Priest as Spiritual Master?

The other day, Jim Naughton confessed that he isn’t sure what the word discipleship means. I’m with him (I think it’s pretty much jargon), but it leads to a short conversation in the comments that is worth reading.

I especially like this comment by Joshua Rodriguez: “When discipleship is something that priests ‘do’ to lay persons, I share all of your worries about it. I think that it’s unavoidable that discipleship points us to a master/student relationship, but the master must always be Jesus, and not another human being, ordained or not. The best advice that I got upon my ordination to the priesthood was “‘Remember you’re still a sheep, not the Shepherd.'”

Which I like. 

He adds: “Clericalism that makes priests the spiritual masters to whom the laity must turn for formation, is dangerous because it tries to distort someone’s God-giving vocation.”

This got me thinking about the priesthood. The idea that clergy have kind of special spiritual insight or mastery sometimes wafts through our church communities like so much incense, but I think most priests know differently (as do those of us who have spent enough time around priests and pastors). It seems to me that a priest is a pastor of a community by virtue of her vocation and education and training, not necessarily because of spiritual maturity, and that being a pastor to a community does not necessarily translate into a being a kind of spiritual mentor for individuals within the church. I like the pastor of my church, for example, and I think that she is wise and an excellent pastor and leader of the community, but I don’t’ think of her as my spiritual mentor.

I’ve known plenty of mature, wise priests and some pretty immature priests, as well, some with plenty to teach me and some who can create a great liturgy but who have a shallow theology.  Ultimately, I guess, though we all play different roles within the community, we are all disciples of Christ.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and if anyone has a good, succinct theology of the priesthood I’d like to read it.


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