Authority and Service as we are called to live them in the Roman Catholic Church
QUESTION: Does it make sense for lay people to offer spiritual direction and to even become spiritual fathers / mothers to clergymen?
Of course, it is God's intention that we live our lives in freedom and with generosity in the service of divine love. No one is obliged to make particular choices and Saint Francis de Sales advised a woman to diligently seek out the spiritual director in whom she would find the direction she needed and her soul desired under the conduct of the Holy Spirit.
Still, in the kingdom of God each order has its proper place in cooperation with divine grace.
Some ordained priests can not only hear confession and grant absolution, but they also have natural gifts, formation, and supernatural charisms to enable them to also offer psychotherapy and the direction of souls; some are even medical doctors, such that they can do it all.
In the normal course of life, however, God wants each domain to bring its proper activity with its properly competent, trained, experienced, and supervised service provider.
When as a priest I have health issues I must seek out a competent medical doctor as well as pray to God.
When I have trouble with my muscles or joints in addition to prayer I must seek out a physiotherapist.
When I have a moral struggle I must go to confession, preferably to the same confessor, but not necessarily when it is impossible or too difficult to do so on a regular basis.
When I struggle with some form of compulsion or psychological difficulty or blockage or various kinds of interior resistance or recurring emotional difficulties, then it is necessary that I confess to a priest, but it is also necessary that I seek out the counsel of a trained therapist; who has the training and dedication to pay attention to what I share and help me discover deeper understanding about the complex workings of the human psyche in general and of my own self in particular, with all my personal, family, and communal history. In addition, these professionals are responsible to seek out and receive ongoing professional formation and to offer their service under supervision so that they are accountable in the service they provide.
All of this has been proven to be true and effective and it is recognized by our Church as a way of offering and seeking healing and growth that is not only approved but given and blessed by Almighty God.
QUESTION: In fact the INTERNAL FORUM has always been the privileged field of the church. That is the reason we could be so much convinced that there is a strong link to be a spiritual father with the sacrament of confession. That link is strengthened by the confessional secrets.
The internal forum concerns matters of morality and the human will in our struggle to conform ourselves with the divine law and with the will of God. It is true that the confessional relationship between the confessor and the penitent expressed and symbolized by the "seal of confession" is the privileged place given to us by Christ for the exercise and formation of the human conscience of the believer who is a baptized Roman Catholic.
However, there are other dimensions of our life for which we desire and seek our confidentiality and are able to find it. We also find it with doctors, lawyers, notaries, and other professionals. Whenever these breach their obligation to maintain confidentiality there are sanctions imposed on them by their professional associations.
Nonetheless, I believe and our Church does too, that God offers us more abundant opportunities for personal growth in more diverse professional relationships of help and service within which we can also receive God's help and the healing grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is because in the Church there is at work a harmony of cooperation between the hierarchical gifts (by the ordained) and the charismatic gifts (by all the faithful), and it is the Holy Spirit who maintains the harmony in all of these in accord with the will of the Father and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
That is why a priest can go regularly to his father confessor, and in addition, as he has need for it, he can also go to a therapist for additional help with complicated struggles in his emotions, or psyche, or self-understanding; just as he also goes to a medical doctor or physiotherapist or surgeon for their very specific services.
I can witness to you that at least on many occasions I have been blessed by God through people who were not priests. Of course, I have had incredible experiences of God's presence and power to heal and forgive through priests in confession since my childhood.
Confession was insufficient to help me overcome certain struggles and in the course of therapy with a religious sister who was a psychotherapist I receive incredible help. First, however, for two years I found myself blocked and could make no progress, but she very patiently continued with me until one day, as I waited to see her, the Lord showed me interiorly that when she would open the door to me it would be He, Jesus, who would receive me and care for me.
That amazing grace allowed me to open my spirit to her in trust, not so much trust in her, but trust in Jesus my Lord and Saviour, who for reasons He alone knew wanted to touch my life through the caring spirit and competencies of this religious sister who was also a trained and supervised psychotherapist.
From that point on, now that I could trust her (Jesus in her), I made incredible progress and learned so much more about myself and the interior working of my own spirit and became able to make great strides in caring for myself. As time went by and I faced more difficult challenges, I ran up against new walls deeper within my spirit, within my human psyche, and once again I needed the assistance of a trained therapist.
That is why when I became a resident in a formation and therapeutic program I was so eager to trust the therapist into whose care I was being entrusted. From the very beginning I learned a great deal about myself. The more I opened myself to the therapist, the more he could have insight into me, and so the more he was able to offer insightful help and guidance, and I experienced profound growth and healing.
This therapeutic relationship went hand in hand with the spiritual direction I received from the wonderful woman spiritual director, with the confessor I saw regularly, and with all the other services in which I participated. The Holy Spirit was orchestrating all of those services in order to demonstrate the power and effectiveness of his love for me and the other residents through the different members of the body of Christ dedicated there to our service.
QUESTION: Jesus Christ himself had private talks with the twelve that he could not disclose to the outsiders! He explained to them for example that in order to chase away some evil spirits they have to fast and pray.
