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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 3 July 2001

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The African Priesthood of the Future

By Laurenti Magesa

The Catholic priesthood of today is often viewed as an unchangeable institution that has endured for more than a thousand years. But the priesthood took on radically different forms in the far past, and was not the rigid and unchangeable entity that it is today. If the African priesthood is to flourish, changes need to be made.

The Catholic priesthood is a long-standing institution, many of the characteristics of which have existed for more than a millennium and a half.

Institutions of this kind are difficult to reform, even when reform is necessary. The Catholic priesthood itself often operates on the assumption that, because it has endured for so long, it needs neither questioning nor reconstruction. Its durability alone is taken by those without a sense of history to legitimatise its current sociological and theological claims.

In a sense this is true, especially when the priesthood is viewed as an important sacrament or sign of Christ's own self-giving and service to humanity. This aspect of the priesthood must not and cannot change without violating the core of the Church. But that's the farthest that we can legitimise it.

What must change is the outward form of priesthood, the ways it is expressed. And history shows that this has changed through the ages. This is where a keen eye for history gives us a sense of perspective and warns us not to apply the "from-the-beginning-was-is-now-and-forever-will-be-the-same" maxim to how the priesthood is lived in different parts of the world.

Eucharistic presidency

For instance, in the Apostolic Church, the Eucharist was celebrated from home to home, much like the Scripture reflections and prayer meetings in some of our well-structured Small Christian Communities today. The patriarch or matriarch of the particular home at which the Eucharist was held usually presided at it, and became for that particular time, president of the Eucharist. The Book of Acts included men as well as women.

The Eucharist president or minister was not separated from the rest of the community of believers, either sociologically as a matter of status or rank, or theologically in the sense of an "indelible character" etched on one by "ordination." It should be already clear that ordination, as a special rite of installation to leadership, did not exist then. All believers were equal in the Lord, and especially at the Eucharistic table.

A passage in the Letter to Titus (1:5-9) spells out how the priesthood, especially that of the "bishop" - bishop referring to church leaders of the Apostolic Church - was viewed in later New Testament times. The bishop was merely called an "elder." As a prisoner in Rome, Paul writes to Titus:

"The reason I left you behind in Crete was for you to get everything organized there and appoint elders in every town, in the way that I told you: that is, each of them must be a man of irreproachable character; he must not have been married more than once, and his children must be believers and not uncontrollable or liable to be charged with disorderly conduct. Since, as president, he will be God's representative, he must be irreproachable: never an arrogant or hot-tempered man, nor a heavy drinker or violent, nor out to make money; but a man who is hospitable and a friend of all that is good, sensible, moral, devout and self-controlled; and he must have a firm grasp of the unchanging message of the tradition, so that he can be counted on for both expounding the sound doctrine and refuting those who argue against it."

Notice the developments that have taken place in the understanding of the "priesthood" by the time this letter was written around 65 or 66 CE. Unlike before, the elder is now exclusively a man, an educated man, "with a firm grasp of the…message of the tradition."

The elders of this time, who doubled as Eucharist presidents, were married men and had children. Paul stipulates these conditions in response to a real situation: the philosophies of the pleasure-seeking Epicureans on one hand, and the body-denying stoics on the other.

Clerical celibacy begins

The seeds of the hierarchical, monarchical leadership in the Church were sown early in the second century CE. and bore fruits in the third and fourth centuries. With this also developed mandatory celibacy to regulate the life of priests. But the rule of clerical celibacy was to remain amorphous in the Church until the fourth century at the Council of Elvira in 306 CE.

But even twenty years later, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, married clergy were allowed to retain their wives despite suggestions by some that these marriages be annulled. The practice of married priesthood has continued for the lower clergy in the Eastern Church. In the West, however, the second Lateran Council of 1139 decreed that henceforth, clerical marriage would not only be unlawful but invalid as well. This has held since then. It has been reaffirmed by the Council of Trent, Vatican II, Pope Paul VI in the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus of 1967, and by Pope John Paul II on numerous occasions.

These developments and changes show that the durability of the institution of the priesthood is not synonymous with rigidity and inflexibility. Speaking specifically from the African context, changes and reforms are necessary, especially regarding the inner life of the African priest. They are key to ensuring the spiritual, psychological, and physical health of both the priest and the Christian communities he serves.

