We often hear of how the laity, by virtue of our baptisms, have a share in the priesthood of the Church and the priesthood of Christ, but it’s not a well-defined “priesthood” and that’s a good thing because really, our priesthood is to be the hands, feet, eyes and ears of Christ, wherever we are, and in whatever capacity we are being nudged forward by the Holy Spirit. An “undefined” priesthood means there is no narrowness to our scope; lay people within the Church serve continually, in every capacity outside the sacramental:
- If we may not preach from a pulpit, we can and do, preach the Gospel.
- If we cannot dispense absolution after confession, we can still be the open heart that listens to another, and directs them toward Christ, and advises sacramental address.
- Our anointings of the sick may not carry the forgiveness of sins, but — through the action of Christ, the Divine Physician — healings still come about.
I believe we layfolk are being brought into a moment of extraordinary understanding of what it means to be a priesthood-through-baptism, and that this understanding — if we embrace it — will necessarily abolish the unhealthy habit of clericalism that has enabled a poisonous, destructive culture of abuse and cover-up within our Church for too long.
One reason that culture exists is because Catholic laity have not used the power of their own priesthood to question or challenge our leadership, or to hold them accountable to Christ and His Church for the things they do. We know that our priesthood is not the same as the Apostolic Priesthood — nor should it ever be thought so — but we’ve perhaps over-deferred to the ordained clergy, mistaking the fact that our priesthoods are quite different to mean that they are not equal. Increasingly I begin to believe that, in God’s economy, they are in fact equal, if not in sacramental power and authority, then at least in service and duty, and in the potential to sanctify ourselves and the world.
With that in mind, my latest piece at Word on Fire recalls a moment when my lay priesthood was put into unexpected service thanks to a rosary that exuded a strange, chrism-scented oil, and considers the whole episode in light of two things: the appalling stories we are reading about some of the “Princes of the Church”, here in the United States and elsewhere in the world, and the strange “weeping Madonna” in New Mexico — a bronze statue that appears to be weeping not salt-water tears but (as with my rosary) a chrism-scented oil.
What does it mean when a statue of the Virgin seems to be weeping a chrism oil—oil that is consecrated every Holy Thursday by the hands of bishops and cardinal archbishops in every diocese?
No one can know, but I have a few ideas, not least that if Our Lady is weeping an oil so powerfully associated with the priesthood and the sacraments, it touches on the whole ecclesiology of the Church. Thus, it should be considered in light of the beyond-troubling headlines concerning powerful “princes” of the Church”—the men who use that oil, in persona Christi, to claim us for Christ, and seal us in faith, to heal our broken bodies and our frightened, sorrowful souls, and to ordain others into the priesthood which facilitates our Eucharistic Church.
If the tears of chrism remain a mystery, perhaps we may take it as a sign from the Mother of the Church that the Men of the Chrism need, yes, our prayers, but also something more: our help and our vigilance in facing a very difficult time of examination and needful, very likely painful correction.
What shall we do with that sign? Well, for one thing, we must be willing to investigate the long pattern of abuse, influence, and cover-up that involves Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick (and his enablers) as carefully and thoroughly as we investigate miracles at Lourdes and tears of the Madonna. We must be as unrelenting in discovering proofs, seeking evidences, and distrusting “easy” answers about the men who run the Church as we are over each miraculous claim we study.
We must do this for the very same reason we are so careful about our miracles: for the credibility and protection of the Church itself, and in service to Christ, who is Truth.
Forgive me, but a chrism oil is all wrapped up in the priesthood. And I cannot but think that there is a revelation at hand — two in fact. One regarding what has gone too-long permitted in darkness and must now be brought fully into the light, and the other about our understanding of the power of our own priesthoods. If we are struggling to advance more vocations to the Apostolic priesthood, perhaps that is in part because we have not embraced our own.
We lay people are meant to step up, along with the good, faithful priests we know, and the deacons and religious all around us — and demand the mighty housecleaning within our leadership that is so very past due.
Do not ask, “Where are the people from ages past, who helped to reform and restore and rebuild the church?” Instead look around and understand: They are us. They are you and me.
- 600 years ago an ordinary woman like Catherine of Siena dared to speak truth to power — to popes and kings — and demand of them that they serve the Church in truth, and she got it done.
- A hundred years earlier, a laughingstock and mystic named like Francesco Bernardone (a Deacon) began a one-man reformation of the Church and his Franciscan sons and daughters are still all about bringing about the Kingdom of God through service.
- A few hundred years later, a Florentine tutor named Philip Neri began a movement to bring the Church outside of itself in order to bring the world within, and became a reluctant but holy priest, refusing the red hat of a Cardinal because he had no ambitions beyond ordinary priestly service.
In our own age, Dorothy Day once wrote, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” She was talking about economics, but she could just as easily been talking about the clericalist culture that we — you and I — have allowed to grow into a toxic thing, and must now, right now and with urgency and courage, take to solemn task.
You can read my whole piece, here. I pray that the prayers of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Philip Neri, Dorothy Day and others, will accompany us as we face the church-challenge of our time, for Christ’s sake. What saints have done without social media and insta-communications we should be able to do, today.
Image Source/Public Domain