O PRIEST ever wants to be accused of “clericalism.” To be accused of clericalism is an insult to every priest, from the most progressive to the most traditional. It seems, however, that it is more common for priests who are traditional to be considered “clerical.” Why?
Most “traditional” priests have a special love for liturgy. (Shouldn’t this be true of every priest?) There is life outside the liturgy, to be sure, but should not the sacred liturgy be fundamental to every priest’s existence? There is a sentence in the introduction to the new collected works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that captures this sentiment quite frankly: “The liturgy of the Church has been for me since my childhood the central reality of my life.” That is a profound claim.
Very often, this love for liturgy will be used by a particular priest’s detractors as evidence of his clericalism. Many such accusations, though, boil down to nothing more than a healthy sense of priestly identity. Love of liturgy—and, specifically, employment of its traditional forms—is not clericalism. The liturgy, after all, is not about the priest. It is about Jesus Christ, the spotless, innocent Lamb.
Clericalism subsists, rather, in the priest who believes that the Church and her faithful exist to serve him, instead of the reverse. A true clericalist is one who interiorly rejects the image of Christ as One Who came “not to be served, but to serve.”
Towards the end of my time as a student at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, we were blessed by the presence of an old priest who had been assigned to live there and work as a spiritual director. He was well admired by everyone on campus. In some five decades of priestly service, he served as a beloved professor, confessor, and pastor. In his sprier days, he had been the quarterback of his high school football team, but by this point he was tethered to an oxygen tank and never strayed too far from his rollator. Everyone called this priest “Father Meehan.”
Fr. Meehan gave a homily one day, shortly before his death, that struck me deeply. He sat to give this homily, not in defiance of the rubrics, but because he lacked the strength to stand. It was close to the end of the academic year, so ordination was imminent for many of the men in our community. Father spoke movingly about the meaning of priesthood and the life of Christian service to which all priests are called. Some priests, he observed, think of being ordained as an achievement, or a promotion, or a reward for enduring seminary formation. He pleaded with us all to forget those ideas. To the contrary, he explained: “Ordination is not a step up; it is a step down.”
A “clericalist” is not one who loves liturgy, but one who rejects the wisdom of Fr. Meehan.