In days gone by, the role of a layperson in the Church was considered quite
simple: you went to confession on Saturdays and Mass on Sundays, and you
had to pay, pray and obey. Nowadays things are a bit more complicated, but in
all this, we have to be rooted in Sacred Scripture, and the readings today also
give us some food for thought.
“The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore
do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what
they do: since they do not practise what they preach.” Even before Christ
founded the Church, there was a teaching authority in the Jewish community
(“The Scribes and Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses”). It had God-given
authority, descended from the time of Moses: “You must therefore do what
they tell you and listen to what they say”. But it didn’t mean that the scribes
and Pharisees were automatically perfect, and incapable of being diverted from
how they should conduct themselves: “but do not be guided by what they do:
since they do not practise what they preach”. Hopefully today, these words
don’t apply too much to the clergy, but the temptation is still there and things
can go wrong.
The Synod in Rome has finished and the report has been published. You can
read it on-line: the document is forty-one pages long, including the contents
pages and a few pictures, and it does talk about accountability of deacons,
priests and even bishops, to the laity. As a slightly unusual version of this, in
my last parish there was a parishioner of more mature years and we got on
really well, she had a great sense of humour and could also be quite direct. So
she might ask me things like: “Have you been a good boy this week, Father?”
She said, that because I was relatively young, she would speak to me in ways
she wouldn’t speak to a priest, say of seventy-one. Of course, in the Church
there are already various forms of accountability, including simple things such
as publishing the collection totals on the bulletin and the annual parish
accounts. More is envisaged in the future, however, without it getting too
bureaucratic. The Synod report does also mention, though, that even the laity,
as well as the clery, can become guilty of the vice of clericalism: this is where
you become a distinct class, cut off from everyone else and an inversion of
what Christ is calling you to be. It is characterised by those who come, not to
serve, but to be served, and who re-word the Our Father to say: my kingdom
come, my will be done. We all have feet of clay. As the Lord says today in the
Gospel, authority instead is to be exercised as service in humility.
The first reading points out that we are accountable to God, and it’s not for us
to go off at a tangent from what the Lord says. Yes, the reading talks about
priests, but it also applies to everyone. We are all called to give good example.
If I were to preach a homily on moderation with alcohol, and then got caught
driving over the limit, it wouldn’t look too good. But similarly, there are
people who know that you are Catholics, and take note of what you do do, and
don’t do. They might never meet a priest; you might be the only Catholics they
The second reading gives a real example of priestly fatherhood, but also how
any Christian should live:
“Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, we felt so devoted
and protective towards you, and had come to love you so much, that we were
eager to hand over to you not only the Good News, but our whole lives as
Being a follower of Christ is not a job that we do from 9-5, and then down tools
as soon as the bell goes; it’s a vocation which is part of the very fibre of our
being, and it’s supposed to have feeling behind it, as well as devotion, going
out of our way for others and for the Lord, even when it’s downright
inconvenient: “Let me remind you, brothers, how hard we used to work,
slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one of you while we were
proclaiming God’s Good News to you”. In other words, our faith should mean
that we sometimes lose sleep, time, money or effort for the sake of the Lord.
We should never be able to say “The good thing about being a Catholic is, that
it makes no demands of you”.
But why do we do all this? Because God is real. St Paul finishes by saying:
“you accepted it for what is really is, God’s message and not some human
thinking; and it is still a living power among you who believe it”.
So yes, there is divine authority invested in the Church, but things can still go
awry, and we need the corrective message of Scripture to keep us on track,
including the principal message of service.