We never read apart from our experience of the rest of life. My own reading of A Brutal Unity was overshadowed by an exciting but overwhelming task whose discharging lay just on the other side of the Covenant retreat in La Porte.
I had been asked to preach for the first time at a priestly ordination, for a man who had served as a seminarian in our parish for more than a year. For weeks before, when I was not struggling through Ephraim Radner’s book or attending to parish duties, my thoughts would turn back to that sermon. What should I say about the meaning of priesthood? What advice might I impart to this gifted man about his particular vocation to serve the Church in this uncertain and divided age? I read the Pastoral Epistles, rummaged about in the Fathers, George Herbert, and Michael Ramsey, but I could not quite find a center for my message. There’s so much one can say, but what brings together the meaning of the pastoral vocation?
I was rather surprised to find that center in Radner’s fourth chapter, the section I found most compelling. He sets out there a model for pastoral ministry and the only true path to ecclesial unity, which is based on the pattern of Christ’s own humble service. Citing Philippians 2, Radner begins the section by describing the “one mind” within the body of believers that comes only through Christ’s self-offering, his desire to seek “not my will, but thy will.”
The most important sign of true pastoral identity is not authority over others, geographical jurisdiction, or even particular functions, but an imitation of Christ’s inner self-giving, what Radner calls “apostolic sacrifice.” This willingness to abandon one’s own priorities and to go with Christ “outside the camp” is what will draw the Church together, bringing the peace and unity that the gospel demands. Radner traces this emphasis in writings about pastoral identity in sources as diverse as Gregory the Great, John Milton, and the Tractarians. In these bitterly acrimonious times, though, he says that this model seems to be fading from prominence in discussion of ministry across the churches — to our common peril.
My parish’s ordinand is a contemplative by habit and training. His dream is to establish a residential retreat center, where Christians can gather for instruction and long hours of shared silence. But for now, at least, he has accepted a call to serve as a parish priest, among many who will not understand or appreciate his gifts, with duties that will necessarily interrupt his preferred patterns of spiritual discipline. For you, I told him, to serve as a priest “will mean a call out into the world, away from what might have been, for the sake of what God needs you to be for others.” That’s how you and your people will grow together into Christ.
I received a letter the week after the service from an elderly priest who had attended the service. He is, for many of us in this little corner of God’s Church, the great saint, a model of “apostolic sacrifice.” Deeply learned and devout, he served for more than 40 years in three tiny rural mission churches, milking the cows and celebrating Mass every day. He told me that what I had said about the priesthood reminded him of something the preacher at his ordination had said, 60 years ago. It was the only thing he said he remembered from all those years ago. He printed out Father Gregory Mabry’s words for me in a clear and careful hand. They are no less profound than Radner’s chapter, and rather more lucid. I hope the great theologian would nod with approval. “Don’t lead by what you prefer, but what will get your people closer to God. … Lead your people step by step, with great patience. … Lose a battle rather than lose a soul.”