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  • Vita Communis: The Common Life of the Secular Clergy
  • Helen Parish
Vita Communis: The Common Life of the Secular Clergy. By Jerome Bertram. (Leominster, UK: Gracewing. 2009. Pp. x, 316. £15.99 paperback. ISBN 978-0-852-44201-2.)

Jerome Bertram presents an analysis of the common life of the secular clergy from the early Christian centuries into the modern era. Conceding that it often has been argued that the unmarried clergy of the Catholic Church would be better served if they lived in communities rather than in isolation, Bertram proposes that rather than simply revive ancient models, the contemporary Catholic Church would be advised to reflect on precedents and the reasons that such precedents were abandoned. The discussion and analysis is informed by his own practical and personal experience as a priest of the Oxford Oratory and by a detailed investigation of the history of the communal life, in theory and practice, over the best part of two millennia. What emerges from the pages of Vita Communis is a convincingly articulated argument that diocesan bishops need to ponder the way in which priests in the twenty-first-century Church live and are called on to serve the faithful.

Although seeking to address some of the problems and challenges facing the Church today, almost half of Bertram's study is devoted to the first thousand years of the history of the Church. The discussion of the communal life of the secular clergy is informed by broader reflections on the nature of Church and faith in the apostolic era, the early-medieval period and the Carolingian reforms, and the significant debates of the Gregorian era. Although the primary focus is on the historical function and living of the secular clergy, due consideration also is given to the parallel developments in the history of monasticism, particularly in its prioritization of poverty. In a study of this length, covering such a substantial chronology, discussion is, of necessity, general in tone, but the broader argument is punctuated by a number of valuable and perceptive case studies, including an analysis of the relationship between St. Chrodegang of Metz's authentic Rule and the Rule of St. Benedict.

Bertram highlights some of the continuities in the life of the secular clergy between the tenth and eleventh centuries; the common representation [End Page 747] of the eleventh-century reforms as an almost revolutionary moment in the history of the Church is rejected in favor of a more sympathetic approach to what can be learned from the models of the past. Chapter 7 provides a methodical and helpful commentary on the emergence and evolution of canonical foundations in England and on the Continent, and the increasing prominence of the canons regular, whereas subsequent chapters examine cathedral chapters and other collegiate churches in the high Middle Ages. A concern to outline the principal developments laid out in conciliar decrees and episcopal demands is balanced by useful discussion of local impact and examples. Many illustrations are drawn from the English context, but there are some instructive comparisons made with developments in continental Europe; a section dealing with foundations by laymen ranges widely from the well-documented lay foundation of Astley College in Warwickshire to the role of the canons of St. Quiriace in Champagne. Surprisingly, perhaps, the impact of the Protestant Reformations receives rather less attention. Bertram reflects in rather more detail on the English context and the Henrician suppression of the monasteries, but the potential impact of evangelicalism on the understanding of the priesthood and priestly life is left to the margins. The consideration of the "Glorious Catholic Reformation" (chapter 12) focuses more substantially on developments outside England and includes a detailed discussion of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri as well as the emergence of new congregations in France.

Some significant, related topics are discussed alongside the central theme. The opening chapter reflects on the nature of the clergy, differences between clergy and laity, and the shifting role of the priest between the cultic and the pastoral. The question of clerical celibacy is woven through the narrative, and, perhaps unusually, a good deal of attention is paid to the minor clergy. Throughout his analysis, the author...


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