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“The day I became a bishop, a burden was laid on my shoulders for which it will be no easy task to render an account. The honors I receive are for me an ever present cause of uneasiness. Indeed, it terrifies me to think that I could take more pleasure in the honor attached to my office, which is where its danger lies, than in your salvation, which ought to be its fruit. This is why being set above you fills me with alarm, whereas being with you gives me comfort.  Danger lies in the first; salvation in the second” (St. Augustine, Sermon 340, 1, PL 38).

When I reflected on this text from St. Augustine in the Liturgy of the Hours a few days ago, my thoughts were immediately drawn to the scene in the Gospel where a dispute arose as to whom should be reckoned greatest among the disciples. We are familiar with Jesus’ reaction, recorded in each of the three Synoptics: “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and the great men make their authority felt. This is never to happen among you. No! Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25-28).  Recently I attended a very formal yet somewhat disturbing Eucharistic Liturgy with the sanctuary packed with men decked out in scarlet, red and purple, with titles of Eminence, Most Reverend (or in some places, His Grace), Very Reverend (or His Lordship), Very Reverend Monsignor, and finally just plain old Reverend. Where, when, how and why on earth did these appellations of privilege, distinction, rank and honor trump Jesus’ designation of “servant”?

With a little research anyone can readily discover that such titles are rooted in and reflect long bygone days of royalty, kingship, princedoms, fiefdoms, landed gentry, political power and wealth.  .So we are left with His Holiness, His Eminence, His Grace, His Lordship, Most Reverend, Very Reverend and Reverend...... sacred, pedestalized personalities often far beyond the reach of ordinary “laypeople” and exempt from customary accountability (e.g. clerical sexual abuse and financial “mismanagement”).

I am in no way suggesting that we do not need popes, bishops, priests and deacons. Furthermore, I do not wish to diminish their dignity nor their essential function as ordained ministers within the church community. On the contrary, my purpose is simply to assert their dignity and their function within the ecclesiology of the New Testament.

The continued use of these outdated and irrelevant titles only serves to prolong the degrading segregation of church members into hierarchy, on the one hand, and laity on the other. This segregation between clergy and laity inevitably results in a perceived division between those who sanctify and those who are sanctified. The resulting perception, of course, is that the church’s singular focus is centered on the liturgy, to the point where the church appears to be a sacramental supermarket rather than a community where all the baptized, graced with faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit, together share power to transform the world into God’s new creation.

The Roman Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is entrusted with the important task o: fostering the sacred liturgy and safeguarding its valid and licit celebration. However, its obsessive preoccupation with the meticulous observance of non-essential trivial rubrics, many of which clearly confuse and conflict with the central symbolism of the Eucharistic celebration itself, is just another not-so-subtle attempt at clerical control.


The USCCB’s document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility establishes sound moral principles for the formation of conscience, but as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly teaches, these principles must be applied with right reason so that the final rule of morality for each individual is the certain judgment of his/her own conscience (n. 1800).

Unfortunately, a growing number of bishops, who make a case for one-issue politics or openly oppose a political candidate, violate their own guidelines. Moreover, these bishops neglect, or choose to ignore, the distinction between moral principles and the application of those principles in the political order. Moral guidance by the church’s teaching authority, well and good. But for individual bishops to manipulate another’s conscience by threats of excommunication and damnation, absolutely not! For example, to a bishop who recently ordered every priest in the diocese to read a letter warning that voting for a supporter of abortion rights amounts to endorsing homicide, I say “bishop, your threats amount to an abuse of authority!” We don’t need any more “shock and awe” tactics!


Meaningless, antiquated titles expressing clerical domination obviously do not embrace the job description of a “table-waiting” and “foot-washing” servant given us by Jesus. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways (Is 55:8-9). But church authority had best rethink its thoughts and redirect its ways or, I fear, it will continue to lose credibility and to appear more and more irrelevant, not only among church members, but before the world as well. That would indeed be disastrous!

Bert Ebben, OP

Pentemst 70 14



Justice Preaching Archive

Just click on a title below to read the article.
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• Justice Bulletin Board •
• A New Year •
• Two Essays on Peace •
• A Call To Respect and Welcome Diversity - A Challenge of Our Faith •
• Addressing White Power and Priviledge •
• An Ethical Reflection on Work... •
• A Re-energized Catholic Church •
• A Renewed Call for Nuclear Disarmament •
• Called to Proclaim and Live With Moral Courage •
• Called To Protect the Poor In Our Economic System •
• Call To Persevere In Praying and Working for Peace •
• Care For the Environment •
• Care for the Earth •
• Caritas in Veritate •
• The Challenge of Discipleship •
• Comprehensive Immigration Reform •
• The Death Penalty Revisited •
• What Is Ecological Economics •
• Eliminating Global Poverty •
• Global Warming... Calling for an Urgent and Ethical Response •
• God's Fool •
• Green Congretations - A Growing Movement •
• More Gun Control •
• Healing the Racial Divide •
• Speaking the Truth in Today's World Takes Courage •
• Justice and Compassion •
• Labor Issues and the Catholic Church •
• Is More Consumer Spending the Answer? •
• Moving from A Culture of Violence to a Culture of Peace •
• Preaching Justice & Moving from Violence to Peace •
• Reaching For the Stars - Brenda Walsh •
• A Call To Reduce Prison Population •
• The Relationship Between Labor And the Catholic Church •
• Sermon On Domestic Violence •
• Sustainability •
• The Death Penalty •
• The New Economy Movement •
• The Role of Ethical Standards... •
• War Is Not the Answer •
• Witnesses To Hope •

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