“Men, not Angels, the Priests of the Gospel”. So did St. John Henry Cardinal Newman entitle one of his lectures in 1849,1 four years after his conversion. Newman was not scandalized by that realization; he was actually comforted by it because it meant he could thus count himself among the Lord’s especially chosen disciples.
On this recent Holy Thursday, the preeminent day of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood, my thoughts went back – nostalgically – to the twenty-seven years of the pontificate of St. John Paul II and his Holy Thursday letters “to my beloved priests.” Priests and seminarians eagerly awaited them. In our Community, we would gather on Holy Thursday at noon to pray Midday Prayer, at the conclusion of which we read aloud the Pope’s missive to us for that year. Then followed a festive meal, for which many local clergy joined us to celebrate God’s goodness to us in making us “dispensatores mysteriorum Dei” (dispensers of the mysteries of God).
That recollection made all the sadder the constant negativity directed to us priests by the present Pope. This “feeling” is not something unique to me. It came out clearly in a research project being done for the University of Notre Dame by Francis X. Maier. I should note that not only has he been a close friend and collaborator for some forty years, but he is one of the few lay ecclesiastical “bureaucrats” who is not a “wanna-be” priest and who genuinely loves and respects priests (even when some of us can make that difficult to do).
On to the study.2 We are allowed to eavesdrop on bishops’ observations about Pope Francis, among many other topics. “In the words of one baffled west-of-the-Mississippi bishop, ‘It’s as if he enjoys poking us in the eye.’” “Poking us in the eye” – a rather down-home way of crystallizing a common sentiment among clergy.
What about seminarians? Maier shares the following: “When pressed, none of the bishops I queried could report a single diocesan seminarian inspired to pursue priestly life by the current Pope. None took any pleasure in acknowledging this.” Again, this parallels my own experience from lectures and retreats I have given to numerous seminarians. In fact, in my spiritual direction of seminarians, I have also had the unenviable task of trying to convince them (and young priests as well) not to give up on the priesthood, so dispirited are many by Francis.
Perhaps most surprising to many is that seminarians of my acquaintance, many of whom had barely made their First Holy Communion in the waning years of the John Paul papacy, name him as their model for priestly life and ministry; Benedict is likewise highly valued by our seminarians – most of whom maintain a respectful silence about the current Pontiff, lest they show disrespect or even disdain. That is quite telling. It also explains why seminary numbers are so far down, precisely over the past eight years. Frankly, why would a young man find inspiration in a man who had even called seminarians “little monsters”?
I bring up this unpleasant topic because in just the two weeks before Holy Week, priests got four papal “pokes in the eye.”
The first, of course, was the banning of individual celebrations of Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, about which I wrote here at CWR. That decree has created a firestorm of outrage around the world. Cardinal Raymond Burke was the first prelate out of the paddock to condemn the insulting assault on priestly hospitality. He has since been joined by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller and by Cardinal Robert Sarah, until recently, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. The indomitable Cardinal Joseph Zen has also entered the lists. It is no small irony that the Pope who dislikes private Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica would abandon that Basilica for a private Mass on Holy Thursday (of all days!) in the apartment chapel of the disgraced Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu!
The second indication of papal disregard for priests was his decision to cut the salaries of cardinals, bishops and priests working in the Roman Curia, but not those of lay employees. This may require some explanation for American readers to understand the tremendous injustice. The typical American lay person might have reacted with approval, “After all,” one would be tempted to say, “priests don’t have the expenses of lay people. Free housing and food and all other necessary things provided as well.” Not so fast.
