Claude Lacaille came to Toronto last Friday night and charmed a full house at that boiler room of great new ideas Beit Zatoun. What a great story he had to tell.What a grand priestly life. What a model for young priests.
In the mid 80s he returned from the missions in Brazil to a Quebec he did not understand. At 23 decades earlier he had gone into a hut in Haiti and experienced a transformation: he was asked to give the last rites to a 30 year old woman who was dying, leaving 2 children orphaned.Then a new priesthood was born. He grasped the utter futility of the one of the big SACRAMENTS, formerly called Extreme Unction.There was absolutely no connection with the sacrament and the the broken lives of the radically poor in Haiti, and later in Ecuador. The sacrament had lost its power. It no longer signified anything.It was a text without a context.
And most of the time there is no sacramental connection here in our advanced capitalist neoliberal world.Eucharists are celebrated daily with little effect and lesser knowledge that Jesus celebrated but one-and then was murdered.there is little connection between the “broken bread” on the altar and the price we must pay to heal the world, our disrupted “broken lives” we pour out for God’s kingdom of peace and justice or as the Jews would say for “tikkun olam” for the healing of the world.Capitalism and its blandishments too often takes the dynamite out of the gospel.
In most of the parishes foreign born priests are piloted into a new context and asked to “Priest” God’s people. For the most part, they have no understanding of the Canadian context, their language skills are lacking and they bring a very mediocre theological education at best. As well many are infected with a deep misogyny.They are caught in a time warp, not of their own making. Those who bring them in from Poland and Nigeria to keep a dying institution alive are betraying the Catholic people by being utterly subservient to Rome and refusing to demand the great sin of the Roman church, gender injustice. The necessary talent is right in front of their episcopal noses—married men, women–but these craven bishops will not demand the necessary end of a sexist priesthood.
The worst example is on the margins in Canada’s north.The great Oblate bishops, many from France, for decades begged and pleaded to ordain native ministers, indigenous men whose culture has never accepted celibacy. For 50 years or more Rome ignored the advice of these great missionaries, forced aging men to travel huge distances in Canada’s polar regions. In the same period the Anglican church ordained over 50 native priests—usually married. Similarly in Ontario’s north, Bishop Alexander Carter (d.2002) made the same request of Rome. Denied. It broke his heart.
“We’re stuck”, he told me.
Now we have empty churches. In Trois Rivieres Claude’s hometown, there are 3 parishes.There used to be 17. Yet the Holy Spirit still is on the move, usually outside the stunned institution. The JP ll bishops were afraid of the Spirit, relying on harsh diktats from Rome.The churches emptied. Between 2000-2010 the Pew Research said 30 million Catholic left the Church in that period. The American bishops shrugged their shoulders.They are still autistic. In their latest meeting they set their priorities:
• Family and marriage (including attempts to rollback same-sex marriage and support for government officials who refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples)
• Ending abortion and limiting access to contraception
• Vocations to priesthood
• Religious liberty
Nothing about the poor, climate justice etc. Poor Pope Francis having to deal with these men.
The fault of course is not entirely that of a moribund institution. Jews and Protestants are having the same problem. We have moved from a communal paradigm of family, clan and traditional stratified societies to a more dynamic one where people are demanding the freedom to choose. As we saw in Quebec and now in Ireland traditional societies “priest ridden” as James Joyce called Ireland to more fluid and dynamic cultures. This radical change was named in Vatican ll’s Gaudium et Spes(1965).
Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and to people. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man’s religious life as well.
The institutional Catholic church thought that the top down hierarchical model of Father knows best would last forever. They built huge seminaries only to find them empty within a few years. Lay people’s theological education exploded. No more,”pay, pray and obey”. Soon the new theological literacy began to quickly make the local parish priest seem outdated. The 60s shattered the mental horizons of so many priests leaving them in the dust, frustrated and often bitter. Their seminary education had nor prepared them for the change. They refused to come to terms with the Holy Spirit’s gift of feminism, thereby alienating both educated men and women. By the mid 70s the most creative priests had left.Those who stayed bravely carried on but many had lost energy as they watched the best and brightest leave and an old institution caught in a paradigm change and seemingly unable to change.A church which thought in centuries was caught flat-footed in the new rapid computer age.
The JPll/Ratzinger pontificate was the last dike in the wall, the last failed attempt to resurrect the hierarchical, patriarchal model of church. The best educated generation of lay people had moved on but the JPll/Ratzinger bishops were still in charge of local dioceses. It is painful to watch.
But great priests like Claude Lacaille and indeed several others adapted, heard the deeper cry of liberation among the people and responded. They were encouraged by a new pope who had really bought into the vision of the great Council. They embraced the Spirit’s call and were excited. Pope Francis said it well:
We want the Holy Spirit to sleep,We want to domesticate the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do because he is God and he is that breeze that comes and goes, and you don’t know from where.People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the fire of the Holy Spirit brings.The council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit But after 50 years, have we done everything the Holy Spirit in the council told us to do? The answer, is “no.”
Claude Lacaille found his legs once again with the young in Quebec who saw through the neoliberal attempt to marginalize the poor and turn its back on the common good. His priesthood continues, radically integrated with the social struggle we are all engaged in.