Tracy (Boys Town, The Devil at 4 O’Clock) and Tom Tryon (The Cardinal) were sympathetic figures, heroic and self-sacrificing in their vocation, exemplars of a rugged and practical holiness.
Contrast these sanitized models of spiritual perfection – even given their minor flaws – with more recent priest portrayals by Brendan Gleeson (Calvary), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt) and Sean Bean (Broken), among others.
There has been a radical collapse of prestige, social profile and public respectability, a breakdown comprehensive and unforgiving.
The lovable priest cut in the image of a sweet and bungling Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton’s Suffolk dumpling of a clerical sleuth) has been replaced by the manipulative and hypocritical cleric. Even the pontifex maximus, the high priest, the pope himself is unspared: going from Anthony Quinn’s tattered gulag intern (The Shoes of the Fisherman) to Jude Law’s American pope in a white Speedo (The Young Pope).
Novelists as well have gone beyond the semi-hagiographic and apologetic. Novels such as Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me, Jennifer Haigh’s Faith and William King’s A Lost Tribe expose the inner struggles and institutional pathologies that afflict the modern priest. We are a long way from Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley; we are even a long way from Georges Bernanos’s classic Diary of a Country Priest with its saintly and sickly curé or the storied whisky priest and reluctant martyr of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
We are on hostile terrain; reverence for the office has gone, the identity of the priest is in flux and sacerdotal authority irreversibly diminished.
Although the flood of abuse charges have been in part addressed through new protocols, judicial procedures, mandated pontifical commissions and a more accountable episcopal leadership, much more needs to be done at the structural and formational levels.
We need models, exemplars of an incarnational spirituality. For those in religious orders, they have their models – St. Ignatius, St. Francis, etc. – but the regular parish priest has St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie- Vianney, a 19th-century rural French cleric with a taste for self-flagellation. Not an ideal option in a post-Freudian era.
But there is a valid and inspiring model in the life and legacy of the Dutch psychologist and priest Henri Nouwen, who spent the last decade and the most fertile years of his ministry working in a L’Arche home near Toronto.
Never implicated in any act of predation, any allegation, any complicity, any omission or cover-up, Father Nouwen, who died in 1996, defined his priestly service in such a way as to approach the woundedness of others through his own woundedness. He cultivated a capacity for compassion and solidarity that found expression in his deep fidelity to his friends, and in his sense of responsibility to the tens of thousands who wrote him seeking his advice.
He was the priest as teacher, as friend, and ultimately as anam cara (soul companion in Celtic spirituality). A gay priest who took his vows seriously, he was drawn to the margins and not the centre, and similar to the pope he never knew, Francis, Father Nouwen built bridges not walls, eschewed judging others, saw the church as a “field hospital” and struggled to live honestly, humbly and transparently as a priest for his time.
Stephen Hough, essayist, critic and renowned pianist and interpreter of Serge Rachmaninoff, in his novel of a “failed” priest, The Final Retreat, has his tortured protagonist say: “My spiritual life was a bush hacked to the ground with blunt shears, but under the mashed branches, in the undergrowth, sap was flowing.”
Father Nouwen lived his life with that level of scorching integrity. Manic, driven to the very edge by his unrelenting energy to serve others, he was not a pure specimen of balanced living and he had his foibles and flaws, but what he brought to his priesthood, whether exercised in his teaching at Yale and Harvard, working in a barrio in Peru, praying in a Trappist monastery or working with the disabled, was his unstinting capacity to give, and to do so with an encompassing joy.
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