Religious or Diocesan?

Monday, June 05, 2006

(By Br. Jude David, Seminarian of the Archdiocese of Singapore )
This is technically a whole theology in itself which would take more than a blog entry if we were to talk about the details but I shall just attempt to give you the big picture.

First, it would be good for you to know that strictly speaking, in the Church, there are only two categories of people, namely, Clergy and Laity. There isn't an official category of people called Religious or Consecrated People because they also fall under the category of Laity. So, technically speaking, there is only the ordained and non-ordained people within the Church although we also always treat those consecrated to the Lord with very high esteem and are often also specially mentioned because of their unique and indispensable gifting in the Church. This separation amongst the People of God would also exist in a Religious Congregation or Order because within these communities of men, there exist those who are ordained and those who are not. All Religious take a Solemn Profession which is the singular, most important event of their Religious Life which even supersedes their ordination (for those who are religious priests) because it is the moment they consecrate their whole life to the religious community. So in this way, you would be able to see why even though you are a priest, you are first a Religious before you are a priest which is why you often call a Religious priest a Friar or Abbot or some other title which is in line with their Religious identity as compared to their priestly identity. Another interesting practical illustration of this is how a religious priest is dressed when he is finally laid in his coffin. He is usually dressed in his habit instead of the stole and chasuble because he is primarily a religious "more" (notice the inverted commas because I cant think of a better word at the moment but its not the best) than a priest unlike a Diocesan Priest or those who have taken on a Diocesan identity (like Religious belonging to priestly institutes like MEP or CICM which are Religious Missionaries but take on a Diocesan Charism when they are incardinated into a Diocese).

I would now give you a brief theological and historical background to why this difference exists. We believe that the Lord Jesus instituted the Priesthood and the Eucharist on the night before he died at the Last Supper. As our beloved late Pope John Paul II had said, "Both the Priesthood and the Eucharist were born together in the Upper Room". So the Apostles were those who shared in the ministerial Priesthood of Christ and passed it on by the laying on of hands to other men who were to assist them in their ministry. Therein lies the role of Bishop who holds the office of apostle and continues to share the fullness of the priesthood with other men to share in this ministry with him by the laying on off hands during ordination to the Priesthood or the Diaconate. So you can see that priestly work and diaconate work which have a distinct sacramental character is intrinsically linked to the Bishop of a place. As such, the Diocesan Priest /Deacon takes obedience to the local ordinary (Bishop).

In the scriptures you would notice how St. Paul would choose from amongst the men of the local Christian community a few on whom he would lay hands (ordain) to carry out the work of presbyters. This personally for me is a clear indication of the Diocesan Priesthood. The Diocesan Priest has a distinct parochial or Diocesan identity and mission. He is called from amongst the local Christian community to share in the presbyterial ministry to the community. The Diocesan Priest is fully conformed to the Model of Jesus the Good Shepherd and must conform his own life to Jesus the Good Shepherd in the care of the community God has called him to serve. Notice that his ministry is in the name of Jesus the Good Shepherd and His Church and the Diocesan Priest's community is the People of God amongst whom he is called to serve. This is why Diocesan Priests are also called Secular priests (which means in the world). Often people make fun of Diocesans as worldly because the live in the world but that is our very identity because just like Jesus the Good Shepherd, our ministry is in the fore front of the world and so we are in the world but not of the world. In this light, Diocesan Priests take the vow of canonical obedience to the Bishop (who is Apostle) and celibacy (which is slightly different from the vow of Chastity which the Religious take) and they do not take poverty. The reason for this is because the Diocesan Priest is leader of the Christian Community and as such is also responsible for the well-being and care of the People of God which would certainly include the managing of the funds of the Christian Community and so as to ensure that the money is wisely and discerningly used for the well-being of the Christian community. Also, the Diocesan Priest lives amidst the People of God and not in a community which takes care of him and his daily needs and so a Diocesan Priest will have to manage his own funds to take of his own daily needs and that of his community.

