Farnborough Abbey

During my recent visit to England (for my Diocesan Council of Advice in London), I visited a friend of mine who is a medical doctor and a philosopher. I spent many hours discussing profound things, but also meeting his wife and friends with their own young children. I was surrounded by children – quite an experience – with all the characteristics of beings discovering their world so vividly. One of those children is a baby who needed to be baptised. Timothy and I were invited to the christening at Farnborough Abbey.

Sunday Mass was celebrated in the 1962 Roman Rite with some modifications allowed for monastic communities, with which I was familiar in abbeys like Fontgombault and Triors. Farnborough is a very small community, but yet has a mitred abbot. Information about the community and its fascinating history can be found at Farnborough Abbey. I was most intrigued about the use of the organ, a fine Cavaillé-Coll instrument played by an equally fine lay organist. It was a time of prayer, memories of my Roman Catholic days and a totally different perspective through bitter-sweet experience. The Mass, attended by about ten very serious lay faithful and the families of mixed origin (Italian, Polish, etc.) and the children, was followed by the very simple baptism. Being a monastic and not a parish church, there is no font, so the baby Bernardo was baptised using a copper basin on a table.

We went outside to the green facing the church, where there were the customary photographs. I was wearing my cassock and old style cravat with my hair tied back. The Abbot came up to me and asked who I was. I gave him my name, and he repeated it with surprise and almost veneration. I detected no cynicism or sarcasm. The monks of Farnborough read this blog and have appreciated my article about the liturgy and certain other subjects. The Abbot, a plain-speaking man from Durham, said a number of things – like for example that he could write my obituary in most glowing terms. To which I replied that I would have to “fall off my perch” first! It was a moving experience to be treated as a famous celebrity by this Abbot. I was also plain about my experience in Triors and knowing that monastic silence promotes knowing about everything and listening to every conceivable bit of gossip. Silence heightens the senses and our wonder about things that most people don’t notice. To this day, I can stare at a single leaf on a tree and contemplate it for several minutes!

He was probably quite taken aback by my being as Northern as he and also plain talking. Many idealise the monastic life, but I am so aware of its humanity and the way grace works with the human condition here and now, without ambition or standing above the communion of the community. Ora et labora: the monastic life is divided between the long hours of singing the Office and doing mundane tasks like maintaining the buildings and grounds or in some craft – or study when it wouldn’t cause pride.

It was a profoundly touching experience for me, that will encourage me to put more renewed work into this blog for the sake of Christian education. There is something in common between a lone priest at his computer and the monastic community that generates prayer and divine grace. It was also for me a kick up the backside to return to the Parable of the Talents and consider my priesthood and my vocation to Christian education. I have been through a hard year “of discernment”. This meeting with a wise and experienced abbot was a sign to me, even though I no longer belong to his institutional Church. Even there, he was most sensitive and did not attempt to get me “back into the fold”, knowing that such would be my spiritual and vocational death.

A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.

I thank God for such men of discernment, of good northern English plainness, a shot in the arm of grace and joy. I returned to Dover and France elated, driving through the Surrey hills to the smells of honeysuckle and the flowers in the gardens. This is surely a foretaste of heaven in these summer days.

Gratias tibi agimus, propter magnam gloriam tuam!

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Many of us have mixed feelings about elitism, whether it is the Aristocracy, very rich people or associations of people manipulating the world, if we believe in the various conspiracy theories. Like in the late eighteenth century, should not these privileged few be killed or stripped of what they have so that everyone can be equal?

Egalitarianism is clearly an illusion. Some people can run faster than others, have greater intellectual capacities, be able to make things with their hands that many intellectuals cannot do. A doctor or a company director will be paid better than a factory worker, and will be able to live in a nicer home and enjoy what money can buy. When the inequalities go beyond a certain point, we have the Parable of Dives and Lazarus. The rich who become richer at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged will pay a high price. Elitism also describes the nobility of spirit of those who have a finer understanding of life than materialists or those who live only for pleasure and sensations.

