Guest Commentary – April 6, 2020

The concept of news. Newspaper on the table, eyeglasses, computer. Coffee break.

Clericalism shuts down reliance on God’s grace

— Father Pat Apuzzo

When I decided to write about clericalism, it was to help expose its human face. I did not want to mask or dilute how clericalism can infect us and damage our faith. On the contrary, the more familiar we are with clericalism, the more we can diminish its strength and prevalence among us.

To remedy the problem, we must go behind the label “clerical” to meet these people for who they are and for what they are experiencing. They are sisters and brothers who are living with a spiritual disorder. It is a struggle for them to trust the reliability of God’s grace.

When I started composing these reflections, the coronavirus epidemic had not yet become a pandemic. In observing the actions and reactions of one another – as well as my own – we have a window into seeing more clearly just what clericalism is.

Yet, as a flood of human tragedy rises, there are the blessings of a stream of words, perspectives and actions that demonstrate everything that clericalism is not.

How we react – or how we are instructed to respond – in human moments when God seems to be absent will distinguish whether or not clericalism is stirring.

To help with that distinction: even though its root is the word “cleric,” clericalism does not pertain only to the ordained. Some laypersons practice clericalism. There are a lot of deacons, priests and bishops who do not.

A universal symptom of clericalism is separation. The practitioners perceive themselves as being apart from the common crowd, superior in any number of ways from the ordinary believer. Worst of all, clericalism devises a self-image of someone indispensable for others to have faith, yet they envision themselves practicing faith without others.

When fellow believers, with their faith strangled by feelings of being abandoned or rejected, cry out, “Where is Jesus now?”, what do we do? We invoke trust in Jesus of the Gospels. There, in the Gospels, Jesus walks through walls to calm the fears of his disciples. Jesus growls at death at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Jesus, as he suffers on the cross, trustingly places himself into the dependable hands of God.

Those suffering with the spiritual disease at the core of clericalism will often mock such an approach.

As if we should take as fairy tales Jesus’ insistent testimonies to God’s relentless mercy, “clericalists” will often ridicule invocations of those portrayals as “loosey-goosey” or scorn them as “cheap grace” — a misapplication of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase from “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he defines “cheap grace” as “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate [my emphasis].”

Since mercy is not weakness, and it doesn’t exclude confrontation, those afflicted with the disease of clericalism need our love and our honesty.

When Jesus encounters Thomas after the Resurrection, his words to the apostle are sharp and direct, yet his actions are intimate and emboldening. Jesus demands that Thomas put an end to his unbelief and directs him to start believing. Then, Jesus invites Thomas to come close and to touch, and to be touched by the wounds that Jesus carries to all of us from the cross. (Jn 20:27).

In what we are experiencing these days – with a pandemic disease striking fear, grief and despair into so many hearts, it is a special moment for us to be a Church of people -for each other and for so many others – who dare to invite others to keep our hopes open to trust that God is with us.

Even though we are unable to gather in our churches, wherever we gather Christ promises he is with us. Nothing can separate us from Christ. We can remind each other not to panic since Jesus is in this boat with us, cheering us to hold tight to faith in God. We have a graced time to assert and insist that there is no one human life that is more demanding of dignity and protection than any other.

And, let us use this special opportunity to reunite as a Church. To put each one of us back on common ground with each other. To allow none to stand above or below the other. To re-introduce ourselves as needing each other — all of us ready and able to serve the rest.

Father Pat has been a priest of the Diocese of Richmond for 43 years. Before retiring, he served as a pastor for 24 years and as “priest-for” at several parishes who were without a local pastor. He also served as Priest Secretary for the late Bishop Walter Sullivan and in several other positions on the diocesan staff.

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