G. K. Chesterton, in his autobiography, described the “morbid and degrading task of telling the story of my life.”
I can truly think of nothing more morbid than writing one’s life story, except perhaps attending a session of the North Korean parliament.
However, as I celebrated the 23rd anniversary of my priesthood this past Sunday, my thoughts inevitably went (and go) back to lessons learned, mistakes made, and growth achieved. I presume married couples as they approach significant anniversaries do the same — certainly they must reflect on the fact that they are not the same people who first “pledged their troth,” as the old rite of matrimony used to say.
The first, and most important, lesson learned is the realization that I did not know much about being a priest when I was first ordained. (Thank you, you might say, for that lesson in the blindingly obvious.) Unfortunately, as in many careers, perhaps also in marriage, that life lesson might not be as obvious as we might imagine.
It is truly a miracle of grace, for which thanksgiving is the only appropriate response, that I can celebrate 23 years of trying to be faithful.
One thing is for certain: Apart from a tiny minority of courses, the seminary — all six years of it — was of little or no help for the actual day-to-day life of the priesthood. Far more useful, I see now with the benefit of hindsight, was the “spiritual year” some dioceses have instituted, in my case a novitiate year with no television and only two family visits during the year.
I studied in the last days of the “craziness” in the seminaries, with professors disappearing to get married, homosexual seminarians running off with each other, and the last gasp of those who wanted a revolutionary “new church,” which they believed the Second Vatican Council really intended. Unsurprisingly, a very large number of those ordained around the time I was have now left the priesthood and are in all sorts of unions, none of them particularly civil. It is truly a miracle of grace, for which thanksgiving is the only appropriate response, that I can celebrate 23 years of trying to be faithful.
I made many mistakes, however — and the need to “grow into the priesthood,” as in marriage, is something we do not always value in the current climate, with newly ordained men almost immediately finding themselves running parishes. Another key lesson, which took a few years to learn, was the need to preach the fullness of the faith; the great German bishop of the Nazi era, Blessed Clemens von Galen, had an episcopal motto. His line, “Nec laudibus, nec timore,” or “Not for praise, nor out of fear,” became the mantra for my preaching.
So many priests, more “in persona Jimmy Kimmel” than “in persona Christi,” are concerned with crowd-pleasing and personal popularity, and with giving their own opinion. As someone once said to me, “Who cares about your opinion? You weren’t ordained to give us your opinion, but to preach the truth.” Lesson learned!
It has also taken nearly 23 years to realize a priest has only one duty (again, apologies for those who see the obvious) — and that is to help his flock become holy. It is not about meetings, programs, paperwork — which, for every priest today, is a little delicious foretaste of the purgatory to come. It is all about spiritual paternity, fatherhood and “fathering,” which is why a priest’s title is so profoundly important.
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In the year after I was ordained, I spent a few days on the coast of Normandy with an old friend and her family. Her grandfather, the patriarch of the extended family gathered for the summer, was a doctor in his 80s. I will never forget the first time this elderly gentleman — and he was a gentleman — called me “mon Pere.” I was slightly embarrassed. Now I know that whatever my age, he was exactly right and knew who and what I was; it was for me to learn what being “Father” meant. As my friend, the wise and learned Father George Rutler, once wrote, “When a priest puts on the stole, he becomes 2,000 years old.”
Spiritual paternity — being a father who struggles to lead his parish or the people he serves to holiness — demands the deep conviction that it is the sacramental life of the church that is really important. The celebration of the Mass, with beauty and reverence, is, in reality, the core of priestly ministry. Well-prepared preaching, which both “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted,” will — when judgment day comes for the priest — have infinitely more value than administration, important as it is.
Similarly, it is an anomaly, and as St. John Paul wrote, needs to be seen as an anomaly and not “the way it now is,” for a priest, a “father,” to have more than one family. The Catholic Church has yet to embrace polygamy; perhaps the next Synod called by Pope Francis will “re-examine” the question — anything is possible these days. I am sure His Eminence Cardinal Kasper would encourage “dialogue” on the matter; but with priests being burdened with two or three parishes, it has certainly embraced the principle of polygamous fathers!
With that, the priest becomes a sacramental minister, running between locations — and “family life,” or parish life in this case — becomes a mirror image of the decaying culture, with an absentee father. Will this mean the closure of some parishes that are no longer vibrant? If the Eucharist and spiritual paternity are central, it is unavoidable.
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Some time ago, Pope Francis spoke of the priesthood. He reminded people the priest is not a functionary — what he “does” is because of what he “is,” not the other way around. Pope Francis said, first and foremost, that the priest “sanctifies” the faithful — he helps them become holy, through the sacraments. He added that the priest “blesses, comforts and evangelizes.” Etymologically, the word “comfort” means to “strengthen greatly” — by speaking the truth in love, by encouraging virtue, and by not “cheapening grace,” to paraphrase Bonhoeffer.
What are the people called to do for their priests? Pope Francis answered that question in his simple yet profound style. The people — “Father’s parishioners,” whether they like him or not — are called to “embrace your priests, to protect them, and to help them.”
Two of those things are rather obvious, although many conspicuously fail in both regards; but what about “embracing” your priests? Although an effusive Latin American, the pope is not talking about a daily hug, nice as it is. Once again, etymology helps us, since to “embrace” means to “include something as an integral part or element of a whole.” If a priest really is “mon Pere” — the “Father,” embracing him really means acknowledging his fatherhood and not just his function.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.