|Monday, July 27, 2020|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
his part two of our article highlights the challenges of the Priestly heart of Christ for priests of African descent in an African context and the world in general. What are the implications for priests of African descent, of the Priestly heart of Christ in the world today? The traditional theology discourse on the Priesthood discussed in part one of the article should not make us lose sight of the particular social context and challenges, Africans and other Black priests live and do their priestly ministry in the world today.
The question is, in a world held sway by the powerful nations, with their imperialistic interests, domineering overbearing hegemony and agenda, what is the place of an African/black priest in bearing witness to the Priesthood of Christ? This is to highlight the aspect of the African and Black perspective on the ministerial Priesthood and Christ's reconciling mission in the social context.
It is in the area of ministerial Priesthood and the reconciling mission of the Church in the social context, that African (and/or Black) priests must not lose sight of in the light of their historical experience as a people, in a world governed by racism and economic exploitations, of which Africans themselves are always at the receiving ends! This is to say that the discussion on the Priestly heart of Christ and the ordained ministerial Priesthood, is also a discussion of have to bring into the fold of the human family, the wounded heart of Jesus in the body and spirit of the people of black race.
It is a well known fact that Africans in this 21st century, still suffer from a systemic racism of first order. This is in spite of all the declarations of condemnations of racism by different people, world bodies such as the United Nations, continental, regional and national organizations and individuals. Africans and blacks in general, have continued to remain victims of racism, political and economic exploitations by the powerful nations as well as the oppressive regimes in most African countries.
Therefore, priests of African descent must be challenged and reflect on what contribution would they make as priests towards addressing the present dictatorial and tyrannical regimes in their home countries in Africa. Just as they have also to confront at the international level, the issues of racism and neo-colonial exploitations of the Black continent and people by the powerful nations. These are nations of the Northern hemisphere, which claim to profess the same faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest of the New Covenant?
All this implies that priests of African descent both in the continent and in Diasporas should develop interest in St. Paul's theology of reconciliation in the social context. That is, in relation to their priestly ministry to their people and the world. It is a question of how a priest of African descent, is going to live his full human dignity, and minister to the people as a priest in his own right, in a world infested with deep-rooted historical racism and black-hate? It is about the perennial dividing-walls of racism and hate in human hearts, which are still big obstacles for Christians of all classes and races, to bear witness to the teachings of St. Paul on reconciliation between the Jews and Greeks, Whites and Blacks, etc.
These are obstacles for Christians in the world of today, in following the sublime teachings of the Church on reconciliation among peoples of different skin colours (races), languages and nations. It all boils down to the question of priests living according to the ideals of the ordained Priesthood and the Priestly heart of Christ.
Thus, in a situation of this kind, the emphasis for priests of African descent must go beyond the mere assumptions in the traditional Western theology on Priesthood. For the African and Black priests in general, we must bring also into the argument, the Pauline teaching on Priesthood and God's reconciling mission in Christ. That is, that which Christ himself, the Mediator and High Priest of the New Covenant, achieved for us through his sacrifice on the Cross, by abolishing the walls of divisions separating the Jews and Gentiles, Whites and Blacks, etc.
The question is, how far have the white churches and Christians in their relationship with the Blacks, allowed the reconciling work of Christ the High Priest of the New Covenant, to change the way they view and relate with Africans and the Blacks in general? It suffices to mention the recent incident of racist police murder of George Floyd in the United States, and the renewed neo-colonial exploitation of the African countries by the Western powers and their allies. These show how far behind the world is from embracing fully, the Christian teaching on the Priestly heart of Christ, and Christ's mediatory-reconciling role vis-à-vis ordained ministerial Priesthood in the Church.
At least, on the practical level of human relationships and existence, it is obvious that the world is still at theoretical and superficial levels in its approach to the question of living according to Christ's teaching on reconciliation among peoples of different races, languages and nations, and on the Priestly heart of Christ. This is the crux of the matter.
Relating the ministerial priesthood in the Church to reconciliation in the social context of the black race, is very cogent today than ever. Otherwise, we shall continue to remain on the level of superficiality, of 'spiritualized' and theoretical interpretation of the Priesthood of Christ, without any relationship to the concrete life experience of the people. To neglect to address a topic of this kind in its social context of the marginalized and oppressed, will amount to disservice to Christ and his Church. It will be like working against the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, and therefore, against Christ's taking of human flesh even in our hearts as his priests and disciples!