Clergy who work in the Curia do get a salary, however, room and board are not covered; for that, they are on their own. For example, if a priest lives at the Santa Marta residence (where Pope Francis lives), as much as half his salary goes to pay for his housing and meals. I remember well when a bishop-friend of mine was called to serve in Rome and received a Vatican apartment, which had been woefully neglected and in need of much repair, as well as retrofitting. The project was the sole responsibility of the new tenant. Further, a bishop or cardinal generally will have a priest-secretary living with him and perhaps one or more Sisters to assist with various household tasks; the upkeep of these personnel must be paid directly by the prelate. In other words, clergy working in the Vatican have the same financial responsibilities as lay workers – yet the Pope penalized only the clergy. Beyond the financial considerations, clergy in the Curia very often live thousands of miles from their homes and families, making tremendous personal sacrifices for the good of the Church. Of course, on more than one occasion, Francis has urged those priests to go back home (where they presumably belong!).
The third “poke in the eye” came when Francis gave an audience to the student-priests from the Filipino College, in celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the institution and the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of the Philippines. In the course of the address,3 the Pope cautioned them not “to take flight in an ‘ideal’ past” (in other words, don’t be “conservative”). Further, not to “imagine the ‘prestigious’ assignments that the bishop will certainly want to entrust to you upon your return… No, not that! This is fantasy” (Translation: Don’t look forward to putting to use the special training you are being given – because that would have the smell of “clericalism” or “careerism”); Finally, not to “speak ill” of one another (Why would he even presume that these young priests would do that?). So, three black eyes on what should have been a joyous occasion.
The final “poke in the eye” came during a papal audience given to the priestly community of the Pontifical Mexican College on March 29. Francis warned them not to “lock [themselves] up in their home or office or hobbies.” He went on: “Clericalism is a perversion.” He then went on to belittle getting a doctorate. Again, why always the negative presumptions?
This Pope has a “hang-up” on a strong priestly identity, which he equates with “clericalism” (which is indeed a flaw as it seeks privilege rather than offering service).4 To be clear: There is nothing wrong with a Pope presenting points for priestly reflection and improvement, but the interminable negative drumbeat is a major factor in low morale among the clergy and surely a harmful influence on young men contemplating the Sacred Priesthood. These “pokes in the eye” make it impossible for priests to hear anything good this Pope might say about us and our vocation.
When St. John Paul assumed the Chair of Peter, the Priesthood was at its lowest ebb since the Protestant Reformation. In fact, more men had abandoned their holy vocation in the wake of the Second Vatican Council than in the sixteenth century – some 100,000 defections from the Sacred Priesthood, by most estimates. Not only that, but terrible concepts of the priestly ministry had been taught in seminaries for more than a decade, thus polluting a generation of priests, as well as infecting thousands already ordained. Taking his own counsel, “Be not afraid,” John Paul stepped into the breach with gusto.
Because Pope John Paul knew priesthood from the inside and loved not only “priesthood,” but priests, he could empathize with priests whose love for their vocation had grown cold or with priests who even doubted the usefulness of their ministry. Hence, he ended his very first Holy Thursday letter to us priests with this most moving and tender reflection:
Dear Brothers: you who have borne “the burden of the day and the heat” (Mt 20:12), who have put your hand to the plough and do not turn back (cf. Lk 9:62), and perhaps even more those of you who are doubtful of the meaning of your vocation or of the value of your service: think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years; feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence. And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a Priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest, just as they also so eagerly wait to hear the divine words of pardon: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis! So deeply do they feel the absence of a Priest among them!… Such places are not lacking in the world. So, if one of you doubts the meaning of his priesthood, if he thinks it is “socially” fruitless or useless, reflect on this!
He knew – all too well – the many weaknesses among the Lord’s sons in the Priesthood: Men, not angels. He didn’t scold us to make us better; he loved us into becoming better.
Through the intercession of St. John Paul, that quintessential priest’s priest, we need to pray that his successor would learn how to love priests into holiness of life, rather than “poking us in the eye.”
Lord, give us priests.
Lord, give us many priests.
Lord, give us many holy priests.
1Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3.
3 Oddly the talk is available only in Italian and Spanish – no English, even though that is surely the lingua franca of the Philippines.
4This is similar to his constant condemnation of “proselytism” (which he fails to distinguish from “evangelization”).
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