Any defined group of persons is elite from its very nature. The Church is an elite, and the clergy and monastics even much more so. Having skills and experience makes us into an elite. Good garage mechanics and carpenters are an elite by being able to do things most of us are not trained to do. It is the same for those who play a musical instrument, read music or speak a foreign language. The problem enters the picture when elites think that their qualities entitle them to dominate society. I have often grappled with this notion, educated as I was in an English public school where the ethos is turned to excellence and competition. Winner takes all! Privilege comes with responsibility and concern for others. The rich Oxford and Bullingdon Club student who burns a £50 banknote in front of a homeless person deserves the harshest punishment.

I am not trained in sociology, but I see elitism as extremely diverse. In society, it tends to be a matter of high birth, money, initiation in various “I’ll scratch your back and you will scratch mine” societies. An elite society is closed and difficult to join, often maintaining its mystical aura with secrecy. We can see where things are going with the clergy of various mainstream Churches, the lack of accountability and concern for “ordinary” people. Apart from aristocratic (etymologically from the Greek “rule by the best”) birth, elites will form themselves from groups of people who have something in common and are good at it. We all like privileges, being a cut above the average. We are either born into it, are given it or earn it by personal achievement.

The big question is knowing whether the world can be changed for the better by elites and people of merit, or by majorities who vote the elites into power. That is a problem of politics, and I have no pretence of having an answer. I am not concerned with political elitism, the aristocracy or those who are stinking rich. What seems particularly unjust is when elites exist for their own sake and make a special point of excluding new entries into the elite. The big problem with egalitarianism is knowing where the line is between limiting the selfishness of the elite and discouraging talent, commitment, hard work, merit, achievement.

Elitism vs populism has always been an issue in history. There has always been competition to be the best, and there has always been the notion of merit without being concerned about being better than others. Some days ago, I read an illuminating article about four stages of human development: mimicry, self-discovery, commitment and legacy. Most people remain in the first stage, worried about following fashions and what the neighbours think about X or Y. A few begin to seek to discover themselves rather than imitate others. Commitment is about acting on your discovery of your true vocation and purpose in life, leading to building something you leave to the world when you die, something you will be remembered by. The article is worth reading with a critical mind.

I have written before on the nobility of spirit and aristocracy of spirit a notion so beautifully described by the contemporary Dutch writer Rob Riemen, Nikolai Beryaev and the ancient philosophers. I seem to belong to elites – the priesthood of the Church, a fairly privileged family, an education, owning a house, and so forth – but I do believe we have have the responsibility to share. We are not called to give to the poor person in such a way as he becomes what I was and I become what he was. St Martin gave half his cloak, because he still needed something to keep him warm. We are called to help others to find opportunities to read, study, discover – and be elevated from their previous narrowness and disadvantage.

One of the finest aspects of Plato’s work is the notion of the Philosopher King in The Republic. The word philo-sophia means love of wisdom coupled with intelligence, a desire to serve and wanting to embrace a simple life. These rulers run the utopian city of Kallipolis. The Philosopher King loves knowledge, but not merely education. He has access to Ideas that lie beyond forms and manifestations, sees the being and not merely the appearance.

Have Philosopher Kings existed in reality? Plato had a friend called Archytas who ruled Tarentum in what is now Italy. Dion of Syracuse was a disciple of Plato. He wanted to establish an aristocracy of wisdom, but met a sticky end. In the Roman Empire, mostly undistinguished for humanity and wisdom, Marcus Aurelius is remembered for his Stoical literature describing his devotion to service and duty. As a political notion, the notion of the philosopher king is open to the whims of human nature and abuse by those who are less than wise.

Some of us belong to elites and have received privileges. However, we should not live to achieve power and status, but rather to seek to serve wisely. That is the very idea expressed by Christ: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many“. True elitism is the wise use of our talents, true stewardship and our responsibility for the world and people around us, in whatever way is possible for each of us.

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Church of Hope

Just this morning, I came across the blog of Adam DeVille, an Eastern Rite Catholic intellectual who is trying to grapple with the various problems with bishops, priests, sexual abuse and something for which there seems to be no solution or hope.

I have ordered his book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. Its price won’t break the bank and I am willing to approach the subject with an open mind. This morning, as over a period of years longer than I can remember, I mulled over the problems of clericalism, authority and obedience (the Church’s “leader principle” – I won’t mention the term in German!) and what all that has to do with Christ.

