Just how we were ever to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was always going to be problematic, especially for Catholics, so we should be grateful to our Protestant brethren in Germany, who have come up with just the thing: a robot priest. BlessU2, as the robot is catchily named, can raise its arms in benediction, speak in a male or female voice, and dispense blessings in a variety of languages. The robot is meant to “provoke debate”, we are told.
I am left scratching my head, but here are a few thoughts that cross my mind.
First of all, in some countries, the dispensation of the sacraments can seem a little mechanical – not to the congregation, but to the priest himself. If, for example, you are a pastor in certain parts of Latin America, it is not unusual to celebrate seven Masses on a weekend, followed by about 50 or so baptisms. At the end of the weekend, you may well feel you are no more than some sort of machine for dispensing the sacraments.
But the truth is that you are never a machine, you are a person, and the sacraments depend on human mediation. God’s grace flows to us through human channels, and it always has, ever since Christ appeared on earth. He is the Sacrament from which all other sacraments flow. There are no sacraments without the original mystery of the Incarnation.
It is June, the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in which we honour and contemplate the sacred humanity of the Lord. The humanity of the Lord is the way He chose to save us; His humanity was not an instrument of salvation taken up once for a set purpose, and then set aside, it is rather the great and abiding sign of God’s love. If the robot priest makes us think, it is surely along these lines: how lucky we are to have been saved by Jesus, a man like us in all things but sin, in whom dwelt the fullness of divinity.
The other thought that comes to mind, after the humanity of Christ, is that priests too are human, though, unlike the Saviour, hardly without sin. Machines, if they run well, replicate the same actions over and over again. When a human acts, each action is hardly repeatable in this mechanical sense. One goes to a priest in order to meet another human being, however imperfect, and that priest’s fallible humanity is preferable to the cold and mechanical nature of a robot. The robot reminds us that priests are human, and that they should be recognised as such, and free to be such. No one wants a mechanical priest.
The robot priest is perhaps a warning. So much of life has now been mechanised, and in so many ordinary situations we now deal with automated responses or machines rather than people. But in the Church, as from the beginning, the role of the human being cannot be replaced.
“BlessU2” is a gimmick for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; the priesthood founded by Christ is forever, until He comes again.