What, you didn’t know that I am not religious? I got that impression Sunday.
Technically speaking, I am not religious but secular. I just googled that and learned that there are a number of essays out there in which believing Christians would be included under the term “religious”, and atheists under “secular.” I am NOT that kind of secular.
According to long-standing Church understanding, however, “religious” are people under vows within a specific religious community, what you might know best as an order: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and the like. Their members, men and woman, ordained or not, are religious: nuns, monks, brothers, and yes, priests.
I, however, am not under vows and not a member of an order. I made solemn promises, not vows, when I was ordained, and am attached to a place, not an order: the Archdiocese of Washington. One of my promises was obedience to my bishop – currently Cardinal Wuerl, already my third Archbishop since ordination. Another was celibacy. The third was prayer – to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office) daily, in union with and for the Church.
The vow of poverty is a mark of life “in religion.” It is not a measure of how well they live, or how much they have, but the distinction that everything they have is provided by and property of the community. Some communities provide more than others.
Not me. I get paid a salary, the amount of which is fixed by the Archdiocese. The line between parish funds and my personal funds is very, very clear. I pay taxes, including Social Security (15.9% -- oof!). I invest in my retirement fund, a 403(b) instead of a 401(k). I have excellent health insurance, but make the co-payments. I make charitable donations, including to both the parish offertory and Cardinal’s Appeal.
You see how worldly that sounds -- mired in a lot of the same considerations you are? We don’t just live among you, but we live like you. I have to keep track of all this stuff – vowed religious do not. That’s why we’re called secular. In Church law it is considered a “less perfect” form of life than being “in religion,” which means that if we want to “upgrade” to religious life (e.g., go join a monastery) our bishop cannot stop us (though he can slow us down).
You may not lie awake thinking about this, but it is worth your attention for a moment. It came up in the context of the collection for the Retirement Fund for the Priests of the Archdiocese. Like many pension funds, it is severely under-funded now. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem, since we are not supposed to retire until we are 75!
Some parishes are run by religious priests; some have schools staffed by religious women. Some folks go to colleges or universities run and staffed by religious communities, men or women.
For most folks, the principal encounter with Christ, His Church, and his sacraments, is through a secular, that is diocesan, parish priest. We are not dramatic; we are simply here. We tend the household of the Faith. Your friendly, neighborhood priest is likely not religious; not in that sense, anyway.
Now that I have admitted that I am not religious, I hope you won’t be startled if I continue to try to get all of you to be more so.