A Lengthy Response to a Weighty Letter - Why Priest?
Yesterday, I read an online article, “What Catholics Need Now: A Letter to Our Priests and Bishops,” by Ms. Emily Stimpson As the rector-president of St. Joseph College Seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago, I thought that I would offer some comments, especially as I am responsible for the college level formation of future priests. At this point, I would encourage to stop reading this article and read the original article, and then start reading this again!
I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation for Ms. Stimpson’s letter; not only for its respectful tone, but also for its content. While I would address some of the items mentioned in a different way, there is so much with which I agree. The truth is that, while the engagement of the lay faithful to transform the culture is absolutely essential, priests need to exercise good leadership as pastors of the flock for this to happen. By definition and Gospel example, leading the flock requires the shepherd to be out in front; the idea of “leading from behind” is absurd. I appreciate her comments on priests leading the faithful into the breach, not simply standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the culture wars. At the same time, there is an authentic role of a priest exercising solidarity with his people in their daily journey as a disciple: in the joys, sorrows, struggles, and triumphs.
In reference to her first item, “Preach the Faith,” I agree that priests need to actually preach the content of the faith, now more than ever. Rather than call it catechesis, however, the better term would be “doctrinal preaching.” Meaning, the priest not only highlights the origin of doctrine in the Scriptures and Tradition, but also how it applies to daily life following Christ. The doctrines of the Church are relevant to daily life! This also requires being aware of the issues of the day, such as the recent Supreme Court decision, and how it affects not only the personal life of the Catholic faithful, but also the society in which we all live. To “Catholicize” a saying of the protestant theologian Karl Barth: priests should preach with the Bible in one hand, a newspaper in the other… and the Catechism tucked under one’s arm.
One of the problems we have had in recent decades in the area of preaching has been a prominence of “experiential expressivism.” In brief, it is a misguided theological approach that assumes that people already have an experience of God, and that religion is its outward expression. Therefore, if the people already have the experience, the faith is already implicit, and the preacher needs only to connect their experience to the Gospel. That is why we hear homilies that contain lines such as “I just saw this movie, which reminded me of the today’s Gospel.”
In contrast, we should recognize that while God is present to mankind by his grace, we are still wounded by original sin. That means even for people who are not Christians, one’s experience of God will still be skewed. Furthermore, the Catholic faith is not simply an outward expression of one’s inner experience of God, but an encounter with God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ; it is revelation. Therefore, since the Church is the body of Christ, everything the Church is and teaches, from doctrine to liturgy to her ecclesial structure, gives the faithful an encounter with God that is not otherwise accessible to mankind. As Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” which makes the Catholic faith the way of life, based on the truth (John 4:16). Additionally, he was not a nice guy; nice guys don’t get crucified. He was, however, loving; in fact, he was and is love incarnate. For the record, I personally preach for about fifteen minutes each Sunday, and keep everyone’s attention.