The priesthood of Jesus Christ, in which every Christian priest shares, is the source of holiness in the Church and the impetus for all evangelization. Through the ministry of the priest, Christ’s lay faithful are nourished with the Word of Life and the Bread of Life; their sanctification makes possible the sanctification of the world.
But where does this leave us? What should we be doing in regard to the priesthood? Allow me to offer a few suggestions which have, in my opinion, special relevance for the Church in the place and time in which Providence has placed us.
First, we must renew our commitment to the Church’s teaching on the uniqueness of the priesthood and its centrality in the life of the Church. Reflection on the priesthood is as old as the Church herself. Sometimes these meditations are unrealistic and maudlin; sometimes they are highly theological but leave us cold because they lack the poetry and beauty which belong to the human contemplation of the divine.
Allow me to share with you a sampling of texts which come close to doing the job. Cardinal Suhard of Paris once asserted: “The priesthood is not… something. It is someone: Christ.” Saint Francis of Assisi (never a priest, but a permanent deacon, remember) said: “If I saw an angel of light and a drunken priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the angel.”
Saint John Vianney, patron of parish priests, declared from experience: “After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts.” He went on to say: “The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love.”
The French spiritual writer Père Gatry said something we really need to ponder in our time: “If people could realize what the priesthood is, there would be too many priests.” Where does the priesthood find its great dignity? In the simple but awesome recognition of Saint Vincent Ferrer: “The Blessed Virgin opened heaven only once; the priest does so at every Mass.”
The reverence and respect of the Catholic faithful for their clergy is directed, then, not toward the man himself but toward Christ who is the Priest of the new eternal covenant and toward the priesthood any man derives from Him and shares with Him.
An anecdote from history may demonstrate our very reasonable approach to all this. One day, during Pope Pius VII’s imprisonment by Napoleon, the Pope and Emperor were again drawn into what had become a daily round of confrontations. The Pope said something which made the little dictator more angry than usual, causing him to rise to his full five feet, point his finger in the Holy Father’s face, and scream, “If you don’t behave yourself, I will destroy both you and your Church!” Which caused the Pope’s faithful aide, Cardinal Consalvi, simply to smile condescendingly, and say: “Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the Church for the last 1800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.” Realism.
Even the Modernist heretic Alfred Loisy understood something of this when he sarcastically mused: “They tell me that every Sunday in Paris over ten thousand sermons are preached. And the people still believe!” Realism again, even if jaundiced.
Allow me to share with you a personal anecdote that might help illustrate the attitude I’m proposing. Many years ago, eight of my seminary classmates and I went for a Christmastide dinner to Asti’s in Manhattan; it was a lovely place, featuring live opera done by the waiters, unfortunately shuttered a long time ago.
After a delightful meal and wonderful entertainment by the singing waiters, we asked for our check and were told that it had been “taken care of.” When we inquired of the who, the why and the how, we were told the benefactor wished to remain anonymous. Finally, the maitre d’ prevailed on our host to allow himself to be identified. Some of us went over to the table to thank him personally. I said, “I hope you know what you got yourself in for, with nine very hungry and thirsty priests tonight!” The man, on holiday with his wife, son and father from the Midwest, smiled and said: “Father, no matter what it costs, we’ve gotten off cheap tonight. Everything I am, Father, is what the Church has made me—two decades of Catholic education, including a law degree from Notre Dame University, and great priests and nuns. In fact, I just said to my son, ‘You see those young priests?”—none of us had any gray hair yet!—”They could have been anything and done anything, but they gave it all up, so that you, your mother, your grandfather and I could have Christ in the sacraments.’ Merry Christmas, Fathers.”
I recount the episode, not to extoll the possibilities of clerical rank and privilege, but to demonstrate the kind of love one man had for the Sacred Priesthood—the kind of love every Catholic worthy of the name should have. This sentiment is appropriate, not because priests are angels—we are not, as we ourselves know all too well—but because in God’s mysterious plan, priests can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Another practical resolution flowing from our appreciation of the priesthood is developing a stance toward priests: affirming good priests and challenging the lukewarm or even the few who are, objectively speaking, bad. When a priest celebrates the Sacred Liturgy properly, with devotion and according to the mind of the Church; when he preaches an effective homily, particularly dealing with an unpopular topic; when he teaches consistently and effectively what the Church teaches; when his life-style is a mirror-image of what he preaches and teaches, always looking and acting like a priest; see it as your personal privilege and obligation to let him know you notice these things, that you appreciate them, that you thank our heavenly Father for allowing him to be so clear a sign of His divine Son’s Holy Priesthood.
On the other hand, when priests fail to be the type of men Christ and His Church desire and deserve, do not be afraid to speak to them, charitably but firmly, of their responsibilities and your legitimate needs, indeed, your rights. Saint Catherine of Siena never hesitated to speak thus to the Sovereign Pontiff himself—all the while referring to him constantly as “my dear sweet Christ on earth.”
