Absence­ — the Appeal for Love’s Presence

Three Points on Priestly Reform in a Time of Pandemic

“There are moments when you must physically absent yourself in order to learn what it means for something or somebody to exist in his own right.”1

The first days of pandemic have now passed into weeks, and soon may pass into months. With them have come a series of measures set in place by political and ecclesiastical authorities. These measures, albeit fitting, have recast the Christian states of life in an entirely unprecedented fashion. Accordingly, priests find themselves displaced, separated from the bride of Christ. She feels inaccessible, even absent, despite the semblance of relationship technology affords. And with the addition of quarantined rectories, forthcoming financial struggles, and the frustrations of a sacramentally deprived laity, it is no wonder that many a priest now feels an increasing sense of vocational vertigo.

But what if, like Florentino from Gabriel García-Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, something deeper were to be revealed from the priest’s lovesickness for the lost bride? What if priesthood in the time of coronavirus could be lived as an impetus to renewal? The sheer absence of priestly ministry has provided a most paradoxical and providential opportunity ­to reflect more deeply on the nature, bearing, and culture of the priesthood in our day. Absence, in the Christian vision of life, is never vacuous, never a void; it is a possibility — or as Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis called it, an appeal for Love’s presence.

The current pandemic has paused diocesan and parochial life. With this pause comes a challenge — to set aside our activism and reflect more deeply on the nature of the Christian life. The contrary temptation then would be to fill these days with a new digital activism, one which replaces sacramentality with technology. Though there are indeed pastoral exigencies to utilize technology, the mandate of the pastor is first to discern spirits. And he must ask himself whether the anima technica vacua is at work within his newly digitized parish. What this ministerial pause truly calls for is a humble reserve, one that, in acknowledging the absence of the bride, comes to a deeper understanding of the nuptial mystery which lay at the heart of the Church.

Absence is itself powerful. Anyone who attempts to pray soon realizes this. It is likewise seminal to priestly reform. If the fear of self-critique drives us into workaholism, then the power of absence can be antidotal. In other words, the present absence of the bride can be a gift, if only we recognize the real space needed for self-reflection, and the real distance required for true freedom. In brief, the opportunity hinges upon our ability to recognize our need for change.

The following article offers three self-standing points: one on the priest, one on the parish, and one on the presbyterate. They are kernels of theological critique that will hopefully be someday planted in the fields of parochial ministry. For now, may they be nothing more than fodder for the fires of priestly self-reflection and reform.

The Praxis of Functionalism

In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the theology of priesthood underwent a dramatic transformation. Rejecting the traditional ontological understanding, it became fashionable to think of priesthood as merely a function, or series of actions at the service of the People of God. A generation of priests, imbued by this functionalism, reinterpreted their priestly lives solely according to action and not being. Everything was reconsidered in light of this, from priestly garb to liturgical presence. It led to a radical de-sacralization of priestly life and ministry, the effects of which we are still experiencing.

In our day, it appears that most bishops and priests would renounce this theological vision of priesthood, in theory. But what is most striking is how functionalism is alive and well, in praxis. Though many a good and faithful bishop and priest understands himself in ontological conformity to Christ, the basic mentality of our presbyteral and diocesan decision making is largely functionalistic. In other words, we tell priests that they are sacred, and then we reduce them to functions.

Functionalism’s first act is to ground priestly identity ecclesiologically and not Christologically.2 Practically considered, this means that the priest understands himself first in terms of the parish, and not in terms of Christ. Again, a praxis of functionalism will placate to the traditional vision of priesthood but demand principally the concerns of the parish. What must be reasserted practically is the primacy of the priest as a Christological reality. His dignity and worth lie not in what he does, but in what he is­ — a sacramental reality grounded in an ontological configuration. We will never achieve a true priestly spirituality unless this ontology of consecration and mission is forcefully reasserted in the praxis of parochial ministry.

