The column title problematizes a “prayer” formulated from alleged “revelations” revealed to a certain “Mutter Vogel” in the first quarter of the twentieth century. “Never Attack a Priest” has found circulation in the Philippines at least through the anthology Straight From the Heart: A Prayer Companion (Makati: St Pauls, 2007) edited by Mario Jose Ladra. The internet does not yield reliable sources on the actual provenance of the “prayer” save for some responses in Catholic forums and a helpful column from Patheos that say that it was first published in Mutter Vogel’s Worldwide Love (Altoting, Germany: St. Grignon, 1929) and then later at the La Pieta Prayer Book.
“Mutter Vogel”—which is German for “Mother Bird” (hence a pseudonym)—allegedly received private revelations from Jesus Christ from 1929 to 1938 on how the laity should act towards erring priests. It boldly starts by saying that “one should never attack a priest, even when he’s in error” but instead “pray and do penance that I’ll grant him My grace again.” At the outset we have to ask ourselves, what does “Christ” mean here by an attack? Apparently, an “attack” would be equal to a negative verbal opposition against “[Christ’s] Vicar” who “alone fully represents [Him].” No one should “attack” priests, that is, “to speak…unkind word[s] about them, even if [they] were true.” It strongly mandates furthermore that we should “never again accept an out-of-the-way word about a priest.”
I do not pretend to be an expert in theology, and I have no plans of becoming one. Surely, as an interlocutor once cogently raised, this “prayer” must be contextualized during the time when “attacking” priests was actually sinful. But now, thanks to doctrinal development, we do not hold on to such an outdated teaching anymore. Moreover, we are not bound to believe “Mutter Vogel’s” preposterous writings which, I am told, were not even approved by the Holy See. The conflation of “attack” with “criticism” is very unfortunate and un-Godly, if we were of the idea that God is omniscient. No one but a finite human being could be capable of such delusion.
A lot of Catholic columns have already cited the three-paragraph Canon 212 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which says that the faithful—considering “Christian obedience”—have the “right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful.” And indeed this reflects a fundamental truth: your bishops and priests are not the Church. We, as the People of God, are the Church—lay, religious, clergy. To privilege the clergy and consecrated people in terms of an order of power is to miss how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saved and made a covenant with the people of Israel, and not only with its priests.
Francis’ “Letter to the People of God” dated 20 August 2018 correctly identifies clericalism as that which “leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.” Either espoused by the clergy or the laity, clericalism—which “does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People”—is a deterrent to the renewal we are seeking for our scandal-ridden Church.
But to think of the Church like this, as a community of horizontal relationships, is difficult for us here in Albay, and in the Bicol region as a whole. To be completely honest, we have, as Bicolano Catholics, hung on too long to that Hispanophile brand of Catholicism which was fashionable until the late sixties. It’s a kind of Catholicism we inherited from Reconquista Spain which inscribed the Church as an institution of power and prestige. Most of our lay people, especially those more advanced in age, still treat priests as if they were lords and princes which shouldn’t be the case.
It’s only a matter of time when what is happening now in the Church in the United States will happen here in our local Church. What we need is not a complete overhaul of designations and appointments to accommodate the laity—though it is imperative that they should be involved—but a change in outlook and perspective. If a priest errs, call him out, especially if he’s arrogant and unapologetic. That is not tantamount to an attack, but a necessary help, the bitter medicine that heals. Do not also be afraid to express your opinions to your priests and bishops especially if it concerns the welfare of the Church: that is our right as “Christ’s faithful.”
If to criticize is to attack, then we as faithful should all the more attack if it means the improvement and well-being of our Christian community. Attack the evils that continue to beleaguer our local Church: sexual abuse, infidelity, duplicity, corruption, stupidity, ignorance. As I said before, it does not matter if we lose priests and religious in the process, for the Holy Spirit is constantly with the Church to raise up new ones to replenish the loss. Clericalism is a lie since it is idolatry oriented towards priests.