Ministry, vocation, and life: a reflection on the resignation of Benedict XVI

Thomas O?Loughlin

A professor of historical theology looks at what the papal resignation means for the theology of priesthood, ministry and vocation. Thomas O?Loughlin is from the University of Nottingham.

Anyone who saw Benedict at the Christmas liturgy must surely have been moved by his human plight. He looked old, drawn, and tired as he was wheeled in that frame which looked like a gilded baby-walker ? yet despite his frailty he carried out his gruelling schedule. It is therefore with great relief that I heard news of his decision to resign: it shows courage in the face of weakness, a greater measure of self-knowledge than many of us possess, and a trust in the Spirit who renews the Church in every age. May he have a happy, peaceful, and relaxing retirement. However, the fact that the Pope has now resigned due to age and human frailty has profound importance on how Catholics should view ministry, order, and vocation.

We have always said that we recognised that these three aspects of a person?s life were distinct, if often overlapping. But, in fact, we have not really believed it! Certainly, until it became common for bishops and parish priests to retire at 75 (which caused ructions in the 1960s), the distinction between ministry and vocation was at best notional. We had de facto indentified the individual with his role in the community; and that role was identical with his vocation ? an identification we still see in the job description ?Vocations? Director? when the task is that of finding suitable candidates for seminary formation.

But the Pope?s resignation brings us back to this fundamental fact: each one of us is unique, wholly distinct in our identity, our gifts, our situation, our foibles, and our weaknesses. But each of us ? and this applies to each of the baptised ? is also called into participation in the life of the Christ in the service of the Father. Indeed, just as we confess that the Logos came among us not as a generic ?man? but as a distinct historical individual, Jesus of Nazareth, so each of us is unique in the providence of God.

But this uniqueness is always under threat from a variety of sources. From the time we are small children we are put into classes, treated as specimens of a group, and expected to fit into pre-existing moulds, or become biological machines in some complex production line. How sad ? how blasphemous ? when someone describes her/ his life as ?just a small cog?! Sadly, we want a neat world of round and square holes, and we would (secretly) like all others to be good round or square pegs each in the corresponding holes.

How does this affect us in ministry? Tasks in the community such as deacon, presbyter and bishop became, in effect, co-extensive with people. Men were expected to become so identified in their roles / tasks that one could not distinguish community role and vocation. Even more, individuality, specific gifts, and all the jagged wonder of humanity was trimmed off to form the biological inhabitants of roles. Life became co-extensive with role. This created the original ?company men? whose individuality and uniqueness was seen as ?noise in the system.? And when it became manifest it was often seen as rebellion, awkwardness, self-promotion, or the crime of ?wanting to do your own thing!? Yet ministry to be real, human, and effective operates one-to-one, person to person, and we are ill-served when we do not encounter another individual but simply someone chopped down to a function. Our uniqueness is a tribute to the overflowing goodness and wonder of the creation ? to deny it is tantamount to burying our talent and being lacking in trust in God.

It is easy to fall into a role, and when many people treat ministers as simply ?spiritual functionaries? it is easy to forget that vocation is individual: unique to each of us. For some, their vocations include ministerial roles ? but this is but a part of a larger real whole, and one?s human life is larger than all: a wonder reflecting the wonder of God. Collapsing life into vocation into a ministry is a failure on several levels.

?It makes ministry into a job

?It reduces the uniqueness of the person

?It depersonalises the ministerial encounter

?It ignores the reality of the Spirit working differently in each

?It is a recipe for guilt at perceived failure and workaholism

?It ignores that all Christians are united not by functional relationships (as one would find in a corporation) but as sisters and brother in baptism

Since Vatican II?s decree Christus Dominus (for bishops to retire at 75) we have been slowly recovering our sense of the real difference between life in Christ, vocation, and ecclesial function ? but only to a very limited extent. Moreover, the shortage of young clergy has often exacerbated the problem as tired, greying priests seek to function in ever bigger parishes with less and less real interpersonal contact in their dealing with those to whom they minister.

Now Pope Benedict XVI has resigned. He has demonstrated in this fact that his own vocation as a human being is distinct from his ecclesial role. This is a far more important demonstration of this forgotten aspect of our theology than if he had written several encyclicals on the presbyterate! His resignation is a new fact in Catholic experience and its implications need to be internalized by all who hold ecclesial office. The task of being a deacon, presbyter or bishop is not something that replaces an individual or which wholly exploits one?s vocation. Vocation is personal, individually sized, and as distinctive to each as our facial features. It will change and evolve as life changes, takes on new forms with every new day, and with every additional grey hair! Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, has now moved to a new moment in his vocation, may he be an inspiration in this for each of us!n