A priesthood "set apart"

For instance, until recently, there was the theology in the African Church of the priest as "set apart," which encouraged separateness and non-democratic models of priestly ministry. This has been surpassed by the equality-promoting information revolution that has reached Africa. People now accept priestly authority as emanating from a life of example. However, African seminaries still largely insist on an outdated theology of the priesthood, one that promotes apartness and fills the minds of seminarians with social expectations they cannot attain as priests. Therefore, when as priests they do not achieve the status and rank they thought they would, some become depressed and fail to function to their best.

Often, both the bishop and faithful interpret this as truancy. The priest in question is either ignored or punished. This provokes low self-esteem, depression, and irritability in the individual priest. Not infrequently, it leads to alcoholism, physical ill health, and a low spiritual life as the priest begins to do just the minimum required by the system to get by. The priestly ministry of self-giving service is thus compromised. Service becomes a sentence, not a joy.

Unfortunately, the theology of apartness is still inhered into candidates for the priesthood. This lends itself to another dangerous assumption by the Christian community concerning the priest. The priest is seen as some sort of a bionic superman, not a human being who needs love, intimacy, encouragement, and sincere deserved praise. Instead, he is easily judged, rarely forgiven, and always taken for granted. Except for when he finds money to build a big church or another visible physical structure, he gets not as much as a pat on the shoulder for going about his ordinary spiritual ministry of counselling, visiting the sick, and building up Christian communities.

Bishops are especially guilty in this respect. There is a feeling among many African priests - a feeling that is not entirely unjustified and can be demonstrated with clear, epistolary evidence - that a priest hears from his bishop only when the former has done something wrong, or after the bishop has heard rumours of wrongdoing. At such times, a letter arrives or the priest is summoned into the bishop's office and the solemn but ominous question inevitably crops up. "What is this we hear about you, father?"

If priests are human beings like the rest of men, yet lack the trust they emotionally need from their superiors, concern from their fellow priests (particularly the secular clergy who do not live in community), and encouragement from the community they serve, where should they turn to for these things? Resort to prayer as many suggest? Yes, but what is prayer without love, care, concern and intimacy, faith, hope and inner peace? Some priests who confess that they are spiritually impoverished are harshly told to "grow up." Not wishing to appear infantile or "like women," they withdraw.

Bishops, too, are not supermen. Like their priests, they need friendship, care and concern to perform their duties with faith, hope, charity, and joy. They should not be denied or deny themselves this requirement of authentic humanity.

More education needed

Authentic humanity calls for growth in wisdom. If dioceses can get funds to undertake many forms of development projects, they surely get some for one of the most important development project of all: the on-going education of priests.

The Vatican realizes this and often emphasizes its importance to the bishops and in public documents. Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to convince priests themselves that on-going education is important. "Education" here does not mean studying for degrees. That can only be learning. We are talking about education in its primary sense of cultivating an inquisitive mind, asking questions, and trying to find answers. In a word, it is to avoid being intellectually stale. This means reading, reading, and more reading. It is imperative that time is provided for it.

This is a pastoral need if priests are not to be inadequate pastors, lacking in curiosity and knowledge, comfortable with giving old answers to new and pressing questions. In this age of globalisation, it is better to err on curiosity than to be secure by playing it safe, remaining ignorant because knowledge will disturb your mental comfort.

The 5 May 2001 edition of the English Catholic periodical, The Tablet, editorialised on the priesthood. It said: "Ultimately, it will be necessary to hold a council on the issue of the identity of the priest for today and tomorrow, and the means to train clergy and support them, including notably the place of the laity in the mix. The present formula appears no longer to be working. Vatican I considered the role of the Pope; Vatican II that of the bishops; a Vatican III could reflect on the priest's role within the people of God."

It will be good if such a Council eventually takes place. However, we in Africa cannot afford to wait for it. Let us reflect now on the identity of the priesthood in our fast changing society.

Laurenti Magesa a priest from the Diocese of Musoma (Tanzania), is one of Africa's best-known Catholic theologians. He has taught theology in Africa and America. Currently, he is lecturing at Tangaza College in Nairobi, Kenya.

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