Thursday, September 26, 2013

What ought we expect of men considering the priesthood?

La Santa Cena by Juan de Juanes
A friend recently asked me what sorts of qualities I would consider to be valuable in a priest, or what sort of things would lend a man towards becoming a priest, so I thought I might right a post on this topic. Lord, You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedech, grant us wisdom and an increase in vocations to the priesthood. At the outset I said to my friend he ought to be a man, a father, and a follower of Christ. I am inclined to add to my brief comments and of course state that he must be a pastor to the many sheep of the Church, acknowledging that he is also a sheep before God. There is much more to be said of the Catholic priesthood and I only have lightly tread into the deep theology of the Church’s wisdom on the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

It is a fearsome thing to become a priest or feel the desire to become a priest, but for all those who feel God’s call forward to serve them let them not say, “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!” (Jeremiah 1:6), but rather understand with the entire heart to Jesus’ words, “take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

A priest must be a man
When I say that a priest must be a man, I am not simply stating a matter of biology, but rather I mean to say that a priest must be a man of virtue, responsibility, and thoughtfulness. For practical purposes the priest is the chief representative of Jesus to the congregation, he is the spokesman of the Church. His journey is not an easy one, for a Catholic priest, as any other vocation, will face moments of uncertainty and loneliness for which his faith must be strong enough to push him forward through his vocation. He must exhibit dedication, patience, and wisdom. Surely all of these things are expected of a virtuous and strong priest, but we must also recognize that these things grow in time as one matures and strives forward, making mistakes and trying to learn from them.

In reality, however, to be a man is simple enough. In the parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus tells us: “…[If] you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matthew 17:20) A man can be strong and do many amazing things, but it is only the man who puts his faith in Christ who can move mountains, banish demons, and move Heaven and Earth to do the will of God. This is a Christian reality, and not one singularly attached to the priest.

A priest must be a father
There are some men who think that becoming a priest precludes the joy of having children, but this is a narrowness of thought in that the priest is the father of souls, he is not a father in a carnal way, but rather is the one who gives birth to the soul in Christ. It is the priest who baptizes the infant, the sinner, who places the sacred oils upon the head of all who are to be anointed into the Body of Christ. The priest is the man who brings each soul before God according to the ecclesial economy of salvation. It is the priest who comes to bring the sacrifice of the Eucharist, acting in the manner of Jesus Christ, who as St. John Chrysostom writes in his work On the Priesthood, brings down the fire of the Holy Spirit upon the sacred offerings and makes them into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest brings down spiritual food and provides for the welfare of the entire congregation, but he does this not by his own power but by the promises and authority of Christ. The priest is the father who counsels his sons and daughters when they have sinned and gone against the will of God. He does so prudently, sometimes with tenderness in the Sacrament of Penance, and sometimes through the vigorous rebuke for those who create scandal and schism (Jude 22-23: “To some you must give a hearing, and confute them; others you must pluck out of the fire, and rescue them; …”). And as every father who bears children hopes to see, the growth of each child unto spiritual maturity, as they undertake enter into Holy Matrimony, religious life, Holy Orders, or virtuous lay celibacy.

One might object however that a priest is never intended to be a father, as Jesus Himself rebukes, “Nor are you to call any man on earth your father; you have but one Father, and He is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9). Which is a fair objection, but the fatherhood of the priesthood is not a fatherhood over and against the will of God, for if it were, then the rebuke would be apt as no man can serve two masters. The biological father of a child participates also in God’s fatherhood in that he has participated in the act of creation of a new being, but he himself is not the ultimate and final Creator of that new being. The biological father is in a sense a true father, but in relation to God, he is the steward of God’s child, and must recognize that his prerogatives end where they contradict the will of God. Similarly, the priest is a spiritual father who is in a sense the true father of a congregant of the Catholic Church in that he baptizes in the name and will of God, but he too is a steward of God’s child, whose singular focus is the spiritual maturity of his spiritual child. His prerogatives end where they contradict the will of God. Both fathers however are to imitate and mirror God Himself as is seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

A priest must be a follower of Christ
It is clear that the priest must be a follower of Christ. His entire life is to emulate the entire priesthood of Jesus, as his own priesthood is the icon of Christ’s priesthood, in that his entire life is derivative and referential to Christ’s priesthood. As before, the priest’s priesthood is that participation in the sacrifice and service which Christ offered to the entire Church. The priesthood is not an office of service to the poor, it is not a post from which a man comes to speak his views on social justice, nor a post where a man goes on to rant his personal views on matters of Church doctrine. The priesthood is not an office of a cause. Many people in the world see the vocation as a calling towards a cause, an abstract idea to which they dedicate themselves to forwarding as part of their own passionate drive. The priesthood is not a devotion to a cause, but to a person. Not simply a person, but a Person. The priesthood is an office of devotion to Christ. All Christians are part of the royal priesthood, they participate in the Kingship of Christ by becoming coheirs with Him to an eternal inheritance. The priest however participates in a more particular way where he is charged with the love of the entire Body of Christ before him; all those congregants given to his care.

The priest’s central concern is Christ, it is not to be well loved by the congregants to teach them doctrines which itch their ears, but to truly be centered and directed to Christ. This does not exclude the needs of the congregants, for truly in order to truly love Christ a Christian must love his brother (“If a man boasts of loving God, while he hates his own brother, he is a liar.” John 4:20). The priest must be above the trends of society and be ready to proclaim the Gospel with his whole heart. This is a great difficulty, one in overcoming the desire to be well-loved which is natural, but also secondly to believe wholeheartedly the promises and word of God.

A priest must love his fellow man and allow himself to be a sheep to Christ
That is why a priest must be the Good Shepherd, who walks about the sheep to take care of them from wolves, or wolves in sheep’s clothing. Moreover, the priest must be ready to meet all those who stand at the horizon, the fringes, of the community, the Church community, reach out to their hearts, and bring that soul forward that he might come to encounter Christ and enter into Communion with God. This is especially true in modern days in the confessional where souls wander into mortal and grave sins which wreck the entire spiritual life and communion of the penitent. Is the priest willing to spend hours, days, months, years, caring for one sheep? It was worth it to Jesus to live His entire life and being for every single sheep. Can you emulate the example of Christ? How many sheep have been lost for those of us too timid and afraid to go far out into the wilderness, away from the confines of our comfort, to save a single sheep?

But the priest must also recognize that though he speaks as one with authority, as Jesus does, that he too is a sheep. Let him not forget that God will hold him accountable to his actions much the same as his neighbor. The dignity of the priesthood is not even one shared with the angels in Heaven, and so it is clearly a great responsibility. Let the man who wants to become a priest recognize himself as a sheep to Christ, abandoning himself to the love of God and gradually turn away from all worldly things to fall ever so much in love with the good Lord. Let him too understand that the bishop has lawful authority over a priest, that the priest might exhibit humility, which is the foundation of love.

For all those who are still afraid of the Catholic priesthood and the sacrifices that one must undergo, understand the words of holy St. John the Theologian, “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). Let your heart fall in love, and as any lover trusts his beloved with his whole life, so then trust God with your own. Love is like gravity, it can be fearsome how quickly one can fall, but sometimes the greatest feelings in love is when you are free-falling with the one you love.

That might explain why free fall gives you an adrenaline rush in your stomach, just as one feels butterflies in one’s stomach with one whom one loves. Que Dios les bendiga.

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