Christ’s Idea of Authority in the Church–book review

John Wijngaards, Christ’s Idea of Authority in the Church: Reflections on Reform. Wipf and Stock Publishers.  187 pp.  $23 for pb.  $10 for Amazon Kindle.


John Wijngaards provides us with his pastoral reflections on the use and abuse of authority within the Catholic Church.  He tells us, right from the start, that this is not a systematic study.  Rather, it is “food for thought” designed to empower Catholics who are intent upon joining with Pope Francis in providing a much-needed revision of how our Church exercises authority in the modern era.

Wijngaards tells us that he will be presenting “reality learning” rather than “systematic learning.”  Being an educator myself, I would say that Wijngaards is intent upon using a “case study” methodology.  In so doing, he offers us 28 short chapters.  Each chapter has (a) a title page with a biblical citation, (b) a cartoon, (c) a case study based on his rich pastoral experience, (d) relevant reflections from the Gospels and Acts, and (e) a few questions for personal reflection.  Wijngaards idea is that users would set aside a short period each day (perhaps 15-20 minutes) to contemplate the themes (chapters) day-by-day during an entire month.


There are two unique ways in which Wijngaards expands upon the “case study” methodology:

  1. He introduces each chapter with a cartoon. I know of no other person who does this.  Wijngaards describes his use of this feature as therapeutic:

At the start of each chapter you will find a comic drawing, a cartoon, a caricature. It depicts a particular situation in a funny way. It exaggerates. It distorts. It makes you laugh, or at least smile. Yes, this is comedy. But do not underestimate it. The best kind of comedy makes fun of a serious issue. (p. 12)

  1. Relative to the questions for personal reflection, I note that Wijngaards is using a variation on the Observe, Judge, and Act progression that was used within Catholic Action circles during my youth. Here are the words of Wijngaards into which I have inserted the Catholic Action terminology:

Take time to reflect. Ponder on the message in the story, the Gospel texts, the caricature. Ask yourself: “Do I agree? Do I [Observe] recognise the web of cultural beliefs and practices that foul and smudge the authority Jesus gave? If so, [Judge] how does it affect me? How can the anomaly be remedied? What can I do [Act] to bring about the required reform, if reform is called for?”(p. 17)

This is where Wijngaards sets himself apart from those who provide “pietistic meditations” or “bible studies.”  The goal of each chapter is to enable the reader to discern what effective actions are required in order to promote a more transparent and more accountable use of authority as exemplified by Jesus and the early church.

In order to enable readers of this review to decide whether this book is designed for them, I will now provide a brief synopsis of what I found to be “the most engaging chapter” and “the most disappointing chapter.”


The most engaging chapter for me was Chapter 14: Latent spiritual authority shared by all.  Here is the cartoon and key excerpt from the case study:


In 1991 I visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. . . . There I met a religious sister whom I shall call ‘Amelia’.  She ministered as a hospital chaplain and she talked to me about her work:

“One day I was on the emergency ward of a large hospital when a young man was carried in. His motorbike had collided with a car. He had broken both legs and, apparently, he also suffered from internal bleeding in the stomach area. A nurse told me they did not expect him to last long . . .  I approached his bed. When he saw me, he clenched my hand and whispered: ‘I need to go to confession’.  I was in shock. I realised that I would never be able to call a priest in time. What should I do? Then I remembered that in the past even ordinary Christians had heard the confession of other people . . . So I took a bold decision. ‘I can hear your confession’, I told him. He trusted me. I heard his confession and gave him absolution. Then I handed him holy communion which I always carry with me.”

“Marvellous!,” I said. “And what about your bishop?”

“Yes, that was my worry too. Had I done the right thing?” (p. 90-91)

Wijngaards narrates this event simply and directly.  The words and the gestures (“he clenched my hand”) bring forward the urgency of the young man’s plight.  Then follows the “shock” of Amelia and her quick thinking (“in the past . . .”) that leads to her resolve: “So I took a bold decision.”  For this to work, however, there was one essential: “He trusted me.”

In the biblical reflections, Wijngaards draws attention to an early church practice: “Confess your sins one to another,” the Apostle James prescribed (Jas 5:16).”  Without going into details, he also says, “The practice of the sacrament of penance has gone through a long and convoluted history.”

