Friday, September 12, 2008

Power and Authority in the Church

Always remember that authority in the church is meant for the service of God’s people. That does not reduce authority or hierarchy to a mere functional reality in the church, but it does situate its ontological reality firmly in one thing, and that is service. One of the most fascinating concepts that arose out of the renewal of Vatican II is a term often used to describe the role of a priest as pastor or shepherd: ‘servant-leadership’. Mind you, it’s a very big word, and often it remains precisely that, a big ‘word’.

What does it mean concretely though? For starters, it means power in the Christian community is meant to be two things. First, it’s meant to be for the service of God’s people, and secondly, if it is to be genuinely in line with the mind of Christ, it’s meant to be self-effacing. Scripture is replete with instances whereby God’s messengers would do a miraculous deed only to remind people that they aren’t the source of the power that brought about these wonders. Jesus himself was wont to point to his Father whenever something wonderful was accomplished through him. And who could forget those immortal words of John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I decrease”.

A noteworthy Christian philosopher once said, “the most powerful signs efface themselves”. This is because for us Christians, there is only one who is truly the beginning, middle, and end of all our endeavors, both great and small, and that is Jesus himself. And our own value and worth are derived from the value and worth that we find in him.

True power is therefore never showy. And it’s never possessed for its own sake, especially not for us Christians. But it is quite easy to forget this truth. For acclaim, prestige, and power are rather easy to come by in the church. Despite the many challenges and scandals that rocked the church in recent years, priests are still accorded a good deal of respect by people. But we must not forget that this respect, at times even deference, is meant for a purpose. It isn’t an end in itself. Its goal is service, genuine service of the church, the ‘people of God’

And the church is not about one’s projects or goals, however big or grand they are. The church is about people, the church is people. And Christ sent us not to build monuments of stone, but monuments of flesh, and blood, and spirit. Our commission is to win hearts for Christ by our warmth, love, humility, compassion, kindness, and acceptance.

An effective minister, a good priest, one must certainly be. No one wants sloppy liturgies, or poorly prepared homilies, ineffective and shabby pastoral programs. The laity surely deserves the best service the church can offer. But neither must we become mere ‘professionals’, ‘salesmen’, or ‘entertainers’ on account of a fear that our people might not accept or appreciate us. A priest is not an administrator simply, nor a scholar simply, nor a teacher simply, nor a builder simply. A priest is a spiritual leader first and foremost, one who has touched the heart of something so deep and profound in life that people see in his own life, no less than a disclosure of something that transcends the ordinary.

A priest is a pointer to a ‘beyond’. He is a ‘shaman’, a ‘medicine-man’, if you will—one who enters into the ‘forest’ of life, sees something so life-changing, world-shaking, and paradigm-shifting, that his very existence finds itself so profoundly transformed by what he has seen, and he cannot but share his experience with those who await him as he departs the forest. That forest is a priest’s experience of the divine, it’s his experience of God. Without it, the life of a priest becomes a litany of trivialities joined together by an overwhelming sense that it is he himself who must provide meaning to it all, and is thus the point of it all. And it is here precisely that he begins to stumble, as he forgets that not in himself, but in Christ alone is the ‘point of it all’ to be situated.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)