The wound in the right hand of holy Church: the insufficient education of the clerg
“Only great men can form great men”
- Preaching and the Liturgy were the two great schools open to the Christian people in the finest period of the history of the Church. The whole person was addressed, by the Word of God and the words of the Liturgy that spoke to the mind, and by the efficacy of the rituals, symbols, actions of the Sacraments and of the Eucharist in particular, that touched the hearts. The preachers of the Word were holy men pouring upon their listeners their own overflowing spiritual abundance.
- We have a description of the Eucharist as celebrated by the early Church which contains the two fundamental elements, the words and the actions: “On the day which is called after the sun, all who are in the towns and in the country gather together for a communal celebration. And then the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as time permits. After the reader has finished his task, the one presiding gives an address, urgently admonishing his hearers to practise these beautiful teachings in their lives. Then all stand up together and recite prayers. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of wine mixed with water. He who presides takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying, Amen. When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded those whom we call deacons give to those present the “eucharisted” bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent. Besides, those who are well-to-do give whatever they will. What is gathered is deposited with the one presiding, who therewith helps orphans and widows…” (St. Justin, 150AD).
- Priests came from such fervent Christian communities, who participated fully in the liturgy and who had absorbed the power of the Gospel in their life. This fact helps to explain how some outstanding members of such communities were elevated by common request from a humble lay state to being bishops within a few days: see for example, St. Ambrose, St. Alexander, St. Martin, St. Peter Chrysologus. They were well known members of their Christian community and they all knew their zeal and their fervour at their assemblies.
- By the same standard, our own clergy are no better than our faithful. It is the community that generates priests, a great Christian community will generate great priests, a feeble Christian community will generate feeble priests.
- Rosmini lamented that the Christian communities of his time had been neglected by the clergy to such a point that liturgies were no longer understood, that knowledge of the Word was minimal, and that the people of God had been reduced to spectators at the celebration of Sacraments, unable to participate because of widespread ignorance. What kind of clergy would emerge from such weak communities? “The first grade of priesthood is the Christian himself”: a weak Christian will become a candidate to the priesthood, not understanding the liturgy nor the Word of God, attracted by the privileged or superior status of the priest in society not by the love of God and of the people; such candidate will become a weak priest, who in turn will lead weaker congregations and instruct new weaker candidates. “How can we begin to instruct and form in a truly outstanding, priestly tradition such ill-prepared candidates? They are ignorant of basic elements that should be presumed present in them, they have no idea of the kind of knowledge required of priests, no idea of what they are about to undertake as candidates for the priesthood. The poverty and misery of ideas which form the preparation and training of modern ecclesiastics produces priests ignorant of the nature of Christian laity, of Christian priesthood and of the sacred bond between them. Ministers with petty hearts and narrow minds, they grow up as priests and leaders of churches, educating priests weaker and baser than themselves”.
- For Rosmini this pitiful situation goes back to the Dark Ages of European history, in effect from the end of the sixth century after Christ. He considers the first sixth centuries as the golden age of the life of the Church; the sustained invasions of barbarians from the North and the East brought about progressively radical changes in many aspects of the life of the Church, including the formation to the priesthood. This is his historical analysis:
- Priests in early Church were taught by the best men the Church possessed. The “seminary” for the early Church was the house of the Bishop. Priests and deacons lived with their bishop in a community of faith and love. They learned from their bishop the love for the Scriptures, the burning zeal for the Church, the care for the poor. Augustine was the educator of a great number of priests, and of bishops who had been staying with him in his house. Similarly Athanasius, Alexander, Sixtus, Jerome, Irenaeus, Pantaenus, Hermas: they educated great priests and bishops, having themselves been educated by other great bishops. “Only great men can form great men”, says Rosmini. The Apostles had started the process: Timothy, Titus, Mark, Evodius, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, all of them bishops of the early Church, had been educated by the Apostles themselves. Irenaeus was in turn educated by Polycarp: “I remember even the place where blessed Polycarp sat when he preached the Word of God. I remember vividly the gravity with which he moved from place to place, his sanctity in everything he did, the dignity of his features and bearing, the many exhortations he preached to his people. I can almost hear the way in which he described his conversations with St. John and others who had seen JESUS”. These holy bishops reserved the education of priests to themselves, and educated them through the holiness of their life and the profound knowledge of the Scriptures. Their holy way of life guaranteed both the unity of priests with their bishops, and the teaching of the same doctrines.
- This golden era came to an end with the invasions of barbarians that brought chaos and destruction everywhere. Societies crumbled, and the people gathered for reassurance around their bishops and priests, who became the mediators between the people and their new barbarian rulers. The Church was thus suddenly flooded with worldly honours and riches flowing in of their own accord. The bishops became functionaries of the new states, with great power and wealth, no longer free but subject to their rulers. They became detached from their priests, who also became further divided between higher and lower clergy, competing against each other in the acquisition of riches. Bishops ceased to be loved and followed as Shepherd, they became feared as rulers, distant, surrounded by armies and courtiers. Common life of bishop and priests ceased, and pastoral care was left to the lower clergy, attracted now to the priesthood not by holy men and a holy way of life but by greed and ambition.
- Rosmini sees the Providence of God guiding events, even when such events caused profound wounds to the Church. As a result of the involvement of bishops and priests in the ruling structures of a society dominated by the cruelty and ignorance of the barbarian rulers, the Christian principles of love of neighbour, of social justice, of the rights of persons, of meekness and concern for the poor and the sick, were slowly absorbed transforming society from within.
