The Dignity of the Priesthood
Brothers and Sisters welcome to a new formation year. This year we begin on a somber note. As we know, last Sunday, in the very early hours of the morning, our two brothers, Fr. Jorge Gomez and Stanley Kariuki were killed in an accident in Tulsa. They were returning from a Knights of Columbus mass and dinner when their car was struck sidelong by a driver running a red light. They died at the scene. I am sure that neither of them imagined that that drive would be their last journey on this earth. I am sure that as they drove along they spoke of what would happen that Sunday morning in the parish where they were both assigned. I am sure that their conversations were filled with plans and expectations. I am sure that they spoke of Stanley’s return to Saint Meinrad This weekend. I am sure that they never anticipated death. I am equally sure that they were prepared to meet their ends. They were prepared to do so because they believe in Christ, they had given their lives already to the mystery of his dying and rising. They had promised themselves to eternity. For us, their violent encounter with the paschal mystery renews our conviction that in the midst of life, death is always lurking. Undoubtedly there is sadness for us as we begin this year. We will miss Stanley’s presence among us. He was a sweet, mild mannered man. We will miss Jorge and we mourn the promise of service unfulfilled. I can never forget the enthusiasm of his hometown on the day of his ordination. It would be easy to assign their untimely deaths to the providence of God. I think that is too easy for what we are feeling. I do not know why these two vibrant, enthusiastic young men died. I know I will miss them. I also know that in the shadow of loss comes the bright promise of the future. Today our new students, our returning students, our faculty and staff come together in the life of this community. We come full of hope, energy and desire to serve Christ in his Church. We are the resurrection to our own cross. We come at a time of loss but our only hope is for gain. In these coming days we have the opportunity to present to one another the authentic nature of the dying and rising of Christ, a dying and rising we are now experiencing in the very fiber of our being.
When our late Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II called for a “new evangelization” and when our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI renewed that call, I believe first and foremost they are asking for a re-evangelization of the Church, a renewal at the heart of the Church that will announce the Good News in fresh ways, internally, making the Holy Church a more effective instrument in carrying that same Good News to the ends of the earth as mandated by the evangelical charge of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. How do we announce a new evangelization for a seminary, a community already steeped in a climate of the quickening of discipleship and filled, hopefully with those already fully committed to the challenging, yet eternally rewarding work of announcing the presence of the Kingdom? Perhaps it can only be accomplished by going back to the basics.
In my rector’s conferences this year, I would like to focus on the gift of vocation. All of us have received a call from God. For some of us that call has been tested and tried by years of prayer and engagement with the Body of Christ. For some that call is still in the process of being formed. For others, it may be experienced as yet as a faint and ephemeral attitude of faith. However we experience the call of God in our lives, that call is a gift, one that is instilled in us by an act of Divine Grace, Divine Mercy.
I would like to begin my reflection today by asking a simple question: Why are you here? I ask that question of all of us, and to each of us in a particular way. I ask it of our seminarians, both our new men and those who have returned this year to continue the journey of formation to which they have been called and to which they have already given so much. Men, why are you here? I ask it of our faculty and staff, you, men and women who have devoted your careers and your lives for the formation of priests, lay ministers and deacons for the life of the Church. Faculty and staff, why are you here? Why are we here in this new formation year to engage the process of priestly formation, that leviathan struggle that at times buoys us up like the hull of a great ship riding the titanic waves of personal and communal triumph and at times weighs upon us with the fearsomeness of the unfathomable depths of that same abyss? Why are we here when it seems that every time we pick up a newspaper or access our usual website for news of the world, the priesthood is under attack? What do we hear? The Church, now throughout the world, continues to be embroiled in sexual scandals among its priests. Stories of abuse, many of them decades old continue to emerge from the shadows of memory and shame, continue to haunt both victims and perpetrators. We read likewise of the covering up of these crimes, the what seems like complete disregard for the pain of those who have suffered so wantonly at the hands of those very men who should have protected their innocence from the violent maw of the wolf. I continue to be shocked, I think we all must continue to be shocked, that after two decades of legislation both within and outside the Church, these scandals continue to emerge. I continue to be shocked, I think we all must continue to be shocked at the toll these scandals take. The toll is the very credibility of the Holy Church. The price is a lack of confidence in its leaders. The cost is a net of wide suspicion cast across the path of the innocent. And there is more. We regularly encounter other kinds of scandalous behavior, the misuse of funds, the abuse of power, the heavy handed leadership that robs our Holy Church of its trustworthiness as an expression of the love of God in the world. There are those who claim that the priesthood has been robbed of its dignity and I have more than a little confidence that these claims at least as some level are true.
