The Laity’s Servant: My Fifty Years as a Priest

Earlier this year, at the celebration of the golden jubilee of my priestly ordination, I depart somewhat from the usual pattern for such observances. Customarily, jubilarians invite a friend—or friends—to deliver appropriate sermons or speeches at the Mass and banquet marking the occasion. Rather than subject the audience to well-intentioned exaggerations—or even outright fabrications!—which would only tend to identify me as a pious fraud, I decided to deliver the talk myself. After all, since no one on earth knows my priesthood as well as I do, I should be the one to tell the truth about it—or as much of the truth as can appropriately be told. I have decided to follow the same tack for Crisis in this issue on the priesthood by describing the only priesthood I know—my own. I offer my impression of the priesthood as seen through the priests I have known during my fifty years of experience.

In a sense, the picture that emerges is a kind of composite, comprised of a variety of priests: old and young; urban and rural; diocesan and religious; intellectual and simple; virtuous and careless; financiers and dreamers; builders and caretakers. There also are intermediate shades of each type. Strangely, in spite of the vast spectrum of characteristics, there is a certain sameness in most of the priests I have known. And yet it is not so strange, because most of the apparent differences were only external, whereas the identity lay in the esteem they all had for their priesthood. So the essential impression is perhaps of an ideal priest, that is, the sort that every priest ought to be and deep down, knowingly or unknowingly, wants to be.

A Definition Beyond ‘Power’

In the formative years of my education, we students were admonished to define the terms before beginning any essay, composition, or dissertation. Just incidentally, it seems to me that failure to do so is part of the problem in the current debate concerning who should be priests. So often the priesthood is discussed in terms of “fulfillment” or “power in the Church” and the like. Since these ideas often are used interchangeably, I will confine my remarks to the matter of power. Quite regularly, priests have referred to the Diocesan Chancery as “The Power House,” and, for the most part, want to be separated as far as possible from it. This is in no way a criticism of those priests (bless them!) who are willing—or even aspire—to work in the ever-burgeoning diocesan bureaucracies; after all, somebody probably has to do that kind of labor. But, for the vast majority of priests, there is an innate sense that they were not ordained to be power-brokers. In the words of the Cure d’Ars, what greater power can a priest have than to call God down to earth—to call Him to go and He goes, to come and He comes?

So, true fulfillment for real priests lies in areas of ministry other than of power. When I was ordained, the Bishop read a long exhortation, the operative words of which were: The priest must offer, bless, preside, preach, and baptize. Of all these charges, however, only one is peculiar to a priest; others can preach, bless, preside, or baptize, but only a priest can offer Holy Mass. The power to offer Sacrifice is what makes a priest—it constitutes the priesthood. Of course, the priest must perform those other functions, too, and many others, as well; but, no matter how efficiently or poorly a priest discharges the duties of preaching, teaching, managing, or counseling, he can never fail—he always is a success—when he offers Holy Mass and administers the sacraments. Because the priest truly is alter Christus—another Christ, to cite traditional terminology, or he acts “in the Person of Christ,” in the words of Vatican II.

Not ‘Buddy,’ but ‘Father’

Priests today are sometimes told that the priesthood has changed, that it entails different demands than formerly. In “the old days,” it is said, people respected the priesthood because the priest was just about the only educated person in the parish; consequently the pastor was called upon for all sorts of functions for which his opinion was respected. Today, however, the priest must meet the challenges of a highly educated laity, to whom he must prove worthy of respect.

I would make two comments on such an evaluation. First, though it may be true that priests in earlier times were consulted on a wide range of subjects, especially in immigrant parishes, this sort of expertise was not the real basis of people’s respect for the priesthood; nor by any means did all, or even most, priests engage in such extraneous activities. Second, though the much vaunted—and sometimes overrated (especially in the field of religion)—educational prowess of the modern Catholic laity might have some effect on a priest’s social acceptability, it has nothing to do with the priesthood. Now, as before, the priest—as priest—is respected and admired not because of his intelligence, wit, rhetoric, personality, or business acumen, but because he is pastoral. Some years back, there was a popular pamphlet about priests, the title of which expresses the point I am trying to make: “Everybody Calls Me Father.” And a priest insisted on being called “Father” (rather than Joe, Pete, Tom, etc.) to remind his people and especially himself that that was exactly what he was: not a big brother or a buddy, but a father. For similar reasons, he always wore the clerical garb (at last when on duty) not to separate himself from or elevate himself above the laity, but to identify himself as the laity’s servant, just as livery marks royal attendants, and uniforms denote the police and military as servants of the people.