Whether the Church is declining or growing is anyone’s guess, since anything written on the subject is biased. In my life here in France, I hardly ever meet anyone who goes to church, and when they do, it is for “cultural” reasons. I had experience of clericalism in traditionalist circles, and those bishops, prelates and priests could be somewhat self-important. I have not been a victim of sex abuse by a priest and I have not personally seen any convincing evidence. It has happened, and continues to happen, but thankfully outside my personal experience. I once had a married Anglican incumbent of a parish begin to run fingers over my thigh when I was 18, not a Roman Catholic priest. For me, it sufficed to tell the reverend gentleman to stop – and he did. I was lucky. What I can say is that abuse is not always a consequence of totalitarian authority and clericalism, but simply being human and in some state of moral weakness. I am less absolute in my analysis than those who say there is too much authority or too little of it.

In the same blog, I was interested by another article Wanted: A Theology of Disobedience in the light of the Jesuit psychoanalyst Carlos Dominguez-Morano. How far can one go in a plan to reform the Church? My own reaction was “Burn the lot and God would recognise his own” – and I realised that I had quoted the words of the Inquisitor as he ordered the wholesale destruction of the Cathars! Perhaps one just walks away and comes to terms with a materialistic life – or joins another religion or belief system. That’s what most people have done.

The clericalism we bewail comes in different forms, old celibate bishops and priests with cobwebs in their birettas, but also the bureaucracies, committees and groups of activists in the Church of England and various other “established” entities. Perhaps smaller “families” of Christians might help, like the old Little Gidding community or Dreher’s Benedict Option. They might help to an extent and for a time, but the same realities keep coming back again and again. Our little continuing Anglican churches seem to have come out of the “bishops’ brawls” of the 1990’s. The G4 offers a lot of hope with the possibility of being in communion with the Polish National Catholic Church, the Nordic Catholic Church and the Union of Scranton. How long will it be before corporate groupthink saps away the last remnants of human intelligence and critical thought? I can only hope the experiment survives for a few years until some other prophetic inspiration comes up.

Left to myself, I become that much more cynical and at the limit of nihilism. My nausea on occasionally reading articles about Brexit brings me to give Calvin that much more credence for his particular take on total depravity. I was then brought to the idea that often comes up in our days – that optimism and pessimism are our own choice. The glass is half full or half empty. I have read stuff on the Internet, and it occurs to me that most British people want Brexit. Many people in Europe want authority and a life without freedom or responsibility – even if it might mean some new form of “national socialism”. Freedom is only possible or desirable for those who are ready and prepared for it spiritually. What else can I say? There simply isn’t one truth for everyone.

What of the future? Utopia? Dystopia? The one idea that enters my head is that whatever happens, humanity will survive and take an unexpected direction. New forces will come into play. When the old is consumed by fire, only then can the new be built from necessity and man’s creative ingenuity. My reader might ask me why I say so little of God or Christ. It is simply because our present time, including the Church, has little time for anything other than the power and wealth of the elite. In such times of human evil, God remains silent, and the only sign he will give will be that of Jonah.

Most of the time, I have nothing to say on my blog, and my posts are rarer. When there is little to say, silence is the best counsel. Perhaps that is truly a part of a Benedict Option: silence and contemplation, far away from the mendacious caricatures of church and civilisation.

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Mass Tourism

A few days ago, I was involved in a Facebook discussion about mass tourism, one that was provoked by a recent accident in Venice involving a cruise ship that crashed into a dock because the engines could not be stopped. The posting was put up by one of my sailing friends who wants to spend time in his cruising dinghy that sails, rows and sculls. This video is thought-provoking:

Another person asked the question of whether my friend in the sailing dinghy was also a tourist. In the discussion, I suggested that there was a world of difference between a discreet man and his boat quietly exploring a place and a crowd of tourists who have not the slightest understanding or respect of the place. The sight of a big cruise ship towering over the buildings is impressive as much as the diesel fumes being belched out of the funnel is dismaying.

