A Dangerous Discipleship

"Whenever people discover that they have rights, they have the responsibility to claim them."—John XXIII, "Pacem in Terris"

Up at the top of a Mexican mountain, up beyond miles of rutted road and wet, flowing clay, I toured an Indian village that was visited by a priest only once a year. That was years ago. Now the mountain is just as high but the priest is 15 years older.

Five years ago I spoke in an American parish of 6,000 families—a "mega-church" that is served by three priests. There is no priest shortage there, however, the priests want you to know, because the bishop has redefined the optimum priest-to-people ratio from 1-to-every-250 families to 1-priest-to-every-2,000 families.

In diocese after diocese, Catholic parishes are being merged, closed, or served by retired priests or married male deacons designed to keep the church male, whether it is ministering or not. The number of priests is declining, the number of Catholics is increasing, and the number of lay ministers being certified is rising in every academic system despite the fact that their services are being rejected.

Clearly, the Catholic Church is changing even while it reasserts its changelessness. But static resistance is a far cry from the dynamism of the early church. Prisca, Lydia, Thecla, Phoebe, and hundreds of women like them opened house churches, walked as disciples of Paul, "constrained him," the scripture says, to serve a given region, instructed people in the faith, and ministered to the fledgling Christian communities with no apology, no argument, and no tricky theological shell games about whether they were ministering in persona Christi or in nomini Christi.

So what is to be done at a time like this, when what is being sought and what is possible are two different things? To what are we to give our energy when we are told no energy is wanted?

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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