Saturday, June 18, 2011

Priests are Human Beings

I have been thinking today about those particular men in the Church we call priests. As a "lay theologian" since the days when it was not so common, I have known many priests. I wrote a book about priests in 1986. I studied as a layman in an ecclesiastical faculty, where most of my classmates were seminarians and priests, and my professors were priests. A number of my friends from various periods of my life became priests. I've stayed in rectories and religious houses. I've seen priests in their pajamas (which they put on one leg at a time like everybody else). When Eileen and I got married, nine priests concelebrated the wedding. They were friends, colleagues, former professors. I know Catholic priests. They are diverse in temperament and habits. They are beautifully and sometimes exasperatingly human. Catholic priests are men.

They are also men specially set aside by Jesus as instruments of His Priesthood. Jesus has willed to continue His Presence in the world in this hidden, mysterious, but nonetheless real and concrete way that we call "sacramental." The Priesthood of Jesus flows from His once-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the Cross, which He extends out through space and time, to every corner of the world and every age of history through the sacramental mystery of His Body and Blood, made present and offered by His ordained ministers through whom He acts.

Through their ministry of the Word, it is Jesus Christ who instructs, encourages, and guides us. Through their sacramental ministry it is Jesus Christ who baptizes, who forgives sins, who administers healing. The man who is ordained to Holy Orders gives his humanity and his personality over to Jesus, so that Jesus can continue to give Himself concretely to the world. This is what matters.

The priest need not be a man of extraordinary talent or charisma. The very nature of his vocation indicates that he should strive for holiness, but he does not need to be holy in order to be an instrument of Christ's sacramental grace. Perhaps he is a sinner or even a wicked man; even in this case, as long as he performs the rituals of the Church with the intention to do what the Church does, he confers the sacraments--Christ uses him to communicate Himself and His grace.

This mystery has nothing to do with any magical power or glittering, superstitious aura surrounding these particular men. It is part of Jesus's great guarantee to remain always with His Church. Catholic priests are truly men set apart by a special sacrament that configures them to Christ's priesthood. But they remain men. They remain vulnerable, insecure, troubled, struggling human beings. We know that there have been priests who have done terrible things, and for these things they must be held accountable like any other men, and even more, because of their betrayal of their vocation and the sacred trust that it should entail.

Then sometimes we are surprised to discover that priests of great intelligence, eloquence, energy, and compassion--inspiring and courageous priests--turn out to be flawed and complex men, imperfect men with limited energy, limited patience, or men who give in to the temptations of human weakness. Perhaps we should not be so surprised by this.

Priests are human beings. We know that. And we know what human beings are. They are weak.

The priesthood is a great and awesome vocation, and it brings with it abundant grace. It also brings challenges and trials and responsibility, and the graces that make priests holy in the midst of these circumstances are linked to our prayers and sacrifices.

So let us pray for our priests.

And then let us recognize a positive need of their humanity. They need friendship. No priest should be alone. Priests, be friends with one another. Support one another. Take care of one another. Leave no one alone. Put aside envy. Put aside ecclesiastical politics. Priestly and human solidarity and friendship: essential.

And we too should extend Christian and human friendship toward the priests who serve us and who we know. There is much we can do to express love and compassion and companionship for them, as individuals, families, and communities. We are meant to be part of that experience of the "hundredfold" of sons and daughters and brothers and sisters that Jesus has promised them even in this life, because they have followed Him in this very special way, in the service of the Church. Let us look at our priest and see the person, not just the administrator or the "boss" or even the hero who must always embody our ideals. Let us see this person, this special person consecrated by Christ. And let us be a strength to him, a support in the communion of the Church, and a source of joy.