It is a bit ironic that as the priesthood continues to be under attack – even from not a few within the Church herself and, yes, even from those who would consider themselves the pillars of orthodoxy, the patron of parish priests lost his feast this year since August 4 was a Sunday. I would like to make some small reparation for that loss by reflecting on certain aspects of the Sacred Priesthood, dedicating this effort to St. John Vianney.
Permit me to offer for your reflection four points, each of which could be a thesis in itself.
First: Last August marked the fiftieth anniversary of my entrance into the seminary. With a strong Catholic education background, both in the Church’s teaching and her life and in the humanities, I was able to begin priestly formation at the age of seventeen without hesitation. In case you haven’t calculated my entry date precisely, it was exactly three weeks after the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical, Humanae Vitae. However, I was not prepared for the theological dissent, liturgical aberrations, moral collapse, and general chaos that followed. I am being understated when I say that those eight years of seminary were, bar none, the worst eight years of my life.
A little more than eighteen months after my ordination, Almighty God surprised the world with the election of Karol Woytyla. Pope John Paul II changed the downward spiral of the previous decade, changed the ecclesial mood, changed the way priests thought about themselves. In fact, his twenty-seven years of Petrine ministry has provided me with the wherewithal to navigate the troubled waters of the past six years. Forty-two years of priestly life has given me a very varied ministry – high school teacher and administrator, university and seminary professor, bishop’s secretary, head of two national organizations, editor and publisher, parish priest. Despite some very difficult and trying moments – and even sad betrayals by some bishops – I am able to say that I have no regrets and would do it all over again.
Second: Galatians 3:1-5 has some critical applications for understanding the priestly vocation.
St. Paul chides the Galatians as being “stupid.” Tough language, no doubt. Today Paul would be called “harsh and insensitive.” However, when eternal life is at stake, we can’t be timid about challenging someone to change course. This is not simply a matter of truth-telling; it is the ultimate act of Christian charity. With great frustration in his voice, Paul asks if all his efforts and their initial positive response have been “in vain.” This is a key pastoral lesson for priests: We must never be afraid to speak the truth of Christ, all the while ensuring that it is done out of love and done in a loving way.
In the present pontificate, we have heard much about the process of “accompaniment,” which is surely important. Accompaniment, however, does not mean silence in the face of bad or misguided thoughts or behavior. In those situations, accompaniment means providing guidance and direction. Anything less is pastoral nonfeasance or malfeasance.
The finest example of holy accompaniment is found in the charming and moving Emmaus pericope (Lk 24). Those two confused disciples thought they had the story of Jesus clear, but they were wrong. The Risen Lord “accompanies” them along the road by explaining to them all the passages of Sacred Scripture that pertain to His passion, death and resurrection. He corrects their misunderstanding and brings them to the truth, which must be the goal of all accompaniment.
In a very strange expression, St. Paul speaks of an apparent experience of the Galatians, “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” To what is he referring? To be sure, the Galatians were not present on Calvary. Nor could he be talking about their beholding an image of the crucifixion, for we know that the crucifixion was too painful for the early Christians to depict; we would have to wait a couple of centuries for crucifixion scenes to appear. No, I believe that Paul is calling their attention to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which they did indeed witness, in an unbloody manner, the re-presentation of Calvary. After all, didn’t St. Paul have to remind the wayward Corinthians: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:26)?
Priests are to serve as dispensatores mysteriorum Dei (dispensers of the mysteries of God) (1 Cor 4:1) – men who daily offer sacrifice in union with our Great High Priest. And so, we must strive always to be worthy ministers of the Sacred Mysteries by celebrating the rites of the Church in faithfulness to the liturgical books and in a spirit of humble, joyful service. On the day of our ordination, the bishop presented us with the gifts of bread and wine, uttering these powerful words: “Know what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the cross.”
Our offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, will be incomplete if the only time we priests offer sacrifice is at the altar. No, the sacrifice of the altar requires the constant sacrifice of one’s life – for Christ and for His holy people. And one of the most important aspects of such a life is that of our chaste celibacy, in imitation of the ever-chaste Bridegroom of the Church. St. Paul VI spoke of celibacy as “the jewel of the priesthood.” That jewel must be handled with all the care that it needs and deserves – something that has obviously eluded the drafters of the Instrumentum Laboris for the Amazon Synod.