- Not all bishops and priests welcomed the opportunity for power and influence that the political change had brought with it. Rosmini mentions the lament of St. Gregory the Great, who ruled the Church during this period, inconsolable at the sight of the dangers of the new world: “Dressed as a bishop I have returned to the world. Modern conditions subject me in my pastoral duty to more cares than I ever had in my life as a layman… The waves of business which fall upon me from all sides, and the flood of fortune which submerges me, provide ample reason for saying, I am come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. Earthly business makes it impossible for me not only to preach about the Lord’s miracles, but even to meditate upon them”. The irony of the situation was that whereas bishops often relished their new status, power, and wealth, the converted rulers consecrated their crowns to the Church and their highest glory was to be children and tributaries of the Church. During this period, almost every throne in Europe had a saint as sovereign.
- Abandoned by their bishops, now more princes and rulers of this world than spiritual leaders, and lacking proper formation, priests reached such level of degradation that fell in the estimation of the people and dedicated themselves to making money in every way, using the holy things at their disposal. Sales of relics, of sacraments, of indulgences became widespread, and vice and ignorance became common.
- The Council of Trent tried to remedy this appalling situation by devising the foundation of seminaries where candidates to the priesthood could be given appropriate training. Unfortunately, teachers lacked the greatness of the bishops of the early Church: “Compare the teachers – says Rosmini – if you want to have some idea of the disciples! On one side you have the bishops of long ago, or some of the most famous men in the Church; on the other, the young professors in our seminaries. What a contrast!” Teachers of seminaries, says Rosmini, had no experience of life, of parish, of pastoral work. They had erudition but no wisdom; they knew by heart formulas and summaries of doctrine, but they had no real understanding of the great mysteries of the faith.
- Moreover, the texts used in seminaries were useful for erudition but not for educating priests in a way of life centred on Christ and on his teaching. The texts used are “petty, one-sided works, without warmth or attraction, the offspring of narrow minds”, which generate in students a hatred for learning, for life!
- Scripture was the sublime textbook for the early Church, that inspired knowledge and faith at the same time. The Fathers of the Church used Scriptures for all their teaching, all of them nourished themselves and their disciples with the living waters of the Word of God. The greatest commentaries on the Bible originated among these holy men, and indeed all the great works of theology had holy bishops as their authors. The works of the Fathers became in turn textbooks for candidates to the priesthood, but after centuries of teaching them, with very little new contributions, even the study of the Fathers became stale and repetitive. The next stage was the introduction of Compendia of doctrines, the Summae, which became the field of the Scholastics, after St. Thomas Aquinas. But whereas St. Thomas was immensely profound and solid, his disciples reduced theological learning to arid formulas, abstract definitions which did not speak to the hearts of people. “Theological knowledge grew but wisdom decreased, and the schools acquired the narrow, restricted character that helped form the students into a class separate from other human beings”. The new theologians, says Rosmini, have taken texts further away from educating candidates: “These books will be judged the most miserable, feeble works written in the eighteen centuries of the Church’s history. They lack spirit, principles, style and method”. It is not surprising, therefore, that learning theology and living a Christian life have become so disjointed. There is no substance, no nourishment for the soul in such books, and the students can afford to learn definitions without having to question the poor level of morality in their life.
- How different was the “education” of priests in ancient times: the method, then, was to unite knowledge to virtue, to acquire true wisdom, to study and lead holy lives at the same time, one aspect feeding from the other. The imitation of Christ was being sought, His divine Words and His mighty deeds learned and lived, and love for God, for the Church, for the poor pursued with the same enthusiasm as love for the Scripture and for all true knowledge.
- In summary, there are four reasons for the insufficient education of the clergy:
- Candidates to the priesthood come from weak Christian communities;
- Weak, feeble candidates are taught by weak, feeble priests;
- The poverty of textbooks used in training priests;
- Lack of adequate method, disjunction between learning and moral life.
For Rosmini, the Episcopate is responsible for bringing “healing” to this wound. But the Bishops must take action together, agree on all principles and methods. The Bishops together must be the light on the mountain leading their priests by the example of their common holiness and unity. Unfortunately, this essential unity among bishops is what is lacking. The disunion among the bishop is the most serious wound in the crucified body of the Church.
From the Decree on Priestly Formation of Vatican II:
“This Sacred Council proclaims the extreme importance of priestly formation”
“A program of priestly formation should be undertaken by the Episcopal conferences”
“The task of fostering vocations devolves on the whole Christian community, which should do so in the first place by living in a full Christian way… Families which are alive with the spirit of faith, love, and reverence serve as a kind of introductory seminary… Parishes rich in vitality foster vocations among their young people”
“Seminary directors and professors should be chosen from among the best… They should create a family which intensifies in each student the joy of his calling. With active and loving concern, the Bishop ought to inspire, and show himself to be a true father in Christ to its students”
“Spiritual formation should be closely linked with doctrinal and pastoral training… They should be taught to look for Christ, to live in constant companionship with the Father, through Jesus Christ His Son, in the Holy Spirit”
“Seminarians should understand very plainly that they are called not to dominion or to honours, but to give themselves over entirely to God’s service and the pastoral ministry”
“The study of sacred Scripture ought to be the soul of all theology”.