Thus, in our African (black) context, how does one go about addressing this problem, without however, betraying the authentic teachings of the Church on the Priesthood and heart of Christ? In what follows, I would attempt, though briefly, to concentrate on the work of the renowned African-American theologian, James H. Cone.
Cone opines that, in each case, Paul stresses the objective reconciliation, grounded in God's initiative and affecting the entire cosmos. Reconciliation, which Christ achieved for us through his priestly mediation by dying on the Cross, is not a human quality or potentiality, although it affects human relationships. It is a divine action that embraces the whole world, changing our relationship with God and making us new creatures.
Formerly we were slaves; but reconciliation means we are free, and nobody should attempt to make an "it" of what we are, "human beings created in the image and likeness of God", and redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. In Christ Jesus, God has abolished the walls separating human races because of artificial boundaries created by man, differences of race, colour, nationality, ethnicity, culture or languages. Now we are all one in Jesus Christ, with equal dignity, equal humanity and equal goal and destiny before God, in Christ Jesus, the High Priest of the New Covenant."
Again, according to Paul, "Formerly we were slaves; but reconciliation means that we are free." Formerly, we were separated from God, alienated from God's will and enslaved to the evils of this world. Now we are reconciled; fellowship with God is now possible, because Christ through his Death and Resurrection has liberated us from the principalities and powers and the rulers of the present world. Formerly, our knowledge of our identity was defined by those who had power over life and death in this world. Now God has redeemed and reconciled us, so that we know that true life is found only in him who conquered death on the cross and was resurrected on the third day. (Cf. James H. Cone, "God of the Oppressed", Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2001, p. 209ff).
In fact, James H. Cone, like many other Third World theologians, refused to accept the traditional Western theology that tends to deny that the reconciliation achieved for us by Christ on the Cross has nothing to do with the daily struggles of the oppressed people for liberation. This is because, for Cone, "in the Bible the objective reality of reconciliation is connected with divine liberation." This means that human fellowship with God is made possible through God's activity in history, setting people free from economic, social, and political bondage.
God's act of reconciliation is not a mere mystical communion with the divine; nor is it a pietistic state of inwardness bestowed upon the believer, detached from the daily struggle of the believer for survival. "God's reconciliation is a new relationship with 'people' created by God's concrete involvement in struggles for survival in the society in which they live and worship God, in the people's affairs of the world, taking sides with the weak and the helpless." Israel, reflecting on its covenant relationship initiated by divine action, summed up its meaning in liturgical confession as follows:
"My father was a wondering Aramaean who went down to Egypt with a small company and lived there until they became a great, powerful and numerous nation. But the Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us and imposed cruel slavery upon us. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us and saw our humiliation, our hardship and distress; and so the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and out-stretched arm, with terrifying deeds, and with signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." (Deuteronomy 26:5-10; see also James H. Cone, ibid., p. 211ff).
Because, the point of departure of Cone's theology is Black liberation, he refuses to accept a view of reconciliation based on the privileged White Euro-American values. As he puts it: "The Christian view of reconciliation has nothing to do with black people being nice to white people as if the Gospel demands that we ignore their insults and their humiliating presence. It does not mean discussing with whites what it means to be black or going to white gatherings and displaying what whites call an understanding attitude - remaining cool and calm amid racists and bigots."
For Cone, to understand the Biblical view of reconciliation which Christ the High Priest achieved for us on the Cross, we must see it in relation to the struggle of freedom and justice of the oppressed people in an unjust society. This means seeing reconciliation in the social context of black liberation. "As blacks who have lived in the social context and world of racial oppression, we must not be afraid to ask the hard questions." In a society dominated by white people, what does Paul mean when he says that Christ is "our peace, who has made us ... one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility", reconciling us to God "in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end?" (Eph. 2:14-15).
In the light of the foregoing, Cone asks, "Are we to conclude that the hostility between blacks and whites has been brought to an end? If blacks and whites have been reconciled, how come white racists are still oppressing blacks [on the African continent, especially and nowadays, through neo-colonial exploitations, and in both covert and open forms of oppression and discrimination?] How come white racists are still being elected to public office in the United States, thereby continuing their dehumanization of black people in the name of God and country? How come white churches still support racial oppression either through silence or through their public defense of the order of injustice? How can we black people take seriously the unity in Christ Jesus when there is no unity in politics or religion?" (Cone, ibid., p. 208).
