Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Total-Immersion Course in Priestcraft

Many people have asked me what I have been doing since I moved to Philadelphia to become curate at S. Clement's.  Fr. Reid and I have often joked that people must think we only work about three hours a week (all on Sunday morning), but the truth is that daily life at S. Clement's is busy and eventful, especially liturgically.  Even after serving as seminarian for two years in an Anglo-Catholic parish, getting up the liturgical learning curve at S. Clement's has been a substantial undertaking that has required intensive study, instruction, and practice.  Because S. Clement's had been without a curate for nearly two years, it has been necessary for me to hit the ground running and get up to speed as quickly as possible. The results of my General Ordination Exams seemed to affirm that my priestly formation had been more than adequate, and yet I realized in the daily exercise of parish ministry that there were lacunae in my liturgical training, gaps that would not be an issue in many Episcopal parishes.  But, of course, this is S. Clement's, and I came here precisely because I wanted to be challenged and immersed in the rich traditions of the Church Catholic.

The opening lines of the Exsultet from the English Missal.
This immersion has entailed numerous rehearsals with Fr. Reid during weekday afternoons to learn to serve as deacon at Solemn High Mass, which is an elegant, but intricate, performance requiring much concentration and repetition, not to mention frequent consultation of liturgical manuals, such as Fortescue, to get the details, nuances, and coordination of the liturgical ministers right.  It is one thing to commit these minutiae to memory; it is quite another to apply them gracefully and confidently within the liturgy.  I am continually trying to remember on which step Fortescue tells me I am supposed to be standing, in which direction I am supposed to be facing, and when and where I should be genuflecting!  It has been a wonderfully stretching experience, and though it has at times been stressful and even discouraging, I have come to enjoy it and am proud of the progress I have made in my first month here.  There is no doubt that I am getting better from week to week, and I am grateful to Fr. Reid, the subdeacons, MC, thurifer, and others in the altar party for all of their support, guidance, and patience.  The intensity of my immersion has forced me to abandon my comfort zone and to take on challenges that I might have considered too advanced for me a couple of years ago.  But that is the wonderful thing about growth, and I am now faced with the formidable task of learning the Exsultet for the Great Vigil of Easter, which in the English Missal is a much longer version than the one in the 1979 Prayer Book.  At S. Clement's, there is always more to learn and to improve and to perfect.

It would be misleading, though, to portray my formation at S. Clement's as purely technical, since much of my adjustment to my first cure of souls has been spiritual.  There is something deeply grounding in the structuring of one's life around the liturgical life of the Church, which few clergy get once they leave seminary.  The clergy attend daily mass and evening prayer in S. John's Chapel, followed by novena prayers at the Shrine of Our Lady of Clemency.  We also have a monthly Vespers of the Dead and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and during Lent, weekly Stations of the Cross and Benediction.  As a result of this liturgical rhythm, there have been ample opportunities for informal consultation and instruction that have taught me a lot about being a priest.  This is certainly a serious process, but teaching and learning are always accompanied by a lot of laughter and a great deal of joy in being able to share in the transmission of the Church's heritage from one generation to another.  I have heard numerous priests mention what a shame it is that there is less clergy collegiality nowadays than there used to be, but it is still strong in places like S. Clement's and my former parish in Chicago, The Church of the Atonement.

The high altar.
In addition to the liturgical and prayer life of the parish, my day is naturally filled with the typical features of a cleric's life:  pastoral visits, study for Sunday-morning adult education classes, preaching preparation, deanery clericus gatherings, staff meetings, and administrative work.  All of this work during my first month has impressed upon me what a valuable formation opportunity it is to learn the art of priestcraft in an era when seminaries do not emphasize this dimension of ordained ministry.  I wonder, then, if parishes like S. Clement's could serve as a kind of Center of Excellence or Academy to train new (or even seasoned) clergy in priestcraft.  If one wanted to learn how to do Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament or Solemn High Mass, where would one go to do so?  Would clergy be attracted by such an intensive learning opportunity, and would they be willing to pay to attend a series of workshops or engage in a short-term residential fellowship?  If seminaries are less able in the future to teach priestcraft, might a total immersion experience fill the gap?  For those of us who would love to see another Catholic revival or Oxford Movement within Anglicanism, we may need to seek alternative models for training and formation that can transmit the essentials of the priesthood.

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