02 July 2018

The task of physicians of
the soul is the cure of souls

Saint John Chrysostom says priests are appointed by God as physicians to cure every soul that is infirm

Canon Patrick Comerford

I was catching up on some back-reading the other day when I came across the obituary in The Tablet on 24 March 2018 for Cardinal Karl Lehmann.

He has been described as the face and voice of Catholicism in Germany for over 35 years, and he was the Bishop of Mainz and former Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Mainz. In the 1960s, he had been an assistant to Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian, during the Second Vatican Council.

His obituary quotes Johanna Rahner, who teaches dogmatics at Tübingen University and who had had told the German weekly Die Zeit: ‘He interpreted the Church’s teaching as a seelsorger (a ‘carer of souls’ – the German word for priest) and not in the narrow, doctrinal, sense.’

I like the idea of seeing the priest or the pastor as the physician or doctor of souls. The German theological journal, Seelsorger, describes itself as a ‘Journal for the Contemporary Cure of Souls,’ and the topics on pastoral care it discusses range from sexuality to post-modernity, the conscience to the use of story, vice, virtue, and baptism and the dangers and blessings of a long-term pastorate.

The soul is the deepest centre of the psyche. Problems at the level of the soul radiate out to all levels of the psyche and even the body.

The priest, the soul doctor, traces the problem to its deepest point. A hurting person should be addressed at all of those levels, but it is the soul doctor who addresses the very deepest level.

Among the Patristic writers, Saint John Chrysostom says that every priest is, as it were, the father of the whole world, and therefore should have care of all the souls to whose salvation he can co-operate by his labours. Besides, priests are appointed by God as physicians to cure every soul that is infirm. Origen has called priests ‘physicians of souls,’ while Saint Jerome calls us ‘spiritual physicians.’ Later, Saint Bonaventure asks: ‘If the physician flees from the sick, who will cure them?’

Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 drew an analogy between the physicians of the body and the physicians of the soul. This analogy between medical or physical care and spiritual or pastoral care was enthusiastically developed in mediaeval sermons and penitential literature, opening the door to many further comparisons.

The English word curate refers to a person who is charged with the care or cure (cura) of souls in a parish. In this sense, ‘curate’ correctly means a parish priest. In France, the cure is the principal priest in a parish, as is the Italian curato and the Spanish cura. But in English-speaking places, the term curate is commonly used to describe priests who are assistants to the parish priest.

However, the word curate in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer means the incumbent of a benefice, who is licensed by the bishop to the ‘cure of souls.’ The shared cure of souls is made clear by the traditional wording of the bishop’s deed of institution to a new incumbent, ‘habere curam animarum, et accipe curam tuam et meam, receive the cure of souls which is both mine and thine.’

In other words, when a parish priest begins his or her new ministry, the bishop is sharing the care of the parish — described traditionally as ‘the cure of souls’ — with the priest, but the bishop does not give it away. The 43 Canons of the Church of Ireland, listed in Chapter IX of the Constitution, refers specifically to cures rather than parishes.

The soul is just as complicated as the body, just as rich and strange and puzzling. And it needs just as much attention. That does not mean that any priest can necessarily address these soul problems. But the true soul doctor is the depth psychologist.

When we think about salvation, it is worth recalling that the English word ‘salve’ is derived from the Latin salvus, which means healing. The priest, as an alter Christus is seen as one who mends broken hearts, heals hurting souls, and applies God’s soothing balm on pained and wounded lives.

The priest truly is the ‘doctor of souls.’ Perhaps theology is the technical language of soul doctoring. But the prescription is the word and the medicine is the Eucharist, regular confession and daily prayer. The proper exercise is found in prayer, regular good deeds and acts of kindness.

This full-page feature is published in the July 2018 edition of ‘Newslink,’ the Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert diocesan magazine (p. 8). It is based on a blog essay first posted on 17 April 2018.

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