What is the dignity of the priest? What should it be? What is the character of the priest? What is the priest as an agent? These questions are complex and not often asked in our Church and in the world today. For some they are questions whose answers are already laden with what is called clericalism because they point to a uniqueness in the priesthood. Questions about the nature of the priesthood point to the priest as one set apart, both ontologically and literally for a service that cannot be gainsaid because it is the service of God. First, the priest is a unique character. Part of the difficulty we face in the holy priesthood today is a lack of perception of this uniqueness. In a highly democratized culture, uniqueness in any form is ironically undervalued. Our social and political conditioning continues to remind us of that axiomatic “truth” that all men are created equal. While that is true at one level, it is also dangerous to hold that we should never expect in our cultural milieu anything encouraging genius, artistic achievement, and in the long run, real leadership. Often in our cultural environment we receive mixed messages. We are told simultaneously that we can achieve whatever we set our minds to, but to not aim above the commonplace. Thus we have created a cultureless culture, a bland suburban intellectual landscape in which all expressions of higher thought and transcendental values are seen as elitist and un-democratic. It was in this vein that Plato insisted that democracy lived in the extreme is next to anarchy. These are lofty reflections. Let us bring the case a little closer to home. In our daily lives, how do we encourage young people who find themselves a bit “different” from the pack? How do we highlight (or denigrate) true talent when we encounter it? The origins of our cultural perspective in this country is a thoroughgoing empiricism, an earthboundedness, a utilitarianism in which heart and mind are not encouraged to soar, but to produce and be useful in a very narrow sense. And yet such downward gazing is against our nature. Within each of us is that spark of divinity that seeks the stars, the longs for something beyond the practical, that yearns for truth, beauty and goodness expressed in a kind of divine superfluity. We long for heaven but the heavy yoke of social and cultural expectation keeps our eyes firmly focused in the dirt of the gutter. Jesus Christ encourages us to exchange that yoke for his own, a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light. The yoke of discipleship allows us to look upward to the stars. It engages us to transcend the fixed root of where we are and dream. It restores our human dignity destroyed by the sin of Adam. What did the Lord prescribe for Adam in the event of the fall? Until the advent of the Messiah, his lot was to be labor, toil, drudgery and exile from the vision of the empyrean heights. With Christ there is now hope for a greater dignity in the human condition and yet we continue to saddle ourselves with the adamantine burden of our first parents, our lax father and mother who has themselves been freed from the burden set in motion through thier disobedience. Where do we stand in Christ? In Christ we are free. As St. Paul reminds us in the letter to the Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians, 5,1). In the light of such a promise, how is it that humanity can continue to reject the message of the Gospel and return to its imprisoned condition in the earth like a dog to its own vomit? Christ has made us free and if by any act of will we continue to wear the yoke of slavery, then we have damaged the dignity wrought for us in the saving act of the cross. We have an inherent dignity in Christ. Now we must realize it. All of us are set apart in Christ, for God. Now we must manifest it. If all are set apart, there is a new democracy. Now we must make it real. If we are to make it real, we must be lead into this new promised land. And who is the Joshua who can take a desert bedraggled people into that Christian freedom flowing with milk and honey? It must be the priest, the Joshua, the other Jesus. Christ has prepared for us an unhoped-for dignity and he has called priests to serve his people. Thus the priest is set apart by his character as a baptized person, and by his call to lead and inspire others. He has been given a particular gift to enrich the world. He has not been given that gift to enrich himself or to create for himself a position in opposition to those from whom he has been called.