Third: In Luke 11:5-13, Our Lord praises the virtue of persistence or perseverance. In another place in Luke’s Gospel (9:62), Jesus castigates anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back. Very strongly, He declares such a person unfit for the Kingdom of God. We recently had to endure the scandal of a well-known priest tell us on national television that God had led him to abandon his priestly vocation. Perhaps that man never heard the ringing assertion of St. John Paul II during his first pastoral visit to the United States in October of 1979 in Philadelphia: “Priesthood is forever – tu es sacerdos in aeternum – we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God who gave the impulse to say ‘yes’ now wishes to hear ‘no’.”
How seriously must we heed the counsel of the sacred author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (12:1-2), Jesus the Priest, in whose priesthood we share. Some years ago, I asked a professional ice skater how he is able to make all those thrilling pirouettes, always landing in exactly the right spot. He said: “You have to pick some still point on the horizon, and every time you turn, you have to keep finding that still point. If you lose sight of the still point, you will land on your rear end!” Or, consider the motto of the Carthusian Order: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” (“The Cross is steady while the earth is turning”). So much in this simple phrase. The still point for us priests is Christ at the altar.
Of course, what I have been talking about is the gift of perseverance. Many years ago, I visited a holy nun who had taught me algebra in high school; she was living out her last years in the infirmary of her congregation’s motherhouse. As I was leaving, she asked me to give her my blessing and to pray that she would have the gift of final perseverance. Stunned by her plea, I replied: “Sister, after seventy years of religious life, you are worried about perseverance?” “Dear, dear Father,” she said, “it never gets easier. Actually, at times, it seems to get harder the older I get.” Along with perseverance, then, we must guard against presumption, for fidelity “never gets easier.”
Fourth and last: I would like to put in high relief the person of St. John XXIII – a pope who loved the priesthood and loved priests. It was not an accident that within the very first year of his pontificate, he offered the Universal Church an encyclical on the priesthood, Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the death of the Curé of Ars. Toward the end of that letter, the sainted Pope made this observation:
Priests often find themselves in difficult circumstances. This is not surprising; for those who hate the Church always show their hostility by trying to harm and deceive her sacred ministers; as the Curé of Ars himself admitted, those who want to overthrow religion always try in their hatred to strike at priests first of all.
Sounds like it was written for our times, doesn’t it?
Then il Papa buono (“the good Pope,” as the Italians nicknamed him), gave us firm reason to be confident in the face of trials by offering a supernatural understanding of the priestly vocation. He writes:
But even in the face of these serious difficulties, priests who are ardent in their devotion to God enjoy a real, sublime happiness from an awareness of their own position, for they know that they have been called by the Divine Savior to offer their help in a most holy work, which will have an effect on the redemption of the souls of men and on the growth of the Mystical Body of Christ. (n. 113)
Focus and determination are highlighted in the Pope’s very realistic reflection.
At the outset of this reflection, I said that fifty years on from my first day of seminary, I have no regrets and would do it all over again. My prayer is that each and every priest will always be able to say the same. For that to happen, however, we priests need the support of the faithful whom we serve – no carping negativity, no looking for conflict where none exists, loving correction when necessary. And certainly not the cry of the French Revolutionaries: “Off with all their heads!” While that may not be the mentality of the average Catholic in the pew, it has become what all too many priests experience from vocal malcontents; perhaps it is time for the “silent majority” of the laity to express their appreciation for the good priests who tend to their spiritual welfare day in and day out. Of course, even John Vianney had disgruntled laity proffer a petition against him to the bishop, demanding his removal, as well as a coterie of old crones who had him offer Masses for that very intention!
How can we address the very real problem of priestly morale? For starters, I would recommend a wonderful prayer of the Roman Missal which asks Almighty God for this grace: “Direct the hearts of Priest and people to be so disposed that the obedience of the flock may never fail the shepherd, nor care of the shepherd be lacking for the flock.”
St. John Vianney, pray for us.
St. John XXIII, pray for us.
St. Paul VI, pray for us.
St. John Paul, pray for us.
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