The Great Gift of the Priesthood, The Anchor, July 10, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
July 10, 2009

A few years ago, as I was preaching at the first Mass of Thanksgiving of a newly ordained priest, I made reference to a quotation of the Curé of Ars that, prior to my ordination, filled me with awe and reverence and, after my ordination, filled me with trembling. The homily was on the gift and mystery of the priesthood and the citation from the patron saint of priests illustrated in radical terms just how important the priest is in the salvific plan Jesus established.

“Go and confess to the Blessed Virgin or to an angel,” St. John Vianney began. “Will they absolve you? Will they give you the body and blood of Our Lord? No, the Blessed Virgin cannot make her divine Son descend in the host. Even if you had two hundred angels there with you, they could not absolve you. A priest, no matter how simple he may be, can. He can say to you: go in peace, I forgive you.”

Soon after the Mass, a consecrated woman sent me a long email lambasting me for using the quotation. Even though she did not dispute the truth of the saint’s words and said that she did not believe that either my or Vianney’s intention was to exalt the priest above the Mother of God and the celestial choirs, she was outraged that I would choose to cite it. The last thing the Church needed, she asserted, was to focus on the unique ministry of priests and on what makes priests different — not even at a priest’s first Mass.

A lengthy correspondence ensued. I tried to understand how a Catholic whose faith had led her to consecrate herself to Christ as his mystical bride could be so volcanically upset at the mere mention of the unique sacramental powers and responsibilities Christ has entrusted to his priests. Over the course of our email exchanges, she confessed that she was embarrassed and even ashamed of the priesthood. When I probed why, she was honest enough to acknowledge that there were fundamentally two reasons: first, she thought that any mention of the importance of the priesthood was essentially a relegation of women to second class status in the Church, since only men can be ordained; second, she thought that a “high theology” of the priesthood would only go to priests’ heads and facilitate the worst of clericalism, when priests and bishops, in contrast to Jesus’ example and instructions, try haughtily to “lord” their status over others and seek to be served rather than to serve. She admitted that part of her hostility toward a “high” notion of the priesthood came precisely because some priests had treated her condescendingly over the course of her consecrated life.

I’m sad to say that I was unsuccessful in patiently trying to help her to address the underlying issues that jaundiced her view of the ministerial priesthood. I’m even sadder that she ended up abandoning the consecrated life.

My correspondence with this woman comes to mind not just because I pray for her often but also because I have been witnessing in certain places reactions to the Year of the Priesthood similar to her response several years ago to my citation of St. John Vianney. For various reasons, some are uncomfortable with the Church’s giving a year’s worth of attention to the priesthood and especially with Pope Benedict’s emphasizing as a model for all priests a figure like the Curé of Ars, who had such a high notion of the importance of the priesthood in the life of the Church and in the salvation of believers. Some think that it is imprudent, counterproductive and perilous to stress the priesthood in an age when they say the Church needs to prioritize encouraging lay people to take full responsibility for their own essential role in the life of the Church. Others fear a return of clericalism, especially if too much emphasis is given to what is most distinctive about the ministerial priesthood, namely his ability to do what no other creature in the universe can: by the power of the Holy Spirit, change bread and wine into Jesus Christ and absolve sins in God’s name. For those reasons, many would prefer to keep the Year of the Priesthood “low-key,” lest anyone at all take offense. They would prefer to focus on those aspects of the priestly life — like priestly service to the poor and needy — that are totally uncontroversial and universally admired.

But this is, wisely, not what Pope Benedict is doing. He recognizes that in the midst of a world that has to a great extent lost a sense of the sacred, the last thing that is needed is to focus on the horizontal dimension of priestly service without grounding it in the even more important vertical dimension of the worship of God. In the life of a priest as well as a believer, the love of God must precede the love of neighbor. Otherwise the priest risks being just a good man and not a man of God.

For this reason, in the first few weeks of the Year of the Priesthood, Pope Benedict has returned repeatedly to the meaning of priestly consecration; how, like Christ, a priest’s “ontological-sacramental identity” and “evangelizing mission” are inseparable; how every priest’s mission depends “above all on the awareness of the sacramental reality of his ‘new being,’ … on the certainty of his personal identity, which is not artificially constructed, but rather given and received freely and divinely”; how “the objective of every priest’s mission is ‘cultic,’ so that all people can offer themselves to God as a living host, holy and pleasing to Him.” The priest’s very being has been changed by God, in other words, precisely so that he can serve others by leading them to make their whole life a Mass, a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God.

The Pope — and, therefore, the Church — is placing this emphasis on the cultic identity and purpose of the priesthood precisely because, as the Holy Father said during a June 24 audience, “in a world in which the customary outlook on life comprehends less and less the sacred, and in its place ‘useful’ becomes the only important category, the catholic — and even ecclesial — idea of the priesthood can run the risk of being emptied of the esteem that is natural to it.”

Many in the desacralized modern world look at the liturgy and the sacraments as nothing more than aesthetic or affective experiences, and hence judge the priesthood solely on the basis of the “usefulness” of priest’s service to those in material need. His service to God, his cultic identity and mission, are considered useless; and a priest who stresses his cultic identity and mission is deemed not just useless, but harmful, distracting people by pseudo-spiritual opiates from what they deem the only salutary purpose of religion, service of neighbor. Pope Benedict in this Year of the Priesthood wants to correct this erroneous notion, and show how a priest’s principal service — leading the faithful to offer their whole lives with him to the Father through Christ — is precisely what will spur them to a love of neighbor that goes beyond the mere alleviation of their material needs.

“Here the teaching and example of St. John Mary Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference for us all,” the Pope wrote on June 18 in his letter to begin the Priestly Year. “The Cure of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: ‘A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy,’ precisely because he can bring God to them and them to God.

This is a year in which all of us are called to grow in appreciation of — and cease being apologetic about — this great treasure and most precious gift.