What does the priest do? What can he do? The priest is called to service leadership and cultic leadership. Service leadership for the sake of cultic leadership. The priest leads by confecting the Eucharist in the exercise of his unique power. The priest makes the Church in the confecting of the Eucharist. What is the Eucharist? It is a covenant, the presence of Christ on earth in a mystical extension of the earth-shattering event of the Incarnation. It is the Christus prolongatus, the prolonged event of Christ. The presence of Christ, the continual presence of Christ ensures that the dignity spoken of above is maintained in the world. The Eucharist makes the Church and thus is the full manifestation of the new condition of humanity. The Eucharist is the source of human success in its striving to touch the transcendent, to grasp the things of heaven in a way the icarian pretense of human pride could not. If the priest is set apart in Holy Orders from all the others who have been set apart in Baptism, his status is for service in the cultic action of the constitutive Eucharist. Like Joshua, the priest fights against the citadels of the compromised expectations of our condition and opens the gates of grace, not for his own sense of victory but to feed a hungry people left to wander the desert. The priest has a dignity that is manifested in his willingness to fight for the people, even as Joshua railed against the walls of Jericho, even as Christ fought, all the way to Calvary. The priest has a dignity that is bound up with the fate of the people. The priest has a dignity that is directed always over the shoulder to encourage a people moving forward freed from the burdens of the earth. The priest has a dignity that is not his own, a dignity that rightly belongs to Christ. The priest has a dignity that is always emptying itself like the breast blood of the pelican to give life to others. The priest has a dignity rooted in sacrifice. The priest has a dignity that bridges the fully human and the fully divine. The priest has a dignity that carries the people on his shoulders so that they can have a better look of that rich valley, that promised land that God has called us to in calling us his sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in our dear Lord, Jesus Christ. The priest has a dignity that serves as a living icon of that dignity to which we are all called. The priest has a dignity that is not his own. The priest is not his own. The priest is for God and the priest is for us.
When we examine the condition of the holy priesthood today, we must say that in its character, in its essence there is no compromise to the priesthood. The priesthood today is what Christ realized it to be in the institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders on the night he was betrayed. The priesthood, in essence, is what it is and its inherent dignity is complete and inviolate. The perception of the dignity of the priest is another story. The essence of the priesthood is safeguarded by the matter and form of the sacrament and the assurances of apostolic succession. The perception of that dignity, however, is undoubtedly compromised. What, or perhaps, who has compromised the perception of the dignity of the priesthood? It is true that this perception has been assailed in the pretensions of an overweening media-saturated culture. But let us not place the blame completely out there. The loss of respect experienced by the priesthood is not only the product of persecution, it is the product of our own folly. What compromises the dignity of the priesthood? First, I would say a lack of personal character on the part of priests. All of us are the products of our environment. Many of us have been raised in a highly commercialized culture in which we were told that we can have everything. We cannot. The character of the priest is dependent upon his ability to understand his nature, his function and his place in the social order. The character of the priest is compromised when he tries to have his cake and eat it too. It is compromised when he remains with one foot in the world of the so-called “secular” and another in the sacred. It is compromised when it fails to reach its true potential in Christ because the priest is engaged in other activities which begin to take precedence over his life of prayer and service. The character of the priest is compromised when he fails to accept completely who he is, when he tries to hold on to that which is not priesthood. It is compromised when he tries to live an ontological lie, when he brackets in any way his essence for the convenience or pleasures inherent in not bearing the heavy responsibilities of the priesthood. Let me give some more concrete examples. The priest is compromised when he is lazy. Laziness is a trait that has to be overcome in a serious way because we live in a culture of leisure. It is a false leisure. All of us have the necessity, I would say the responsibility to recreate in the truest sense of the word. That is not the question. Laziness is doing what I need to do to get by and nothing more. It is fulfilling obligations at the bare minimum in order to do what I want to do. The lazy priest rushes from Mass in order to catch the game or his show. The lazy priest abandons the confessional to do something fun. The work ethic in our culture has been severely compromised by the cult of leisure. We work not to fulfill a mission but to have the resources to spend on having fun. Laziness overwhelms the priest, making him a mere functionary. God can use the mere functionary character of his priesthood, but at what price to his own dignity and at what cost to his reputation. The lazy priest makes excuses not to go to the hospital, the nursing home, not to make communion calls. He “says” mass. He gets homilies off the internet. He gives lip service to his responsibilities so he can do what he wants. The lazy priest is no leader. Neither is he a follower. He is a lounger and thus compromises the dignity of which he is possessed. The lazy priest holds the treasure of his priesthood in a reclining chair. Then he wonders why no one shows him the proper deference due his office. After all, he has sacrificed so much to be a priest.