It is always the same dilemma. Venice needs tourists to make a living. My wife and I went there on our honeymoon in 2006, going there by train and staying in a small hotel. Other than that, we were autonomous and discreet as we visited churches and museums, taking advantage of Il Vaporetto (boat acting as a bus). We both speak Italian reasonably well and we ate in restaurants other than the big tourist places. Our way of life had to be simple, since we did need to watch the money! Contrasted with my friend in his dinghy, or us in a simple hotel and enjoying the week we had, the sight of hordes of “human cattle” coming down the gangplank from the ships is quite frightening. As humans become more numerous, the more intelligence and culture evaporate and one is faced with the lowest form of bestiality. A historical place needs a source of income, and can handle limited numbers of people, but there needs to be something to limit the numbers – perhaps by banning immediate access to ocean-going ships and limiting the size of hotels.

Tourism was once the preserve of the aristocracy, and the travels of men like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Henry Newman are known. Almost invariably, the only means of travelling long distances was by sea in an era when only a few short railway lines were in place. The history of tourism is a subject in its own right. As with any other issue featuring the notion of growth, how long can the pollution of the air by increasing numbers of aircraft and ships go on? Does mass tourism really benefit people by offering them an exposure to new cultures and ways of life?

An old friend wrote an article about Aylesford Priory… which seems by its architectural design to be more geared to hosting mass pilgrimages than being the home of a community of contemplative Carmelite monks. In the light of a reflection of mass humanity in general, there seems to be an idea according to which the more mass pilgrimages are encouraged in places like this community, or in places where the Mother of God is alleged to have appeared in apparitions like Lourdes and Fatima, the more spiritual humanity is occulted. It is my experience. I have been both to Lourdes and Fatima. I am moved on seeing some very poorly people in their last hope for healing and relief of pain and disability. Fatima is also a special place, where people are seen inflicting discomfort on themselves by walking on their knees. Perhaps the most spiritually moving scenes are when the persons can be seen in their individual approach rather than as one of a herd of “human cattle” moved around in coaches.

I remember my time at the Benedictine Abbey of Triors as a working guest. Days when coachloads of pilgrims arrived with Don Gobbi to preach to them were so anxiety-provoking. I would excuse myself and go away for the day in my car to visit some place alone, or be in the natural beauty of the Vercors mountains.

Still on the same theme, I visited the tall ships moored in Rouen of the Armada 2019. I went with a friend yesterday morning, and the levels of the crowds was not too bad until about 11 am, and then they came flooding in. The boom, boom, boom of popular “music” blared out of speakers. The star ship was Hermione, a reproduction of an eighteenth-century frigate. She was open to visitors, but there was a huge queue, and people would be admitted at the same rate as those who finished their visit and disembarked by the second gangplank. The effect of so many people is dismaying. By the early afternoon, I could not get away quickly enough to catch my train back to Yvetot where my van was parked to get me back home.

What can we learn from such experiences? Certainly independence and self-reliance are our conditions for finding our humanity and our souls. I can only give my personal reflections in these matters, because other people need more social contact and a feeling of being a part of the larger scale of humanity. For many years, I have felt the need to live in the country, spend leisure time either alone or just with my wife in conditions of self-sufficiency. I am self-employed and have to balance independence against a monthly workload that goes up and down. When visiting churches, the best is to be completely silent and to spend time in prayer before going to seek out the details of its history and architecture. God is always found in silence and inner peace, not in noise and outward manifestations. Perhaps it is the brief Quaker influence I found almost fifty years ago.

I do believe it is good for people to stay away from the tour operators and to become more self-reliant when they go on pilgrimages or holidays. Even on a budget, it is possible to go somewhere by car or train, camp or bivouac and “recharge our batteries” in greater simplicity. We don’t have to be “cattle”. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of suffering is human stupidity, unawareness and ignorance – all of which are made more acute in the massed crowd.

We just need to be ourselves and find God in our inner spirit.

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In Homage to Bernard Moitessier

I have often written about Bernard Moitessier (1925 – 1994), the French (born in Indochina) sailor who dared to sail around the world non-stop and single handed in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Instead of winning the race, he decided not to return home but to continue to Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean. Whatever he might have believed in, perhaps something inspired by Buddhism, he was a free spirit whom no one could imprison. A friend of mine here in France who is also a sailor knew Bernard Moitessier in the last years before his death from cancer.