We as priests also have this as members of the Presbyterium and in the privileged relationship we have with our proper bishop and with his officers who are our direct supervisors and superiors. This privileged relationship we enjoy as priests does not preclude or prevent or block or forbid all of the other possibilities we enjoy as I have been describing them above....
QUESTION: In the Acts of the apostles you know the episode of a certain Simon who wanted to have the same power as the apostles.... To this day simony – the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges continues to be strongly condemned by the Church as an act "latae sententiae"... which is the severest excommunication reserved for judgement by the Holy See.
I believe that evoking the evil intentioned Simon in the Acts of the Apostles here is a quotation out of context which has nothing to do with our current dialogue about the role of the laity in spiritual direction and is, I believe, only confusing to bring into our discussion in this way.
That man Simon had an evil desire and thirst for power and this is a thing against which God has spoken very strongly in the Old Testament. Such evil desires open the door to Satan and his demons, which is why God denounces such practices and desires so strongly. This has absolutely nothing to do with a priest benefiting from the services of a doctor, or therapist, or teacher, or professor, of even a lay spiritual director. I cannot denounce this insinuation more vehemently, my brother.
QUESTION: If then spiritual direction is no longer under the powers of the church let's call that counselling and guidance and not spiritual direction. Otherwise we reinforce a tendency to stir up confusion in our modern society. The role of the priest in our society is becoming more and more overlooked!
It is true that even today some people seem to think that only the ordained clergy are "under the powers of the Church", which is not the case. We are all of us subject to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ in accord with the will of the Father, the lay people no less than the ordained.
Counselling is a technical term that can only properly apply to a person who has been properly trained, tested, and is supervised to offer a service of counselling. Therapy is also a technical term that is sometimes used interchangeably with counselling but actually brings a little more than counselling.
The counsellor accompanies a person and helps them understand what is happening within them, so that they can conduct themselves with more insight and wisdom through self knowledge and understanding. The therapist can bring a person further through specific strategies to remove obstacles or learn to go around them or to undo "knots" that have tied up our inner processes of life.
Spiritual direction is separate from these two services and activities and has its own very specific objective which is the discernment of the will of God, the presence of God, and the action of God in our lives. It also considers our efforts to align ourselves with God in obedience to his will, to pay loving attention to his presence, and to work together with God under his direction in order to bring about his will in the world.
QUESTION: Unfortunately this is our sad reality in our parishes where lay people want to take over the role of priests.... Priests have experienced on their own body the consequences of this permissive situation. Lay people think that there are no privileged rights for consecrated people. Whatever these are doing, those can do it too!
There are many sides and dimensions to the church situations which you evoke with this statement.
There is of course the specific role of the priests, as of the bishop, but there are also the roles of the laity. The first role of a priest is to operate as an agent of the mercy of God to build, repair, and maintain bridges of charitable relations within the parish community.
Like Saint Paul, the priest must be willing to endure the cross in order to become all things for all people in order to help them come to Christ and to love one another. He must help them overcome obstacles to understanding, to mutual help, to kindness towards all, to charity in every situation.
When the priest experiences difficulties with people, which is inevitable, he must not take any of it personally, but continue to love people, and when he must point out the teaching of Christ and the Church, he must do so in a dispassionate way, with great kindness, and never using the law as a "club" or instrument of discipline by way of authority through a show of strength. Only in exceptional circumstances and when everything else has been tried are we to resort to the strength of authority, as Jesus only did against the religious leaders BECAUSE they were preventing ordinary people from coming to Him, from experiencing the love and mercy of God.
So we are called to accept to be crucified, in little ways but also in big ways, in the course of our service to the Body of Christ. We are to lead by example in demonstrating the primary principle of charity, after the example of Jesus, who accepted to suffer in order to reveal the true nature of the love and mercy of God. So, as you say, we are called to experience these troubles in our body and well as in our spirit and emotions or psyche.
The thought or desire or appetite for "privileged rights" is a dangerous trap for clergy. Jesus made it very clear that those who wish to be first must accept to be last and servant or slave of all, of everyone, including those whom we find most difficult.
It is true that both the consecrated and the ordained are privileged, but only in a supernatural way, not in natural ways. We have a place reserved for us personally on the back of Jesus' Cross, which is empty and waiting for us. Some saints have called the back of Jesus' Cross the "marriage bed" between the soul and the Beloved who is the Lord Jesus, because it is in that "place" that we experience the intimacy of the marriage relationship between God and the human soul. It is an intimacy more profound than that of Marriage, but Marriage is God's special image and expression of the intimacy the Holy Trinity offers to human souls.
However, when the ordained and the consecrated expect, want, or seek to enjoy in the natural sphere a status of privilege because of their station or role, then they fall into the danger of careerism and clericalism, setting themselves up as separate from the "ordinary laity" and, in this way, superior to them. Much evil has entered into the Church through these dangers, and each step in this direction takes us far away from the Son of God who "came to serve, not to be served".
