Shouldering Responsibility

Shouldering Responsibility

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)  |  Fr Dominic White explores Christ’s vision of our baptismal responsibilities within the Church, rooted in Christ.

Take on a responsibility, and you bless your community – anything from being on a residents’ association (and sitting through all those meetings) or doing the coffee after Sunday Mass, to being a CEO. Or even a priest: St Paul says that “to want to be a presiding elder (priest) is to desire a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:2).

Of course our experience shows that the power which comes with responsibility can be abused. Someone can be on the residents’ association to push their own agenda. The coffee volunteer can be a kitchen tyrant or create a clique around themselves, not letting anyone else in. And the greater the responsibility, the greater the capacity for abuse and corruption. The Pharisees in today’s Gospel loved all the perks and honours of their vocation, but abused their authority, and burdened the people in their care.

But Jesus exposes a deeper layer to the problem. “Call no one rabbi”: do we just follow spiritual guides who keep us in our comfort zone, or do we rather seek to hear “God’s message, and not some human thinking”, in the words of today’s second reading? Likewise, believing something because Teacher tells me so is clearly not good enough. All good teachers enable their pupils to understand why. And – perhaps most subtly – it is very easy to fall into nostalgia for childhood – or the even subtler trap of trying to get now the childhood we wish we’d had… And so we project a parental figure on to authority figures, whether it’s our rep on the residents’ association or the parish priest (“Yes, Father. Whatever you say, Father”). Quite forgetting that good parents are those who help their children grow up.

This is very topical as in many dioceses there is a growing shortage of priests. Lay people are being asked to shoulder more responsibility, as administrators, catechists and pastoral assistants. While we should pray for more vocations to the ministerial priesthood (but too often forget), this situation is also an opportunity to realise Vatican II’s recovery of the lay vocation: it’s clear from the Acts of the Apostles that it was normal for lay people to be very active in the running of the Church and in evangelisation. But it brings a lot of challenges and questions. What authority do lay people have? What does this mean for the role of the priest? And how do we feel about accepting responsibility in the church? Issues around power and dodging responsibility quickly become exposed, and it’s obviously simplistic to think we could solve all the problems by not calling priests Father. So let’s start from where Jesus wants his followers to begin.

Jesus’ vision is profoundly liberating: a community primarily of brothers and sisters who thirst for the healing power of God’s Word in their hearts, who dare to let themselves be transformed by Him, and to speak and act from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. From within this community people are called to the service which is leadership, whether that is ordained ministry or being chair of the parish council. St Augustine said, “For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian.” Rooted in Christ rather in our own (often exhausted) strength, and knowing that God is our Father, we will be able both to listen and to lead, freed from fear and from the power games of fear. Indeed, what we will begin to see is the Church’s hierarchy (ordained ministry) and charisms (gifts ranging from intercessory prayer to administration) complementing each other, as Pope Pius XII envisioned before Vatican II.

It’s easier said than done, of course. There will be tensions. We will make mistakes and need to receive and show mercy. The Pharisees didn’t understand mercy. It means neither “one strike and you’re out”, nor just being “let off” (as the Pharisees so often let themselves off). It is the work of God, our Father and King, who never breaks the bruised reed, but, stepwise, with infinite patience, and in far from ideal situations, transforms us through his Holy Spirit into the likeness of His Beloved Son.


Malachi 1:14–2:2. 8-10  |  1 Thess 2:7-9. 13  |  Matthew 23:1-12

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP from a Dominican Pilgrimage to Lourdes. 

Fr Dominic White is a member of the Priory of St Michael in Cambridge. He is a Research Associate at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, and the founder of the Cosmos dance project and patron of Eliot Smith Dance Company.