Here is a brief presentation of Bernard Moitessier in French:

Je continue sans escale vers les îles du Pacifique parce que je suis heureux en mer, et peut être, pour sauver mon âme.

It was a great privilege to sail up to Le Bono from Port Navalo last Thursday and moor for the night as part of the Semaine du Golfe. I did not visit the grave of the great man of the sea, but he was present in my thoughts. I was visited by an interesting man by the name of Vernier Alavoine who was intrigued about the possibility of living for a week in such a tiny vessel as mine. His wife took the photo above. Vernier had spent more than a year with a scientific team on the remote windswept islands of Kerguelen. It must have been quite a spiritual and self-revealing experience for him!

I have put other photos up on my Facebook page.

O my brave Soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

Walt Whitman

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More about Archbishop Ngô-Đình Thục

I have been reading the book I mentioned in my posting Tic-Tac-Thuc on Archbishop Ngô-Đình Thục who had lived off the top of the hog in Vietnam with his nasty brothers, a little like Saddam Hussein in Irak. I’m afraid the story, which seems plausible enough to me, is not edifying. It is difficult to conceive of the validity of the Sacrament of Order conferred in “sordid” conditions and outside any real ecclesial context.

The story is little different from that of other bishops at the origin of “lines of succession” of independent bishops. Ngô-Đình Thục was no traditionalist but rather thought in terms of Catholicism inculturated into Asia and his native Vietnam. It would seem that his money had run out and he needed generous benefactors like Dr Heller in Münich, editor of Einsicht and arch-sedevacantist. For that reason, he was prepared to write up a piece of doggerel to support the sedevacantists after having been responsible for the Palmar de Troya fiasco.

I recommend reading this book for a realistic evaluation of this prelate and his misfortunes once the tyrannical regime of his brothers was over in Vietnam. It is time for sobriety.

I am grateful to be far away from that world of bishops of bugger-all and closer to my own English origins. Diversity is indeed what we need in the Church, but being a little more serious than some of those little tin-pot popes and prelates.

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Clericalism and Priesthood

I received one of those circular e-mails this morning, and it contained three links:

The second article is a response to the first from a fairly “conservative” point of view.

This entire reflection seems to be based on the problems caused by priests who are guilty of sexually abusing children and having the benefit of an institution that covered up for them in a way that suggests the omertà of the Mafia. Pope Francis blames clericalism for these problems. Obviously, as a priest and a bishop, this Pope must surely make a distinction between the clerical status and the gift of the sacramental priesthood.

The pressure is on to abolish the priesthood, or at least reduce it to a secular function. Perhaps what would replace it would be a clericalism of civil servants, politicians, doctors, lawyers, notaries, bailiffs, police officers and anyone who has a position of authority over others.

A short while ago, I watched a film about a paedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Lyon and the way everything was mishandled by Cardinal Barbarin. Such things cause an incredible amount of bitterness, not only the sinful acts of a perverted priest but also the priority given to the institution by those in authority rather than correcting wrongs and caring for the victims and their families. Sometimes, the abuse was not merely the sinful lust of an isolated priest, but was institutionalised in places like orphanages and places where children were taken into care.

Should the entire Church be closed down and chased out of existence? It happened in Reformation times, the French Revolution, as a result of virulent anti-clericalism in countries like France and Italy from about 1870 to World War I. What happens when those who destroyed the Church prove to be far more evil and commit worse crimes. Perhaps the Christian ideal in priests made them a little less evil than their secular counterparts.

The first article features the agony of a priest who suffered from the clerical establishment. At some time, he left the priesthood and, overcome with grief, lost all motivation to continue even attending Mass. However, there is a note of ideology as he lobbies for various typically left-wing causes. He uncritically blames the shortcomings of the Vatican II reforms on the conservatives. He blames clericalism for everything. What is clericalism?

Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, and its hierarchical power, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.