QUESTION: According to Canon law, the ordinary minister of Holy Eucharist is a male ordained person. But now things are changing: you will see the activity of extraordinary ministers of the Holy Eucharist as something automatic, not even a basic formation ad hoc! I have seen a lay person doing a transfer of the Holy Eucharist on Holy Thursday, and yet the priest in charge was there! Where is the Church of Christ heading?
What you describe can be an abuse, but it is not necessarily that these lay people are guilty of bad conscience. Most often it is the instability in the availability of priests that over time leads to such a situation. In fact, the Church of Montreal has procedures to avoid such abuses and to gently correct them whenever they occur.
First, when a new priest arrives, he must spend himself generously as a servant of charity and unity in peace. As he observes practices that may be wrong or at least could make room for greater excellence in justice, truth, devotion, and charity; he must take note of these things and bring them to the Lord in prayer.
Second, he must resist the temptation to do violence to the people by imposing authoritative changes, because to do so would express condemnation of people's motives which are usually good, and he would fail to acknowledge with gratitude the service they have been trying to render for the glory of God.
Third, the priest must do his best to express gratitude to all those who offer service and encourage all who come to persevere in their walk of faith with the Lord and in the exercise of charity to one another.
Fourth, in the natural course of time and in ways that do not do violence to people, the priest walks with them and offers gentle leadership through the instruments of collaboration already in place, such as liturgy committee or parish pastoral council, and fabrique, and gradually leads by example, by leadership of prayer, and by bringing teaching and instruction.
An excellent example of a practice undertaken by a newly ordained priest after only two years – a priest who became the youngest bishop in Canada ten years later – was the leadership he offered, with the approval and the support of his pastor, to the liturgy committee. He proposed to them that what would please God and would be for the good of the faithful would be for them, the liturgy committee, to respond to the Pope's call to strive for excellence in the Liturgy.
He proposed that at their regular meetings they slowly read through together the GIRM - General Introduction to the Roman Missal - and that they take notes as they read and discuss it. Their objective would be to examine the excellence of the way they participate together in the Liturgy and to see what they could do to increase that excellence, either be dropping practices that take away from the excellence of the Liturgy, or by correcting errors, or by slowly adding pieces that may be missing.
By proceeding this way, the priests did not need to intervene with "shows of authority" because the lay people themselves saw what needed to be corrected and the priests could then lead them in a discussion of strategies for making the corrections in ways that would not offend anyone but would win the enthusiasm of everyone to do their best for the glory of God and the good of souls and the growth of the Church.
Fifth, regarding the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion or of the Holy Eucharist, as it is also for Lectors, it is the domain and responsibility of the pastor to oversee the selection, formation, encouragement, continuing formation, and mandating of competent members of the faithful to undertake these liturgical ministries for a limited time.
He can walk with them until a relationship is established and, at an appropriate time, meet them for an informal interview to establish a simple file for each one. Then he can call them all to formation sessions and explain the difference between Ordinary and Extraordinary Ministers.
He can help them discern whether to continue, he can call others after proper screening, and give them all a mandate at a Sunday Liturgy for a limited period of time, such as one year or two or, at most, three years. They are to understand that the mandate may or may not be reviewed through a process of discernment and consensus.
We have to remember that the first Holy Week, the Son of God accepted to allow his Body to be tortured and his Precious Blood to be spilled all over the earth, in order to demonstrate the true nature of the divine and merciful love of the Father. That violence continues to be done to the Body and Blood of Christ through the ignorance of both clergy and laity, but Jesus continues to allow this in order to continue to demonstrate the true nature of the divine love and mercy of God.
Love requires us to show the utmost love and reverence to Jesus in his Body and Blood as well as in the least of these his brothers and sisters. However, it is divine love that continues to move Jesus to expose himself to abuse at our hands, and we cannot – nor should be attempt – to prevent Him from doing so; as Peter once tried to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem to be killed.
Every situation is in God's eyes an opportunity to meet Him, to learn about Him, to be touched by his love, to grow in faith and trust, and for all of us to love one another, and to strive together for excellence under the supreme guidance of the law of love, which is also the "law of the gift" of ourselves in imitation of God who is constantly pouring himself out for us. We must become like Him if we are ever to enter into his presence in eternity, and it is a grace and gift for us to have time here on Earth to correct ourselves and to grow in love.
QUESTION: If we go back in the history of the Church we will find that these errors have been addressed by competent authorities to avoid confusion in the Church.... I think that this is a sensitive subject to be handled seriously. This is all that I am saying here in my humble view of things... May God bless you.
I quite agree with you, dear brother priest, but as you can see above, the Church cannot tolerate that we, the clergy, go about these serious matters like the religious leaders in Jesus' day who flexed the muscles of their authority but showed no love, no compassion, no kindness, no patience, no tender mercy towards the people, but were only concerned with their own status, their own privileges, their own perfection, their own superiority. They thought nothing about the good of souls.
May you also continue, dear brother priest, to enjoy the blessing of God by continuing to walk in his ways, and may you too, dear reader, enjoy this same blessing of walking in the ways of the Lord!
Pax + Caritas, Fr. Gilles Surprenant, Montreal