The perception of the dignity of the priest is compromised also by crudeness. This can take several forms. One is poor hygiene and poor grooming. The priest looks slovenly and then protests that his appearances is the result of a commitment to evangelical poverty. This is nonsense. While we may reject the Wesleyan axiom that cleanliness is next to godliness, cleanliness is respectful. I show respect for the people I meet by appearing clean-shaven and not reeking of body odor. Crudeness can also take the form of impropriety of speech. The use of crude and shocking language is not prophetic, it is ignorant. It demonstrates a lack of humanity, particularly when it is directed to a sexually-exploitative purpose. No one can take the celibate commitment of a priest seriously when he is continually using foul language and telling off-color jokes. Refinement of speech is not un-manly, it is human.
Another way in which the perception of the priesthood is compromised is a lack of professionalism. Some priests believe that because of their missionary character, they should not be held to the same standards of practice as other professionals. They can dress in a careless manner. They can make and break appointments. They can be late for meetings. They can fail to show up all together. The priest believes that he will be forgiven and, of course, many times he is. The unprofessional priest is also unreliable as a leader. He is not respected by his parishioners or by his peers. While the rules of the professional world and its standards are not the end of the priest’s life, they are certainly a means by which he gains credibility. A lack of professionalism in the priest is not a sign of inspiration, it is a sign of disdain for those around him. Like the rules of etiquette, professional behavior is essential for the common good. It facilitates the mission.
Another means of compromising the inherent dignity of the priesthood is the expression of an anti-intellectual bias. A number of years ago, I was speaking to a group of priests about the Second Vatican Council. We were having a discussion of the various documents and the way in which those documents had been realized in the decades since the council. After the conference, one of the priests came up to me laughing to himself and confessed that he had never read a document of the council and that he operated on pastoral instinct. I told him that I felt sorry for his parishioners. Sometimes, even in the seminary we can be caught up in a kind of cultural anti-intellectualism. We wonder, even aloud, about the necessity of the study that we undertake here for our future pastoral engagements. I say, if you do not take your studies seriously, even if you are not the best student, if you do not take seriously the need to know the teachings of the Church and the Tradition, I say I hope to God you never have any parishioners to inflect your opinions upon. The damage wrought by the material heresy of well-meaning, anti-intellectual priests is real and devastating to the fabric of the Body of Christ. The cavalier attitude that some priests take toward doctrine is not only shocking, it is sinful. As priests, we bear a tremendous responsibility for the orthodoxy of the Christian people and that orthodoxy cannot be of our own construction. It must be forged and forged hard at the anvil of the Church’s intellectual life, a life to which all of us, no matter our native talents, have access. One manifestation of this anti-intellectual attitude is cultural narrowness. A cultural perspective that is woven together from distended threads of popular music, the internet, social networking, commercial television etc. is not likely to weave a tapestry of inspiration. A cultural bias that is earthbound is not going to offer us the opportunities for cultivating such practicalities as a celibate life or a literate imagination for preaching and teaching. It is a commonplace in our society to disdain higher culture. We scoff at those who care about art, music, literature and theater. We laugh at the pretensions of those who seek the things that are above. And yet, it is these things that have the potential to unite us as a people by appealing to our better selves whereas the manifestations of a low fanciful culture merely reinforce the self-gratification and selfishness that tear at the fiber of the Body of Christ. The dignity of the priesthood is compromised by too close an identification with popular culture. We think that “being in touch” with the world is inspirational to our youth. I would suggest that familiarity breeds contempt and that young people are more often inspired by alternatives to the dead end culture that surrounds them.