Cone, as a seminal voice and chief proponent of Black theology used critical and hard tone in his theology on Priesthood and Pauline reconciliation in addressing the issue at stake. However, be it as it may, one thing is certain, the black and African voice on this subject must not be suppressed. Because, what has become clear to whoever cares to know is that African reality should not be ignored any longer on the usual pretense of promoting "universalism" in a world where blacks are counted as non-people, and as people on the margin of the society.
We have in this short article on Priesthood and the Priestly heart of Christ, seen that the ordained priesthood has been constituted by a call to an intimate union with the heart of Jesus. We have seen also that the desire of the heart of Jesus is, above all, for union with the heart of his priests and all believers. Union with the heart of Jesus is very essential for the exercise of the ministerial Priesthood in the Church and society. Above all, it is essential for our daily Christian witness as the Baptized in Christ in the social context of the society in which we live!
Any authentic priest of Jesus Christ must be part of the struggle of his flock and people in their daily efforts in the society for emancipation from all that dehumanizes their dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. For priests to shy away from such an onerous responsibility in the society in which they live and do their priestly ministry contradicts the reasons for their priestly calling as ambassadors of Christ's mediatory reconciling mission in the society
The consequence of all this is that it places oneself as a priest in the perspective of the Priestly heart of Christ, which means to participate in the mediatory reconciling mission of Christ through the Church in the society in which one lives. It means being ambassador of Christ's reconciling and liberating mission in the world. That is, from the perspective of the two dimensions of Christ's relationship with us through his priestly mediatory reconciling mission, which is both vertical and horizontal.
The vertical dimension of Christ's mediatory-reconciling priestly heart, places us in relationship with God. The horizontal dimension, in relationship with us. The two dimensions unite as one in the Priestly heart of Christ, which is love. That love is God Himself, Trinitarian love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the indwelling of the Trinitarian Spirit of God in our hearts through Christ, the Mediator and High Priest of the New Covenant.
Because it is the priestly heart of Christ, it means it must guide and animate the life of every ordained priest, and put him in the needed vantage point to participate in the daily struggle of his people (flock) for their liberation, social justice and freedom. It prepares us above all, for the eschatological salvation that awaits all of us.
However, this does not mean that a priest is to join a revolutionary movement or that of freedom fighters. No. But that he must show commitment to the process leading to the liberation of his oppressed flock. He must be in a position to help the people understand, interpret correctly, and in the light of the gospel, express in appropriate terms the profound reasons for their commitment in the social context.
This is because the people look up to their priests for help to articulate and produce necessary categories that will enable them express and articulate the reasons for their social commitment, how to respond creatively to the new demands of the gospel, as oppressed and exploited people of Africa and blacks in general.
All this implies that for priests of African descent to meet the pastoral and social demands of their priestly commitment to their people and the world, they need a vital attitude. They need also all-embracing and synthesizing, informing the totality as well as every detail of their lives as Africans and blacks. They need to have a sound interpretation of their African and black reality. And to know that before God, people matter, people count!
It is to restore the dignity of the human person (Africans included), that Christ was born, suffered, crucified, died and resurrected. This is why no African or any black person should allow anybody to make an "it" of him/her. Because we all have been purchased and redeemed by the precious blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is an offence against God revealed in Jesus Christ, to dehumanize any human being created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the precious blood of Christ.
This means that priests of African descent need a "spirituality" of the Priestly heart of Christ. This is in order for them to be able to serve God and the Church authentically, in the world of today marked by racism and man's inhumanity to fellow man. Spirituality, in the strict and profound sense of the word "is the dominion of the Spirit." For us Christians, it is the "dominion of the Spirit" of the Risen Christ in the hearts and souls of his priests and all disciples (Christians).
If "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32), the Spirit "will guide you into all the truth (John 16:13) and will lead us to complete freedom, the freedom from everything that hinders us from fulfilling ourselves as human beings and offspring of God. This is the freedom to love and to enter into communion with God and with others. It will lead us along the path of liberation because "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Cor. 3:179).
Above all, it will lead us into loving our neighbour with one's whole heart, irrespective of differences of skin-colour, culture, and of languages and nations. It will help us into seeing the image of God in my neighbor, as a fellow human being, created in the image and likeness of God, just like me.
Priests who live and do their priestly ministry in the spirit of the Priestly heart of Christ, are like those shepherds, Pope Francis says, have learnt "to smell the odour of their flock and people" (Evangelii Gaudium, 24).