When a priest gets untethered from his metaphysical grounds, the personal, relational, and contemplative dimensions of his life begin to disappear. And from this comes the grave danger “that our lives become suffused with mere activism, with solving human and social problems, at the expense of that unique diakonia which, as Christ’s priests, we alone can offer in the cause of man’s definitive, supernatural happiness.”3

Reinfusing the praxis of priestly ministry with sacramental ontology is a work of re-education. If, as Yves Congar said, a milieu is always educative, then an authentic priestly milieu is the most fitting response to the outdated machinery of the functionalist. For this milieu “forms a certain spirit in us, or rather it forms us, starting with our most elementary reactions, and guides us in a definite direction.”4 As the milieu is formative at the level of being, it only secondarily informs action. Therefore, an ontological milieu, centered upon the mystery of God in Christ, is the key to re-attuning ministerial praxis to priestly being.

The Centripetal Parish

Hans Urs von Balthasar distinguished the Church from the synagogue by borrowing two words from Sir Isaac Newton. “The Church,” he writes, is “basically a centrifugal community (going apart, as it were, precisely in that which unites her, in Christ’s missionary call), in contrast with the synagogue, which always as today (in Israel) has been a centripetal community and is only missionary per accidens.”5 For him, the nature of the two is rooted in their unique motion, which theologically considered, is called mission. The synagogue, being in an epoch of anticipation, is centripetal and essentially turned inwards. The Church, constituted entirely by the mission of Christ, is centrifugal, continually moving away from itself and into the world.

Analogously, we can apply this distinction to the American parish. As most priests can attest, parishes are in constant motion. The question is which kind of motion are they in — centripetal or centrifugal. They are made for the latter but so often are the former, mission-less and self-centered. American consumerism, when donning religious garb, seeks the centripetal parish. And aspects of this have manifested by the recent pandemic measures. If the Catholic experience of faith is “getting sacraments,” then the Church is “now closed for business.” With this mentality, we can state conclusively that when centripetal, the parish not only loses its mission, but its very identity. Certainly, a period of sacramental deprivation is a grave and unnatural state, for just as the Church makes the Eucharist, the Eucharist makes the Church. But the Church exists in humanity, not in buildings. And she exists not for herself, but for the world.

The centripetal parish is destructive to the life of a priest. If all forces are turned inward, then the priest himself stands at the center of a massive gravitational pull. More and more, the demands pile upon him and him alone­ — he becomes, in time, a ministerial black hole. And the more he seeks to re-distribute this gravity by hiring more staff, the more it collapses back upon him. Perhaps the physical absence of the priest affords a salvific disillusionment, of priest and layman alike; that together in realizing the dispensability of this individual priest, we re-encounter again the indispensability of Christ’s priesthood alive at the heart of the Church. The coronavirus pandemic may be the one thing that draws both priest and layman out of the parish’s centripetal force and into the true centrifuge of God’s mission.6

The Presbyterial Archipelago

No man is an island — except the contemporary diocesan priest. He is to be an island, at once self-sufficient and generative. After a robust fraternal life in seminary, he is sent off to the island of his parish, to minister without basic human necessities. These islands, as part of the vast diocesan landscape, make up a presbyterial archipelago — a collection of independent parochial landmasses amid the seas of our secular techno-utopia. Though many priests have survived this archipelagic existence (some have even thrived), there are many who find it not just undesirable, but unlivable.

If pandemic life intensifies the dehumanizing experience of the presbyterial archipelago, then on what grounds can we begin to re-envision our priestly society? One approach is found in a philosophical axiom of Jacques Maritain: “The individual is for society, but society is for the person.”7 A threefold movement, the question of the individual is answered in society, just as the question of society is answered in the person. Here Maritain’s thought leads us to the brink of Christian theology, expressing anew the centrality of personhood made exclusively for communion. With the delicacy of the Catholic both-and, Maritain loses neither the person to society, nor society to the individual.

This logic applies to priesthood as follows: the individual priest exists for presbyterial society, but presbyterial society exists for the priestly person. If our priestly lives are not lived as a deepening in humanity and personhood, then we have a truncated and malformed priestly culture. Without Maritain’s framework, diocesan life can only be experienced in one of two ways: as a personless individualism or a personless collectivism.8 It is either the isolationism of the archipelago or the corporatism of diocesan superstructures. The authentic response to every scandal, mediocrity, or other clerical malaise is always connected with a renewed priestly personalism. At once Trinitarian and Christological, this personalistic approach must precede and inform all administrative (and yes, even ministerial!) demands. For if the concept of person is a distinctive gift of Christian revelation, then all the more must priestly personhood be lived with “the dignity of . . . a ray emanating from Trinitarian theology and Christology.”9

