Thinking Anew – Having a say in our own lives

When we come across the words “scribes”, “chief priests” and “elders” when reading the Gospels, we immediately consider them to be the people who impeded Jesus and the work he was doing. And that’s quite understandable because that’s exactly what they did. At every turn they tried to prevent him from his work of bringing Good News to the people.

It suits many to extract those specific chief priests, scribes, and elders and see them as a unique group of people who found themselves at odds with Jesus and did everything in their power to stop him in opening the minds and hearts of people to see the world in a new light. Yes, we can pick and choose across the Bible and use what suits us to support our own viewpoint. But it is fascinating how conveniently we manage to airbrush Jesus’s views on the civil and religious authority of his day.

Sometimes I’m inclined to think that we have sold our souls to authority, whether it be the civil or religious authority. Of course, there is need for authority and no sensible person wants anarchy to reign. Donald Trump spotted that large numbers of Americans felt that an elite group was controlling their lives and he promised to do things differently and return power to the people. Of course, he never did it and surrounded himself with his own elite. But it was and is a remarkably clever trick. Trump identified a real longing. And it’s a genuine and in many respects wholesome desire – people want to have a say in their own lives, they want a say in how their community, their society is managed.

A central word in the Christian vocabulary is communion. We talk about Holy Communion, and we celebrate the unity of persons in the Blessed Trinity. We affirm our belief in the Communion of Saints. And we stress that the church is the community of the people of God. And then what do we do? We go back to exactly what Jesus preached against. We allow the scribes, elders and priests to have an over-dominant role in the running of the community. All over the developed world people have walked away from the style of Christian religions that predominated until say the 1970s. And why has that happened? I am a Catholic priest of 46 years. It’s no short time to form an opinion and maybe even to allow me to make a suggestion or two.


In tomorrow’s Gospel (Matthew 16: 21-27) Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes. When Peter tries to remonstrate with him, Jesus reminds Peter that he is thinking in human rather than divine terms.

Isn’t that more or less what has happened in the Christian churches? A group of people have taken charge. The priestly class have abrogated to themselves what’s to be done and what’s not to be done. Yes, there is a token acceptance or acknowledgement that the church is the people of God. Alas, the stress must be on the word “token”.

I’m familiar with the Catholic Church in Ireland but I’m also well versed in what goes on in Germany. And from my experience it’s clear to me that the life of any parish is overdependent on the priest who is in situ on the day. This is not a criticism of the many good men who are priests, but it is a reminder that the institutional church has come to resemble the scribes, chief priests and elders, the very people whom Jesus spent much of his ministry criticising. How often is there consultation with the Christian community about the appointment of a bishop? If the papal nuncio is a conservative, the bishops appointed will be conservative. If, on the rare occasion the papal nuncio is liberal, then the bishops will be of like mind. I think it is far too simple to say that people have walked away from the church because of some “secular evil”. That’s too handy as an excuse. Maybe it is that people feel unhappy with today’s scribes, chief priests and elders. Pope Francis is opposed to clericalism which places the institution before the principles on which it was founded. He must be, because so too was Jesus.