Next, seek to strengthen priestly identity. Never find yourself in the position of being what I call a “clerical ‘wanna-be’.” That is, one of those individuals who smugly looks at a priest and says, “I could do that better than he!” Or, equally, someone who endeavors to take over priestly roles in an effort to satisfy some deep-seated personal need to be a priest or to have what is perceived to be the prestige or power of the ordained ministry.
As Saint Thérèse of Lisieux got sicker and sicker and closer to death, she was confronted by a variety of temptations and difficulties. She experienced terrible spiritual dryness and was tormented by doubts, as well as by questions about the meaning and effectiveness of her whole, short life. On her bed of pain, she cries out:
I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr; as if I could never satisfy the needs of my nature without performing, for your sake, every kind of heroic action at once. I feel as if I’d got the courage to be a Crusader, a Pontifical Zouave, dying on the battlefield in defense of the Church. And at the same time, I want to be a priest; how lovingly I’d carry you in my hands when you came down from heaven at my call; how lovingly I’d bestow you upon men’s souls!
But then she continues: “And yet, with all this desire to be a priest, I’ve nothing but admiration and envy for the humility of Saint Francis; I’d willingly imitate him in refusing the honor of the priesthood.” And then she agonizes: “Dear Jesus, how am I to reconcile these conflicting ambitions, how am I to give substance to the dreams of one insignificant soul?”
Yet, in the midst of these trials which almost brought her to despair, the Little Flower was given the grace, not simply to see and accept God’s holy Will, but also to discover a most basic truth about the nature of life in the Church. She would be a strong supporter of Pope John Paul II’s vision of clearly defined roles within the Church, never moving toward what he dubbed “the clericalization of the laity or the laicization of the clergy.”
Still another area of genuine need is work on behalf of vocations to the priesthood. Praying and performing works of penance are obviously critically important, and nothing can take their place. But I would like to propose something else as well—creating a climate in which priestly vocations can be discerned, fostered, and appreciated.
More than twenty ago, my mother was standing in line at the supermarket; the woman behind her recognized her and asked, “Didn’t your son go to Saint Joe’s High School?”
“Yes,” my mother said.
The lady went on to ask how many priests had taught there in my time. Upon hearing that a then-tiny parish high school of 180 students had had five full-time priests, she expressed disgust that the same school of over 600 students today had not a single full-time priest for her four sons. My mother smiled and said, “Maybe one of your boys will become a priest and eventually be assigned to Saint Joe’s.”
“God forbid,” came the swift response. “I want my sons to have a real life.”
“So,” my mother replied, “it’s fine for my only child to become a priest, and it’s important to have priests teaching your children, but you don’t want any of yours to make the sacrifice?”
I think you see what I mean. Vocation recruitment is the responsibility of everyone in the Church, with all cooperating according to their specific abilities and states in life. When that is an ecclesial fact of life, our problem will not be a vocations shortage, but a vocations surplus.
Finally, love your priests, and let them know it. It disturbs me greatly to find a growing anti-clericalism among some folks, many of whom we might label as “conservatives.” Having been frequently identified as a “conservative” myself, I feel a bit free to comment here. I know some of you have been awfully disappointed in recent years when some of us priests have let so many of you down, either through bad example, lack of charity, or liturgical shenanigans.
Following St. John Paul’s example in Dominicae Cenae, I would like to apologize for anything you have suffered, anything that has scandalized you, anything that has made your own attainment of holiness more arduous. But love has the incredible capacity to change men’s minds and hearts. Aim for that.
Speaking of Saint Thérèse, she comprehended this completely which she declared, “love can only be repaid by love.” Never get drawn into a stance vis-à-vis the priesthood which flies in the face of our most deeply held theological and spiritual principles. Anti-clericalism is just a form of anti-Catholicism. If anything, make a conscious effort to love your priests and to let others know that you do so. Greet priests on street when you see them, as you would Christ. Remember them on their name-days and anniversaries. This would gladden the heart of our young nun who had such an over-powering love for every alter Christus.
Saint Thérèse not only prayed for the sanctification of priests herself, but exhorted her novices to make that the principal object of their prayers, too. Indeed, the Little Flower offered her very last Communion for a priest who had abandoned his holy vocation. As we proceed to Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, would you consider making the sanctification of every priest the intention of your adoring prayer this evening? That would truly put you in the spirit of our little Saint and be a proper honor to your holy memory.
Saint Thérèse, model of the “little way” and lover of the Sacred Priesthood, pray for us that we and all our priests may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Editor’s note: This reflection is excerpted from a sermon delivered by Father Stravinskas for the parish mission of Little Flower Church in Memphis on October 2, 2020.
[Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News]