The difference between celibacy and chastity in a very simplistic way (if you want the more theological and deeper reflections on this, it would be too long) is that chastity is a virtue which every serious Christian should already be living. It is one of Faithfulness and in some ways a commitment to a relationship. Every married person is chaste in that he/she would only have emotional and physical intimacy with his/her spouse. In a similar way, a Religious takes on Chastity as a commitment of once intimacy and relationship for God and for his/her community. In some sense, Chastity gives a person a certain exclusivity in relationship because the person has become exclusively in relationship with God and his/her religious community. Celibacy on the other hand is the conscious forgoing of marriage and physical intimacy which instead of tieing a man into an exclusive relationship, frees him for the relationship with all of God's People. He is to have inclusive relationships with all of God's People. As a Religious comes to find his path to holiness in through the lifestyle of his Religious congregation, a Diocesan Priest finds his path to holiness via serving the People of God and walking hand in hand with them. Now a bit about the history of the Religious who are priests. In the early days of the Christian Community, there were men and women who went away into the desert to live a life totally seeking God and leaving behind the world. From the writings of the Church Fathers, you would realise that often these men were not priests but were holy lay men who themselves were ministered to with Eucharist every now and then by priests who would bring the Eucharist to them. These men and women are the origins of the monastic traditions in the Church like the Carmelites and with later reformers like St. Benedict, we have religious like the Benedictines, Trappists, etc. Then we had certain charismatic men and women who God raised up in the history of the Church to serve special needs of the Church in a special time and place. We have St. Francis who attempted to bring back the virtue of Gospel simplicity and poverty (he himself never became a priest), St. Dominic who started the Order of Preachers to preach against prevailing heresies, the teaching congregations which were meant to serve the educational needs of the young (e.g IJ, La Salle, Gabrielites) and then there were those who were started to take care of the sick (e.g FMDM, Brothers of Mercy), those for mission and evangelisation (e.g FMM, MEP, CICM).

As I mentioned earlier, the early monks and hermits and all were not priests and were ministered to by the Diocesans who would go out to meet them. However, as their numbers grew, it became wiser and more practical to ordain some men from amongst the Religious to serve the sacramental needs of their communities. Therefore, a religious priest, is primarily a priest for the service of his own community and the special mission of the community. Therefore, it makes sense that the religious priest does not report to the archbishop but to his superiors and can be assigned as and where the needs of the religious community he is a part of needs him. His priestly ministry is also primarily at the service of his community in that he will have to place the needs of his community above the needs of his priestly ministry because therein lies his own path to holiness. Giving you a hypothetical example, say that you are a priest of a religious community and say the cook in another house in another country dies, and they need a new cook and there is no one else available, you, although a priest can be re-assigned to go and serve as cook in that community and not continue your sacramental ministry to the People of God because your first allegiance is to the spirit and service of your religious community. Hope you can understand this point.

So how does one know how to discern whether he is called to be a Diocesan Priest or a Priest in a Religious Congregation. Of course this takes a lot of prayer and discernment to see what God is saying in your life and what moves your heart and what my first spiritual director used to call, which path best leads you to your own sanctification and that of others.

A simplistic approach is to look at what is truly moving your heart and spirit. Are you drawn to the sacramental life and ministry of the priest which is a distinct aspect of the Priesthood or are you drawn more to the charism and spirituality and way of life of a certain Religious Founder or Congregation. For example, are you fascinated by the person of St. Francis and want to be another St. Francis or do you have a special enthusiasm for doing the Missions and Novenas of the Redemptorists or maybe you would like to care for the sick by being a Brothers of Mercy....... You could be ordained in these congregations but your driving force would be that your priestly ministry is in the service of the ministry of your entire congregation and you would like to model you life based on the teachings and lifestyle of your religious founder. If you are a Carmelite priest, I would think it right that you are deeply moved by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila and would prefer to spend many hours in quiet contemplation than being in the front line of ministry in a parish although you may do that in the name of your Religious community for a period of your life but that is not what attracted them and that is certainly not something they can see themselves doing for the rest of their lives. Whereas, if you are a Diocesan, you can be more or less likely sure, you are going to be spending the rest of your life amongst the People of God serving their sacramental needs. Even if the Bishop posts you to a hospital, you will take care of the sacramental needs of the sick, if he posts you to the prison, you will take care of prisons......and the list goes on but always in the service of the local Church and amongst the People, so in some ways, you have to enjoy being with and serving God's People.

The problem in Singapore (as well as in many parts of the world) is that many young people get priesthood and religious life mixed up. In reality, they are attracted to being a priest and hardly know or are inspired by the Religious Founder but never really sort out this in their own beings. Then there are those who hardly have a desire to be at the service of the local Christian community or totally don't like being with people and would prefer to be in solitude most of their time and then they try to become Diocesan Priests and realise that it doesn't fit the person God had made them to be. So herein lies discernment which also entails self-discovery, to see how God has made you (with your strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, gifts and preferences) and how best you can love and serve Him.

Boy, I have written far more than I had hoped to but I trust that the Holy Spirit will use my humble scribblings to inspire and move your own heart. I hope that this mail helps you get a better understanding of the Diocesan Priesthood compared to being a priest in the Religious house.

You would probably get lost if you read this entire post at one go so take time to read it and digest it at different intervals over a period of time. Then, pray about it for enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, asking Him for clarity in your own journey of self-discovery and realising God's wonderful plans for you.

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