Focus on preaching the kingdom is key to ending clericalism


What we need in today's Roman Catholic church is a redistribution of power and authority. Pope Francis' openness to the possibility of having women deacons is not nearly enough to achieve this essential organizational revolution.

Yes, opening the diaconate to women would be a good and much-needed change. But as some commentators have pointed out, it still leaves women in a "secondary" position to priests.

Some of those same commentators argue that women need to be ordained priests to level the playing field. While I support the ordination of women as priests, I would argue for a different and more important change first.

Francis should change canon law so one does not have to be a priest to be the "pastor" of a parish. Give qualified lay men and women and male and female deacons real power and authority to lead some of our faith communities.

This change would have two important consequences. It would disconnect the roles of priest and pastor and significantly change the culture of clericalism that Francis rightly deplores.

Perhaps more significant, it would have the potential to shift the emphasis of pastoral leadership from the celebration of the Eucharist back to the preaching of the kingdom.

In 1970, as part of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued its General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Chapter 1 of this document says: "The celebration of the Mass ... is the center of the whole Christian life for the universal Church, the local Church and for each and every one of the faithful."

As a young priest ordained in 1965, I embraced this description of the Mass and its place in the life of the church. Even after resigning from ordained ministry in 1972 to marry the love of my life, I continued to see Mass as central to my spiritual life. However, over time, and especially in the last 10 years, my views have changed significantly.

For Jesus, preaching had a much greater emphasis in his ministry than presiding at the Eucharist. The Gospels only record two instances of Jesus presiding at a special meal between the time he began his public ministry and his resurrection and ascension into heaven: the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection encounter on the road to Emmaus.

Reflecting on other New Testament writings has also influenced my changing viewpoint on the place of the Eucharist in my life.

  • Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God, not himself (quite different from the emphasis on the consecration of the bread and wine and his "real presence" -- that developed over time).
  • Jesus taught his disciples the "Our Father," not how to "preside at the Eucharist" or "say Mass."
  • In John's Gospel account of the Last Supper, there is no mention of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. The "washing of the feet" is all about a kingdom of servant leadership and discipleship.
  • In the Acts of the Apostles, the emphasis is on living a Christian life -- sharing everything, including daily bread. The special breaking of the bread ceremony was only one piece of this life.
  • Deacons were created not so that the apostles could preside at the Eucharist more frequently but so that the apostles (the "priests") could spend more time preaching the word. Deacons were asked to pay special attention to the needs of the sick and the poor.

My life as a believing Catholic is a faith journey. The Eucharist is a very special food for my journey, but the journey is primary, not the food. There are many sources of spiritual food for my journey of faith and we are blessed with many women of faith whose leadership capabilities qualify them to help lead this journey.

The RCIA journey is a good paradigm. It is an adult journey where the Eucharist plays an important part. However, what happens both before and after the reception of first Eucharist is all about the journey and how the Holy Spirit is also a source of energy/nourishment for the journey. Focusing on the sacramental theology of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist as a moment in time instead of as "food for the journey" would be a mistake.

How many RCIA programs do women of faith lead? These women (and many laymen) have already demonstrated they have the talent to lead faith communities.

So how do we reconcile the perspective I have outlined above with the more common understanding of the Eucharist as central to the Christian Catholic life? Why the shift in emphasis, over time, from a celebration of the paschal mystery as food for the journey to an emphasis on the "real presence," "transubstantiation" and the power of the ordained priest to "confect" the body and blood of Christ ex opere operato?

This shift came about as part of the development of and changes in the church's understanding of ordained priesthood and its connection to the Eucharist (and the development of clericalism and a centralization of power in ordained clerics that accompanied this change), along with a growing lack of appreciation for the importance of preaching the Gospel.

The "power" to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is intoxicating, and for too many priests, this power has overshadowed or eclipsed the importance of preaching the kingdom in word and deed.

This hierarchy of power has developed over two millennia and is little changed since the Middle Ages. In fact, its monarchical structure, with a pope and bishops, is a mirror image of the kings, emperors and feudal lords who ruled during the Middle Ages.

It is time for us, as a church, to emphasize more the need to recruit and form disciples committed to living a Gospel life and emphasize less the need to ordain more celibate men to the priesthood. Many women of faith are capable of leading the effort to recruit and form disciples. And this effort needs to happen most of all at the parish level.

We also need to change the formation of our faith journey leaders to give primacy to the roles of teaching and preaching in ways that would call people to true discipleship. This formation needs to emphasize more the knowledge and skills needed to lead faith communities, as opposed to the current emphasis on the power to "say Mass," "forgive sins," and hand on the "deposit of faith."

Imagine the impact on clericalism if priests and deacons were studying and growing spiritually alongside future lay leaders of our faith communities.

Francis is to be applauded for his critique of clericalism and careerism and his emphasis on the Gospel call to bring peace and justice into everyone's life, especially that of the poor. But if he and others do not make significant changes in the Catholic church's current power structure and help us return to an emphasis on its mission to call people to discipleship by preaching peace and justice, I believe his efforts will fall far short of what we and the world need from us and our church today.

We need some big changes in our church and the time is now.

[Jim Purcell, an NCR board member, worked for many years for Catholic Charities in San Francisco and San Jose. He recently retired after 18 years at Santa Clara University where he served as vice president for university relations and special assistant to the president.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here