08 September 2009

Wounded Healer, Bearer of Mystery, Prophet

Bishop Greg O'Kelly, SJ of the Diocese of Port Pirie, Australia has written an excellent article on the nature and future of the Catholic priesthood. An excerpt:

Robert Barron [in an article titled, "Priest as Bearer of the Mystery’, Church, Summer 1994, pp. 10-13] states that ‘what could kill us as a Church is losing the sense of Mystery. What could contribute mightily to that loss is the weakening and dissipation of the priesthood. The time has come not for dismantling the priesthood but for building it up.’ He says that one of the greatest post-conciliar mistakes was to turn the priest into a psychologist, sociologist, social worker, counsellor – anything but a uniquely religious leader. He argues that we should look again at the notion of ontological change that occurs at ordination: priests are made different, while at the same time eschewing applications that make it elitist and exclusive. Situating the priesthood within the context of baptismal ministry helps lessen that danger.

Bishop O'Kelly goes on to condemn clericalism and then outlines three models of priesthood: Wounded Healer, Bearer of Mystery, and Prophet. These are not new models. In fact, they are Biblical in so far as they recall and duplicate the life of Christ, our High Priest. Each has its positives and negatives.

The one model that we need to be very, very careful with is priest as Wounded Healer. Why? In my experience with priests and religious, this model is often taken as a way to explain away rectifiable personal deficiencies. It is certainly true that priests are as "wounded" as anyone else. Ordination does not miraculously dissipate character flaws, bad habits, personality disorders, or psychological problems. In fact, ordination, or rather, being a priest in active ministry can lead a man to cultivate these deficiencies and come to see them as advantages. For example, a man who suffers from a narcissistic personality can be affirmed in his grandiose delusion by an adoring congregation. His grandiosity can be taken as a sign of charismatic leadership and lead him and his congregation into schism.

The Wounded Healer model of priesthood also tends to allow priests a great deal of leeway in dealing effectively with their character flaws. Instead of confronting common human frailties like simple laziness, etc., the Wounded Healer elevates his unwillingness to give 100% to the level of a "wound" and treats it as a symptom of some deeper conflict or trauma. This is not to say that there are no priests out there who have experienced legitimate conflicts and traumas that impede their living out the call of the priesthood. It is to say that not every scar, blemish, or stain is a wound worthy of constant treatment.

The image of the priest as Wounded Healer should be a personal one, a private image that reminds the priest of his deficiencies rather than an excuse to play victim. The same can be said of the other two images as well. The priest as Bearer of Mystery should not become an excuse for an esoteric lifestyle or muddled teaching. The priest as Prophet should not be an excuse to become a self-appointed haranguer for or against a personal agenda. All three models should serve the Church in imitation of Christ as servant-leader--a man, a priest who leads the Church as a servant of the Church.

Bishop O'Kelly rightly condemns clericalism. Priests who use their office to elevate themselves above the lay faithful and rule the roost as local potentates are deeply contrary to servant-leadership. However, clericalism takes two forms: priest as Boss and priest as Regular Guy. We are painfully familiar with the first sort of clericalism. The second is a recent development. In an effort to avoid the clericalism of priest as Boss, some priests have set aside their role as spiritual father and taken up a role akin to older brother or regular guy "Fr. Call Me Bob," in an effort to blend in and take himself off the pedestal, ends up using his priestly power covertly. How often have you met a "Fr. Call Me Bob" who regularly pushes illegitimate liturgical innovations as a way of being prophetic about a gender inclusive agenda for worship? How often have you met this priest in council meetings and found that his casual democratic attitude about parochial governance reaches it tolerance when confronted with traditional Catholics? How often does his personal politics inform his homilies and parish activities? Clericalism is alive and well in both forms and neither serves the Church. However, the priest as Boss has the advantage of being obvious and assertive. The priest as Regular Guy is passive and highly manipulative.

Give the whole article a read.


  1. Marc Porter6:10 AM

    You wrote, "The one model that we need to be very, very with is priest as Wounded Healer." A word is missing. We need to be very, very what? I am guessing "careful"?

    Great thoughts, btw...

  2. sounds like a hard line to walk.

    except I didn't understand this "The one model that we need to be very, very with is priest as Wounded Healer."

    we're being very, very with it, I got that...I just don't know HOW to be very, very.

    and for some reason I don't see Fr Regular Guy as saying something like "Christ died for your sins, take the PTO (and show up at the Holy Week Masses)" nope, just doesn't sound like a regular guy to me......

  3. I think what needs to be explained more clearly and what I personally need some clarity about is how the laity assist at Mass. When, that priestly function of the laity is understood maybe the role of priest will become clearer.