The Cure of Souls: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The phrase itself sounds old fashioned… “the cure of souls”. It sounds as though it is something you might read about in a novel by Charles Dickens or one of his fellow Victorian authors. Indeed, it is old fashioned enough as to hide its meaning from many readers. Encountering the term for the first time, varying meanings are attached to the phrase. “Is it about healing souls from sickness?” “Maybe, it’s about curating souls…” (this from a hipster pastor I was speaking with recently). The phrase actually encompasses some aspects of these observations, but historically it has a far broader meaning. “The cure of souls” is an English translation of the Latin phrase, ‘cura animarum’. In the post modern era, “the cure of souls” is often equated with “pastoral care”. Yet this also truncates the meaning and depth attending “the cure of souls”.
Historically, the phrase belongs to late antiquity and has been used to designate the responsibility of a pastor or priest a group of people, usually defined by a geographic boundary. For instance (in a simple form) the “cure of souls” for a bishop included his diocese, while the “cure of souls” of a priest was a parish, that is, a certain geographic area constituting a village or a town, or the subsection of a city. All the people in that geographic area or parish (here used as a certain area with boundaries) were part of a pastor or priest’s “cure of souls”. Often, there were “curates” who had some special responsibility to a certain group or who were under the supposed tutelage of someone senior.
It would be wrong, however, when speaking of the “cure of souls” in such circumstances, to limit the meaning of the phrase to our modern understanding of “pastoral care”. The real meaning extended far beyond what we think of as pastoral care today. You see, “the cure of souls” encompassed every person within that geographic boundary. The pastor or priest had a responsibility to care for everyone. This involved, of course, baptisms, marriages, confession, absolution and the administration of the Eucharist, but it also involved knowing all those within the parish, especially those who had fallen on hard times and might be in need or want. Teaching and preaching had their part in the cure of souls, but of singular importance was prayer. Morning and evening, when the bell rang at the parish church, everyone knew that their priest or pastor was praying… praying for them, for their families, for their community, for their cares and concerns. This was a holistic approach compared to what today we pass off as “pastoral care”. For the “cure of souls” was to be all encompassing, concerned with the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal. To be a priest or pastor was to be in a place of service to all at all times, convenient or not.
Now, in the modern age of free enterprise and entrepreneurial churches, we cannot necessarily return to the boundary based parish system described above. Yet, I believe there are lessons to be learned, even for a small local church, located now in a community that seems to have churches on every corner. The most striking lesson might be in regard to our priorities. While many might deny it, I know through years of experience (on both sides of the table) that the first question asked by most pastoral search committees, is along the lines of, “Is he/she a good preacher and/or teacher?” We basically want to know if they “present well in public”. Our orientation is toward the pulpit and the lectern. Additionally, we want some assurance, whether we admit it or not, that their public persona will help with the budget of the church. In forty years, again on both sides of the table, I have only heard a candidate questioned about their prayer life on one occasion. Moreover, in terms of outreach to the surrounding community, the questions are usually along the lines of, “Do you think you can bring young people into the church?” or “How are you at reaching out to young families?”.
Seldom are questions raised about serving the isolated elderly in the town, or how the pastoral candidate intends to become a part of the community. This may be because we see the church not in terms of the community as a whole, but as a singular entity, a place we attend intermittently, with a priest or pastor we have employed to serve and service that particular entity. It is also fair to say that theological education, over the last hundred years and more, have reinforced this view among those they have trained.
Perhaps it is time to ask more questions of those who take upon themselves “the cure of souls”. The first question might be, “Do you pray?” and the second, “Will you pray for us and this whole community every day?”. Other questions might follow, about the administration of the sacraments or about nursing home and hospital visitation. One might enquire about how the candidate deals with grieving families or troubled kids. There’s a long list…
It seems an impossible task. Part of that task, however, is to recognize that the “cure of souls” is not just standing in the pulpit or publicly leading worship. In fact, the first task might be to recognize that those activities may be the least of what the “cure of souls” entails.