  • He could have mentioned that “confessing ones sins to an ordained priest” did not emerge prior to the fifth century and that this practice was introduced (or re-introduced into the wider church) not by the Vatican but by Irish monks living at the ends of the earth.
  • He could have added Roger Ellsworth’s expansion on Jas 5:16: “If we have sinned secretly, we should confess it to God (1John 1:9). If we have sinned against someone else, we should confess it to God and to the person whom we have wronged (John 20:23, Eph 4:32, Matt 5:23-24). And if we have sinned publicly, we should confess it to God and in public (Acts 19:18)” (Day One Publications, 2009, p. 162).

Then, by way of expanding this to include presiding at the Eucharist, Wijngaards draws our attention to the fact that (a) no one in the early churches is ever “ordained” as the “exclusive presider” and (b) at the Last Supper (a modified Passover), when Jesus (acting like a rabbi) says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he never clarifies that “this mandate” applies only to “apostles.”  Wijngaards thus arrives at a very carefully phrased conclusion:

Jesus addressed “Do this in memory of me” to all disciples. In principle all are empowered to preside at the eucharist. Yes, normally ‘elders’ or ‘overseers’ will preside, but if they are not present, any competent member of the community can, and should, fulfil that function. (p. 93)

The famous Dutch Dominican, Edward Schillebeeckx, first alerted me to this historical truth in the 60s.  For extended details, go to <>

For the vast majority of American Catholics over fifty; however, Wijngaards suggestion will be blasted as “pure nonsense.” Let me explain why.

When I was attending Holy Cross Grade School in Euclid, Ohio, my sixth‑grade teacher, Sr. Matilda, an Ursuline Sister, explained this to me in a riveting story which I remember to this very day.  It ran something like this:

When the priest says, “This is my body,” over the host (i.e., the small wafer of unleavened bread) at Mass, it is changed.  It continues to have the appearance of bread, but, in reality, it has become the sacred body of Christ.  Only a priest has this supernatural power to consecrate.  Anyone else could recite the words of institution a hundred times over a host and nothing would happen.  The priest has only to say it once.  In fact, if a priest would go into a bakery and quietly say the words of institution over all the loaves on the shelf and really mean it, all at once, every one of those loaves would become the body of Christ.  No priest, of course, would do such a thing.  But the truth remains that he could, by virtue of his powers as a validly ordained priest, effect such a change if he really wanted to.


The hypothetical case of the priest in the bakery is clearly a pious exaggeration; however, within it original setting, this kind of narrative served to emphasize for a young boy like myself the supreme importance that Catholics in the 50s placed upon the ordained priest. This sort of retoric also served to enforce an unhealthy anti-Protestant bias.  Even as a lad of ten, I could easily understand why the Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper had nothing to do with the “true Mass” that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper.  In simplified terms, the argument would have been that the “defective intention” and “defective rites” used by Protestants in their ordinations could never have produced any “validly ordained priests.”  As a consequence, Protestant ministers were perceived as merely “going through the motions” when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper.  True sacraments (save for the exceptional case of emergency baptism and matrimony), Catholics wanted to insist, always and everywhere required validly ordained priests.

In Cleveland, Ohio, situated on the shores of Lake Erie, a typical winter will bring 20-30 snowfalls of six inches or more.  I’m telling you this because a certain convent of nuns in Cleveland had to makes use of an elderly retired priest in order to have their Sunday Eucharist.  When it snowed, however, he dared not go out.  So what was this convent of nuns to do?  After consultation and deliberation, they decided that when their priest could not come, one of their charismatic Sisters would become their “alternate presiders.”  No one in the community was adverse to this arrangement.  If asked, the Sisters might well have agreed with Wijngaards: if the Church allows non-ordained persons to administer “emergency baptisms” and “lay confessions,” then, it follows, as night follows day, that, in emergency situations, a gifted Sister could validly celebrate their Sunday Eucharist. To say anything less would be a sin against the Holy Spirit.


The most disappointing chapter for me was Chapter 12 The authority of the community.  The case study in this instance narrates how, in the 50s, Catholics in the village of Huissen, the Netherlands, had become attached to Dominican priests and attended the Sunday Eucharist at their amply priory.  The bishop had built and staffed a diocesan church, but it was sparsely attended.  So the bishop decided to padlock the doors of the Dominican church on Sundays so as to force them to go to the church he built.  Catholics were outraged at this strong-arm tactic.  Nearly a thousand gathered at the Dominican church and hacked off the padlocks.

Wijngaards makes the point that the Catholics have the right to choose where they go to Mass on Sundays, and that the bishop had overstepped his “authority” by running rough-shod over their preference for the Dominicans.

