Response to Fr. Michael Crosby NCR Mar 30, 2010
Reading Fr. Crosby’s response to Sr. Sandra Schneider’s article on ‘ministerial religious life’ was one of those ‘grace-filled’ moments that we enjoy all too rarely. As a secular priest who has no vocation for celibacy, poverty, or obedience in the ‘religious order’ sense of those terms, whose ministry has been mostly teaching at a university, I read Sr. Sandra’s articles [devoured them, I guess] at the level of spiritual reading. She caused me to reflect upon my own ‘ministerial’ life as priest and professor. Is my life less ‘ministerial’, less ‘religious’ than the lives of my sisters and brothers in ‘religious orders’? I hope not. And now, Fr. Michael’s article in response to Sr. Sandra’s. What I find is a ministerial religious continuum along which we all find ourselves—and that our lives together form a messy kind of ‘community’ along Fr. Michael’s fourth model.
There is a tension between the universal call for all followers of Jesus to minister to others according to their needs, and the institutionalization and control of those ministries by a hierarchical, authoritarian, patriarchal sector of the church. At least since post-Constantinian times, the church seems to consist of at least two ‘types’ of Christians: ‘conventional’ Christians who uninterestedly and minimally do what they are required to do in order to maintain their ‘membership’; and ‘intentional’ Christians who see themselves as engaged in their ministries because they are religious. Francis of Assisi is a good example of the latter. As a layman, he did not seek official recognition by the institutional church but was persuaded to receive tonsure thereby coming under the jurisdiction of the church. This can be seen as the church using its power to dominate and control a religious movement that challenged the institutional church’s authority.
I agree with Fr. Michael’s criticism of the anachronistical ‘proof-text’ approach to justifying later developments. Whatever ‘leaving one’s possessions and not marrying’ may have meant among the early followers of Jesus, it is difficult to trace a direct connection between that and the development of the lives of the ’desert fathers [mothers?]’ and other forms of ascetic life, largely in the eastern church. Despite pre-Benedictine ‘religious’ examples [e.g., pre-Benedictine Farfa in Italy], the Benedictine model dominated the development of ‘religious’ life in the western church; and it was not focused on ministry to the world outside the monastery. Women’s religious orders followed the same model. Not until the thirteenth century do we find Francis and Dominic founding orders designed to ‘minister’ to the world outside the cloister. And women were not permitted to follow their brothers in that vocation: Franciscan and Dominican nuns were required to live the same cloistered lives as their Benedictine sisters. The establishment of women’s religious communities to serve ‘ministerial’ needs in the world outside the convent is a relatively new development [18th century?] and certainly one that finds inspiration in the women of the original community gathered around Jesus.
The desire [even need] that we have to ground all that we do in reference to the original ‘Jesus community’ is understandable. If we see the New Testament as being the Word of God, then we want it’s authority for what we do. But, like the early Christians who wrote the ‘New Testament’, perhaps we need to look to our experience of the living ‘Word of God’, Jesus himself, in our midst, for the inspiration of the ways in which we live out our Christian lives. As the ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’, so the ‘proof of our Christian lives is in their living’.
Whether as ‘religious’ or just ‘intentional’ Christians, we are to live our faith daily, always seeking, being challenged, never absolutely certain about tomorrow’s Christian life, but certain that we walk ‘surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses’ and accompanied by the living ‘Word of God’, Jesus himself.