But refashioning a societal archipelago is only half the work. Prior to this is demanded something more arduous: namely, that each priest must personally entrust (and even lose) his priestly individuality for the greater society of the presbyterate. What we mean here is not the loss of the person, but the expropriation of the individual — a task that is only accomplishable through the evangelical counsels. Simply complaining that priestly culture is de-personalizing is never helpful; we must surrender our own self-standing autonomy and embrace a deeper gift of self in poverty, chastity, and obedience. The loss of priestly individuality precedes the collapse of the presbyteral archipelago; and only together can we foster a culture that is truly for the priestly person.

Conclusion: The Metaphysics of Priestly Reform

The meaningfulness of absence finds its primordial theological locus in the redemptive Incarnation of the God-man. Jesus alone reveals the truly relational nature of love, one that exists in the eternal balance of nearness and distance in the heart of the Trinity. Perfect in unity and impassible in himself, God’s kenotic descent into the realm of creation was a descent into the realm where absence lay. Man, created as a person in relation, had lost the sense of balance, a sense of the proportions of nearness and distance. For him, love became emotional intensity, relation, egoistic identity.

Man’s balance is restored in Christ’s love, as something of his Trinitarian relationality comes to bear on the created experience of absence. As for man’s proportions of nearness and distance, they are not merely restored, but extended; for the heart of the Christian life lies in the radical expansiveness of love in grace. This truth finds a fitting distillation in the unthinkable commandment of Jesus to love one’s enemies. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis comments:

What sense does it make to pour affection into a dark hole? Is not a clinging to unreciprocated love — or, even worse, to the love of what hurts us — the privilege of the mad? Human love encloses itself in a neat system of “energy conservation,” where nothing is ever lost because nothing is ever gained. To love in this way is to take a prudent, spectator’s view of human relationships, in which success depends on the greatest possible avoidance of risks. . . . Love, like the falling rain and the sunshine, moves out from a nucleus of maximum density to regions of darkness and aridity. Absence is an appeal for Love’s presence and visitation.10

Pandemic affords a unique opportunity for priestly metaphysical self-reflection. As Dermot Power once noted, “The absence of the pragmatic . . . allows us to face the level of the being of the priest as a person.”11 In other words, metaphysical questions arise in the absence of pragmatic concerns. The praxis of functionalism, the centripetal parish, and the presbyteral archipelago are only three examples of these. There are many others which, like these, are experienced as privations, as challenges, and even at times, as impossibilities. But they can be more. They can be acknowledged as absences, and in that sense, new appeals to Love’s presence.

  1. A. Bloom, Beginning to Pray, Paulist Press, New York 1970, 12.
  2. T. McGovern, Priestly Identity: A Study of the Theology of Priesthood, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene 2010, 11.
  3. McGovern, Priestly Identity, 95.
  4. Y. Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004, 24.
  5. H.U. von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, Vol II: Spouse of the Word, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1991, 141.
  6. In this regard, a line attributed to St. John Vianney is instructive: “Ne cherchez pas à plaire à tout le monde. Ne cherchez pas à plaire à quelques-uns. Cherchez à plaire à Dieu, aux Anges, aux Saints. Voilà votre public (Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints. They are your public).
  7. A summation of J. Maritain, Person and the Common Good, Chapter 4: Person and Society, by H.U. von Balthasar, “On the Concept of person,” in Explorations in Theology, Vol 5: Man is Created, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2014, 114.
  8. Cf. Von Balthasar, Explorations V, 123: “The present hour of history offers clear enough proof that anyone who rejects this Christian, or at least biblical, vision (in theology or philosophy) is doomed either to a personless collectivism or an equally personless individualism (the two tend to converge in the end).”
  9. Von Balthasar, Explorations V, 115-116.
  10. E. Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Volume 1 (Chapters 1-11), Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1996, 240.
  11. D. Power, “The Priesthood and the Evangelical Counsels, in Communio (1996) XXIII, 700.
Fr. John Nepil About Fr. John Nepil

Father John Nepil is a priest of Denver, Colorado and a member of the priestly association of the Companions of Christ. Having finished a doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome, he is now a member of the academic and formation faculty of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.