I doubt he would read this blog, but I would advise him the same way as I think about my own life. He is still too preoccupied with the Church from which he felt alienated, too worried about other people, too bitter to find his soul. Looking at it most radically, he has three choices – suicide, addiction to alcohol and drugs, or moving on and finding a new spiritual life in another way, not necessarily in a church or an organised religion. He speaks of “fasting” from the Sacraments and formal church attendance. For him, such torture is not required for his salvation. Perhaps he needs to become a virulent anti-clerical and political activist, or take a step back and go inwards. Hatred has a horrific effect on the soul. He could learn to sail, buy a yacht and sail to a Pacific island like Bernard Moitessier. Build where others destroy – that is the way of Christ.

If it is all about women, is it really any better for example in the Church of England where women are at parity with men or even in a dominant position? Is a new type of clericalism about to replace the old? There is also the other favourite accusation: collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Many bishops saw opportunities to work with authoritarian and totalitarian political regimes, the old story of the Grand Inquisitor! This broken priest confused different issues like the role of women and the all-male and celibate clergy. There is the question of status as in any institution, religious or secular. As mixed up as they with left-wing ideologies, some questions ring true like repression in the domain of sexuality, the threat of hell and the power of the caste.

This is a dimension this fellow neglects, that of clericalism that is not specific to priests, deacons and bishops. The problem is wider than a power base of celibate men in the Church. The same thing can happen in any human organisation where the alpha dogs take control of the pack. This happens especially in the police, in which the best men for the job have to be strong, aggressive and uncaring for those they have to apprehend. All professions in which people are highly trained for a particular role can become preserves of arrogance and elitism: politics, law, medicine, business and others. Faced with the ignorance of most people in these domains, the elite will assume authority to put an end to needless discussion. It is not a problem of the Church, but it is a human problem, shared with many species of animals. Some are made to dominate and compete, and others are made for more individualistic lives.

It seems absurd to destroy something because there are abusers. Otherwise, where do you stop? If you don’t want priests any more, then you have to put laypeople in charge of the Church, unless you want to be rid of the Church too. In that first article, it is difficult to discern what kind of church that former priest wants. One thing he does not say is that he would recommend the American Episcopal Church or the Church of England that not only has married clergy but also women clergy and a high importance given to lay participation. Yet all the problems of corporate humanity remain, with the limitations of groupthink and the abolition of imagination and initiative.

I believe that the solution is not destruction of the old and the imposition of some “new orthodoxy” with all its “hot button” issues like feminism and homosexuality – but diversity in the forms a church can take. Certainly, the Church (in its most generic meaning) needs to have room for less institutional forms and need for centralised control. I am much more sceptical about episcopi vagantes and micro-churches. Some are highly inspiring and are ministered to by men of integrity. I have a great amount of esteem for initiatives of other historical eras, like the Quakers, where a community of ordinary people define themselves as friends and meet for silent prayer and spontaneous witness of their spiritual experience. This would not be a reason to destroy the sacramental church and the liturgical life, but there needs to be diversity. Many people do not relate to rites and liturgy, and their personalities are very different from those who do.

There were many initiatives in France after the end of the war. There were worker priests who were often criticised for becoming too involved with far left-wing politics, certainly in reaction against the bishops who collaborated with the Nazis. There was an awareness of a need for some kind of “osmosis” of the priesthood into the lives of ordinary people, if we put the political ideologies to one side. Priests have suffered spiritually for decades, for centuries, and people in the parishes went to church for the wrong reasons. My own experience can testify to a tyranny of the laity in some parishes, where the priest is bullied out of existence. Even relatively conservative dioceses have no vocations and the last seminaries are closing. The only interface many people now have with the Church is a faceless bureaucracy. Why bother?

I returned to a version of Anglicanism that is conservative but without being authoritarian or totalitarian like some of the traditionalists. There is less of a sense of control and repression, of bullying and dominance.

The issue of the priesthood, as distinct from the clerical status and the institutional church, is one that needs a lot of thought. Is the priest only a cleric? Does the idea of an “ontological” priesthood need to be put aside for the sake of being on a par with something like civil servants and functionaries? I know what I was taught in seminary – being an alter Christus, a living icon of Christ. This is too often a meaningless slogan, but the idea needs to be meditated.

How well do we know Christ? A lot less well than we think…

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