Another means by which the perception of the dignity of the priesthood is jeopardized is a lack of engagement with the spiritual life. An old adage in the world of formation is that after ordination, the prayer life is the first thing to go. Outside of the structures of seminary life, the priest simply cannot find the time or the energy to pray. We make excuses for neglecting the breviary and the holy hour. We live into falsehoods such as: “my work is my prayer”. We discover all of a sudden that we are burnt out and the pastoral life has little meaning. Why should it if we have discarded the essential relationship with God expressed in prayer that gives meaning to our pastoral engagement. We fool ourselves if we do not think prayer is the key to priestly life and service. We fool ourselves here if we are not convinced that a dedication to prayer is the most important thing for me to do. We fool ourselves if we believe that people do not know when we no longer pray, when our spiritual life is not only dry but dead. We compromise the dignity of the priesthood when we continue to present ourselves as that bridge between heaven and earth and fail to acknowledge that the bond has been broken by our lack of prayer.
We also endanger the dignity of the priesthood when we refuse to accept responsibility for the pastoral mission to which we have been called. This can take several forms. One is a refusal to accept the unique role of the priest as leader, servant leader to be sure, but leader and to align ourselves to an unserviceable egalitarianism. Another way is to fail to engage the work of God in a particular place because I am constantly looking forward to the next, seemingly better place. It is amazing to me how many of our young clergy today are ordained for the transitional priesthood and refuse to take their place in the vineyard of the Lord in the expectation that some better venue will soon be opening. It is amazing to me how many young priests today are willing to sacrifice their name and indeed their souls by stepping on the backs of lower men to rise to the top of chancery officialdom in some of the poorest dioceses in the country. The obverse of this refusal to accept responsibility is rank clericalism. I use this expression rank clericalism intentionally. An authentic clerical spirit recognizes the uniqueness of the vocation and accepts the responsibility that that uniqueness necessitates. Rank clericalism claims privilege without responsibility. Rank clericalism is more about the dress than the service. Rank clericalism insists upon respect without offering. Rank clericalism is all about the look of the thing and nothing about the substance of the thing. Rank clericalism legislates according to tastes. Rank clericalism exercises power without consultation. This kind of clericalism destroys perceptions of the dignity of the priesthood by being all about me.
Brothers and sisters, are we not aware of these issues? Have we not witnessed the daily damage done by those whose callous disregard for the dignity of the priesthood calls all of our credibility into question? Today we face a mighty challenge, but a worthy one. How do we restore the dignity of the priesthood? In my closing conference last year, I commented on the ordination rite and described the dignity of the priesthood in these words:
It is the dignity of a human person fully alive insofar as the human personality of the priest forms a living bridge to service. In the central part of the Rite of Ordination, we rise from the dirt of the ground to the company of the angels in the dignity of the priesthood. Here we might do well to remember the sacramental act that brought us into the wonder of discipleship, our baptisms. In baptism we hear these words with the presentation of the white garment the outward sign of your invisible dignity. Bring it unstained into the wedding banquet of eternal life. This is true dignity, the dignity for which we prepare, after which we strive in this house of formation, this seedbed of God’s generosity. It is the dignity of a man inebriated by ceaseless prayer, whose calling is always beyond. It is the dignity of a man of keen intellect who knows well the masterful story of the Church’s great intellectual tradition. It is the dignity of a man who knows himself and is not afraid of himself. It is the dignity of a man who does not fear the sexual energy that God has given him, that relational energy that allows him to have profound, holy contact with others. It is the dignity of a man who does not shy away from others, is not threatened by others but embraces others as brothers and sisters. It is the dignity of a man of culture, a man who has lifted his gaze from the gutters of the ephemeral and raised it to the transcendent to that which carries him beyond his little lot. It is the dignity of a man who has realized that the only greatness in any man is the ability to make those around him, the poor, the lonely, the outcast, to make them feel great. It is the dignity of a man whose clarity of vision is such that he can see the arch of heaven in the threatening jaws of an earthly hell. It is the dignity of a complete man whose completeness is augmented by the grace of a sacrament. It is the dignity of a man who will never take advantage of God’s people because he has been given something that they have not. The dignity to turn privilege to tireless service, the dignity to celebrate the sacraments with reverence in accord with the teachings of the Church and not seek to celebrate himself in celebrating God’s mysteries. It is the dignity of hope in a world of fatalism, joy in the face of disappointment, prayer in light of human failure, reconciliation in the wake of sin. It is the dignity of a man who can pick others up from out of their degradation their imprisonment to sin because he himself has felt countless times, witnessed in his own breast the powerful words of restoration: I absolve you. It is the dignity of a man who is as free in giving as he is grateful for what he has freely been given. It is the dignity of a man who would never embarrass another person, never purposefully cause harm, never put himself before the others. It is the dignity of a man who knows in the first instance not to call upon his own resources, but upon the name of Christ, the name of Mary, the names of the saints who washed over him as he lay prostrate in the dust. It is the dignity of a man who will walk the path until the end, who will live with integrity and die with holy beauty because, in the last instance, in the last breath he draws, after all the trials of life are over, after all the disappointments are reckoned, after all the hours of the Church’s endless round of prayers are recited, after all the shining consecrations are dimmed, after all the throes of this life have been overcome, he will find dignity in the arms of the Father and peace at the last because he was, until the temporal end true to who God called him to be eternally, a priest.
