Saturday, November 21, 2015
A Place for the Damaged
A few thoughts in the light of the Pope's remarks recently about priests of whom he is afraid. It is really the second part of this post.
There is a small French Old Rite Community of nuns who have Downs Syndrome, The Little Sister Disciples of the Lamb, it is one of the many offshoots or affiliates of the Abbey of Fontgombault. I don't know if there are New Rite communities like these sisters. Somehow the Old Rite seems particularly able to respond to people like the Sisters of the Lamb.
At one time people with handicaps or with mental 'difficulties' or illnesses might not have become Choir Monks or Nuns, certainly if they could not cope with the Latin but if they were able to work they might well have been welcomed as a lay Brother or Sister. The change came in with renewal of religious life following Vatican II. Nowadays without a decent university degree many religious communities would simply not consider a prospective candidate and if there was a significant blip on one's 'psychological assessment', which now seems almost mandatory for every diocese and most religious communities, they are likely to be rejected.
It would seem that one of the things that some of the new traditional communities and some more traditional bishops of diocese have come up against is that they haven't sufficiently screened new community members or seminarians. This seems to be one of the reason why the Holy Father has demanded the resignation of some more traditional bishops and possibly one of the reasons for what has been termed the 'persecution' of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. One of the things the sacked traditional(ist) bishops and the Franciscans of the Immaculate have in common is they all attract large numbers of vocations. I can't help wondering if the problem has been that often they set the bar too low, as if they somehow think a religious community is a 'field hospital', that somehow living in an environment that is aimed holiness and where holiness is expected, that a prospective religious might be taught, if his or her heart is open, the ways of holiness
In contrast the Pope always sees priesthood in terms of function, and always a pastoral function. I am not sure he accepts that it is possible to be a priest or a religious in other terms, for example being an enclose contemplative, praying for the world, or being a scholar -he has often been quite unpleasant about them, or being a teacher of doctrine or a canon lawyer. In some German diocese for example, rather than being a pastor a priest might be very welcome as an administrator on a financial board or advisor on moral theology in a hospital. St Paul reminds us there are a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit.
Today more than ever those who join seminaries or religious communities are likely to be damaged, more than their predecessors. Increasingly they are unlikely to come from stable families, they are likely to have had some sexual experiences, they are very unlikely not to have been exposed to pornography. In the past they might have been a little 'eccentric' or even 'difficult', now they are likely to be on some spectrum, slightly autistic or some other neuro-developmental disorder. Disorder is perhaps the important word here.
It should not be surprising that those who have had 'bad experiences' of the world are likely to desire communities or seminaries that offer a contrast to those experiences. A strictly enclosed community is likely to attract those who desire separation from at least some sector of society. Childhood sexual abuse might well add to the attraction of such a community, an absent or distant parent might well move someone to seek a community with a warm and loving superior. I remember a convert saying that what he found so attractive about the Catholic Church was being able to call a priest 'Father'.
Current psychological testing might well highlight such people as 'high risk'. If such a history is also marked by some sort of self harm, it is likely to flash quite a few red lights over such an application. Even the more Traditional Catholics might well no longer see a love of fasting or a desire for corporal penance as signs of holiness but perhaps Traditional communities are less likely to 'medicalise' these desires.
I can't help wondering whether Theresa of Avila with her psychological history might have great difficulty today finding any convent to accept her, if she also spoke of being 'divinely ravished', most vocation directors would suggest she sought some kind of long term specialist psycho-therapy. As for St Francis of Assisi ... or St Catherine of Sienna ... let alone the Cure d'Ars. Coming to terms with 'disorders' in the past was a source of holiness, now they are a medical condition.
The question the Holy Father raises is can a damaged man (or women) have a vocation? I would suggest that he might well say, 'it is impossible'. A Traditionalist would be 'yes', but in the proper situation and with the proper support. Someone with paedophile tendencies should never work with or near children but looking after the monastery garden or finances behind the walls, they might well grow in saintliness, with the neurosis that comes with age they might well become a pain for their Abbot or Abbess and possibly everyone else in the monastery, it gives the opportunity for heroic sanctity for everyone else, unless of course they become the superior themselves before they have become a saint.
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