Wijngaards missed an opportunity here.  His case study has limited scope.  The much more universal issue that he overlooks is that of “priestless Sundays”:

[Fr.] James Dallen, in his book The Dilemma of Priestless Sundays (2007), demonstrates conclusively that the issue is not one of priestless parishes but, much more fundamentally, one of parishes prevented from being eucharistic.  According to Vatican figures alone, some 50 per cent of parishes or quasi-parishes world-wide have no resident priest and no ready opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist. . . .  Dallen shows that resolving the problem by the practice of what is known as SWAP (Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest) . . . is not only second best, it is clean contrary to the ancient traditions and teachings of the Church. . . .

The bishops, of course, complain that their hands are tied by the small number of seminarians that present themselves for ordination.  But is this the whole story?  Not nearly.

  • Roughly 200,000 priests world-wide left the ministry to marry following Vatican II. Did any bishop welcome some of them back into active ministry along with their families?  None.
  • Remember that these same bishops warmly welcomed those Anglican priests who deserted their church because they were unwilling to collaborate with ordained women. Many priests were angry that the bishops bent the rules in favor of the “Anglican deserters” at the same time when they were totally unwilling to bend the celibacy rule for long-suffering and faithful Catholic priests
  • In my 25 years in priestly formation, I met young seminarians who demanded to know “why God graciously gave them a vocation to priesthood at the same time that he gifted them with a yearning for marital intimacy.” Did any bishop decide to relieve their pain by making celibacy optional?   None.
  • Did any bishop invite priestless parishes to identify a trusted, mature, and charismatic elder in their midst, to present him for candidacy and, following a year of formation, to ordain him as their “interim” parish priest?   None.

Dallen carefully notes: “We often fail to experience and understand that it is the Body of Christ that celebrates the Eucharist.”  The subtext here is that the bishops and priests do not “own” the Eucharist; rather, this is the precious possession of the spiritual community itself!  Wijngaards, of course, could jump in here and remind us that “the bishops created an inadmissible situation” and “given this emergency, any parish without a priest had the right and the duty to select their candidate and to see that he is properly trained.”  And, if any bishop would run rough-shod over such a proposal, resourceful community members would be entitled to ‘hack off the padlocks.’

The biblical precedents for this are many.  The one that stands out most is when the Hellenists (“Greek-speaking Jews) complained to the Hebrews that their widows were being neglected.  The twelve responded by placing a proposal before the entire community: “Friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (Acts 6:2).  And, after considering this proposal, “What they said pleased the whole community” (Acts 6:5). So they went forward united in their shared pastoral solution.

This precedent fits well here because it begins with a serious grievance.  The Twelve do not try to dismiss the merits of this grievance.  They formulate an alternative solution.  All sides of the issue find merit in this solution.  As a result, the Hellenists select seven solid candidates, and the Twelve lay their hands on them and pray over them—a standard Jewish rite for inducting someone into a public ministry.  The merit of this solution is that it enables the “complainers” to take charge and to solve the issue according to their own standards. No one is left out, frustrated, and forced to hack off padlocks.


Stepping back, I want to personally thank John Wijngaards for creating an inviting and innovative book.  His “case study” methodology enables everyone to enter easily into the nitty-gritty of the issues at hand.  Real people are doing things that matter.  Finally, the Observe-Judge-Act reflective questions allow the reader to make sense of the issue at it plays itself out in their own parish and among their own ministers.

The Gospels show Jesus as very capable of being stern whenever his disciples tried to coax him into giving them special privileges, whenever they tried to impose their own agendas upon women, whenever they failed to show compassion.  Prophets in our church today mercifully draw our attention to those who act with the same carelessness and authoritarianism displayed by the first-generation disciples.  These same Gospels give the faithful the right–nay, even the obligation–to call to task misbehaving bishops and priests.


John Wijngaards is precious to us because he is not afraid to give voice to his prophetic message.  His little book provides training for how to spot and how to deal with common abuses of church authority.  I come away encouraged and supported in tackling those abuses that have come my way.  I’m quite certain that this little book will do the same for you.

Read it.  Discuss it with trusted friends.  Pray for yourself and for those who are healing.  Give copies during the time of this Advent to those harmed by abuses of ecclesial power.  Maranatha!

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For a synopsis of the author’s life, go to <>

For an overview and publicity on the book, go to



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