These lofty ambitions are not beyond our reach.
How do we understand the dignity of the priesthood? We might do well to look at the preface of the Eucharistic prayer for the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday:
Christ gives the dignity of a royal priesthood to the people He has made His own. From these, with a brother’s love, He chooses men to share His sacred ministry by the laying on of hands. He appointed them to renew in His name the sacrifice of redemption as they set before Your family His paschal meal. He calls them to lead Your holy people in love, nourish them by Your word, and strengthen them through the sacraments. Father, they are to give their lives in Your service and for the salvation of Your people, as they strive to grow in the likeness of Christ and honor You by their courageous witness of faith and love
In our desire to comprehend the dignity of the priesthood we might also turn to St. Paul, who shows us so eloquently how those configured in Christ are to exercise their ministry.
Brothers and sisters:
As your fellow workers, we appeal to you
not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.
We cause no one to stumble in anything,
in order that no fault may be found with our ministry;
on the contrary, in everything we commend ourselves
as ministers of God, through much endurance,
in afflictions, hardships, constraints,
beatings, imprisonments, riots,
labors, vigils, fasts;
by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness,
in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech,
in the power of God;
with weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left;
through glory and dishonor, insult and praise.
We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful;
as unrecognized and yet acknowledged;
as dying and behold we live;
as chastised and yet not put to death;
as sorrowful yet always rejoicing;
as poor yet enriching many;
as having nothing and yet possessing all things.
How is this not a plan to realize, in the expression of divine love the dignity of the holy priesthood?
What is attained by the pursuit of dignity? When we truly intend to express in our lives the dignity that is within the priesthood, there are inevitable results. The first is a sense of coherence. When we authentically seek our nature, there must follow a irenic sensibility that flows from that authenticity. As long as we continually try to live a double life, we will find no peace of mind. Then there is a sense of integration, of seeing the various components of our lives in tandem with our authentic baptismal vocations as followers of Christ. There is also in the expression of this dignity a kind of evangelical attractiveness, an ability to win souls for Christ through the example of our lives.
My dear brothers and sisters that is why we are here. We are here to win souls for God. We are here to express with joy and confidence that boundless blessing that has been bestowed on us through the redemptive act of Christ. We are here to give witness to the power of his cross. We are here to rejoice in the joy of his resurrection. We are here not to perpetuate the mistakes of the past, be those personal or communal but to learn from those mistakes for the sake of conversion, our conversion and the conversion of the souls entrusted to our care.
We are here to draw others into the glorious vision of heaven that we have received through our intimacy with God in a committed life of prayer
We are here to demonstrate the authentic dignity by which the glory of God is manifested in the person truly alive
Brothers and sisters, we are here to become saints, to see our lives, our mundane lives, our sinful lives drawn upward and upward to that full dignity of the saints.
All of us here bear the incredible responsibility of being more than the world, in its cynicism expects us to be. The future is in our hands. The future is in your hands.
And so I welcome you to a new formation year, a year of challenge, a year of expectation and a year of hope. Will we? Can we satisfy all of the demands imposed upon us, the responsibility incumbent upon us to restore the dignity of the priesthood? We will and we can with the help of God, his angels and his saints and in particular that exemplar of human dignity, the Theotokos and Blessed Virgin Mary upon whom we cast all our care.