A Poet’s Portrait of the Priest

The priesthood I am trying to describe was well outlined by Chaucer in his verse on “The Parish Priest.” With apologies to the poet for taking liberties with his language, the portrait he draws could be paraphrased as follows:

There was a good man of religion, a poor pastor of a town; but he was rich of holy thought and work. He also was a learned man, a clerk, who would truly preach Christ’s Gospel; devoutly would he teach his parishioners. He was benign, wonderfully diligent and patient in adversity, and such he was proved numerous times. He was loath continuously to beg for money, but would rather give of his own substance to the poor people in the neighborhood; he himself was satisfied with little. His parish was extensive and scattered, yet he never neglected for any reason to visit, in sickness and in need, even the furthest in his area, both great and little. The noble example he gave to his sheep: that first he wrought and afterward he taught. Out of the Gospel, he gathered these words, and this figure he added to them: that if gold rust, what will iron do?

For if a priest whom we trust is foul, no wonder will an ordinary person fall. And what a shame it is to have a dirty shepherd and a clean sheep. The priest ought to give example by his cleanness of how the sheep should live. He did not leave his pastoral duties to others, and run off to universities to gain degrees or advancement, but stayed at home and tended his fold—he was a shepherd and no mercenary.

And though he himself was holy and virtuous, nevertheless he did not despise a sinful person, nor use harsh speech toward him, but only kind and persuasive talk—his aim was to draw his fold to heaven by fairness and good example. Yet to an obstinate person, whether of high or low estate, he would be stern in his correction. I know that nowhere is a better priest. He waited for no pomp or reverence, nor put on any kind of airs; but he taught the doctrine of Christ and the twelve Apostles—and first he followed it himself.

Would all priests I have known fit that description? In a paraphrase of Lincoln’s famous saying: Not all of them all of the time. But all were that way some of the time; and some were that way all of the time. And, in my opinion, all at least had that ideal in mind, and, each in his own weak, human way, tried to live up to it. How did they get that way? That is, how and why did they become priests? What is the priestly vocation? Probably there would be as many answers to such questions as there were priests. For, while some men “always knew” they wanted to be priests, others as it were, went practically around the world on the road to the priesthood and still others fought their vocation every step of the way. Eventually, in one way or another, they all arrived at a seminary where they were all exposed to a rather stereotyped regimen. Not all who entered the seminary survived the routine: many were eliminated, and some eliminated themselves—for various reason including studies, discipline, personality, and, yes, the prospect of celibacy.

The day of ordination was reminiscent of the old story about the three surprises in heaven: Some you expected to be there were not; others you did not expect to be there were; and the biggest surprised of all was that you were there yourself. It all boiled down to Jesus’s reminder: “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.” A priestly vocation is a free gift, totally dependent on the grace of God. It was only when accepted by the Church and ordained that a man finally was certain that he had a priestly vocation.

The World’s Greatest Fraternity

How did the men I have known persevere in the priesthood? A great deal of that answer goes back to the seminary training, which provided a pattern of life designed to keep the priest close to God. Though priests serving in a parish obviously could not observe every detail of the seminary routine, nevertheless the aim of developing a spirit of discipline and prayer was very useful. Holding the place of preeminence, of course, was fidelity to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and devotion to Jesus, really present in the Eucharist. In addition, there was the daily obligation to recite the Divine Office, a kind of regulator for the heavenly clock. Besides mandated works, however, every priest had a reverence for Mary, the Mother of Priests, and often with an almost childlike devotion honored her with frequent—if not daily—recitation of the Rosary.

On a perhaps more natural plane, priestly morale and perseverance were fostered by fraternal association, most notably at affairs like the Forty Hours Adoration, a combination of solid devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, sometimes raucous socializing, and frequently boisterous theological discussions. These gatherings embodied the common adages: “The priesthood is the greatest fraternity in the world” and “Priests need priests.” Permeating all these factors was an underlying spirit of unity, especially in loyalty to the teachings of the magisterial Church.

Has every one survived? Obviously not. As a matter of public record, there have been defections from the priesthood, for a while at a steady and depressingly accelerating pace, which has, thankfully, abated in recent years. Perseverance, too, like the vocation itself, is a grace from God. Here again, there are often three surprises: those you were sure would survive are no longer here; those you were afraid would defect are still here; and the biggest surprise of all is that I myself am here. Thanks be to God. It would be interesting to know how many who have left the active ministry regret having done so. Of course, a number have returned; and it is my conviction that many, many more would do so, if possible. God knows and will judge and recompense in accord with His boundless mercy.

Of course, in the words of a famous sports malapropism, “It’s never over till it’s over.” Though fifty years of service and retirement bring an end to pastoral and administrative responsibilities, there is no end to priesthood: “You are a priest forever.” And the earthly phase will not cease until, please God, one hears the voice of the Eternal High Priest: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


At the time this article was published, Monsignor Linford F. Greinader was retired as pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

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