Catholic priests are heroes to me. After the sacrifice and moral fiber of my own father in this earthly life, the spiritual fathers God has sent into my life have most inspired me to be a better man in my own vocation. I’ve gotten to know diocesan priests, Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Oratorians, Oblates of Wisdom, and Fathers of Mercy who served as pastors, confessors, bishops, administrators, teachers, theologians, tailors, gardeners, preachers, broadcasters, canon lawyers, authors, and friends. In all their variety, they all have had several things in common: all of them have adored Jesus, venerated Mary, who is the mother of priests, and all of them are flawed sinners just like me. These are imperfect but dedicated people, working on personal holiness and growing into their vocations as they lead their flocks. My experience has been nearly always positive, and it makes me cringe when I hear people single out their priests, spread scandal, and detract their reputations.
Whose Side Are We On?
When I hear snipes and quips about our blessed priests, it makes me wonder, “Just whose side are we on anyway?” Are we being other Christs, or are we somehow helping to do the work of the accuser, who always brings up our faults and tries to make us forget who we are? It’s not that I promote clericalism, or think that priests are somehow impeccable, beyond any reproach. Of course, there are situations in which crimes are committed, and the outing of such a betrayal is for the good of the community. Public crimes sometimes have public consequences. Thankfully, those events are few and far between, and are a different category than that which I am considering. My concern is with the ordinary situations, which require basic charity. It’s really a basic principle of the Christian life: treating others as we’d like to be treated, and forgiving in the same way we’d like the Father to forgive us. Christianity 101. Of all theChristians we encounter, shouldn’t this apply to our priests, from whom the graces of the cross flow to us in the sacraments? St. Paul says it well:
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11-13)
Raising Up the Priests of Jesus
Let me take a few paragraphs to share a few of my positive impressions of the priests I have known. I deeply respect these men and consider them heroes of the faith, heroic in their virtue and heroic in there bravery to preach the Truth. The positive interactions have outweighed the negative. These are impressions for which I am most grateful. It seems nobody ever tells their stories, so let me raise them up.
Nothing captures my attention more than the face of the priest during the consecration. Sometimes I am amazed at the look of near ecstasy on their faces as they gaze up to the Father and at the bread and wine during consecration. These priests are usually quite careful with the way they prepare the vessels, pour the wine, then bow to the deacon or servers. They tenderly break the host and place the particle in the chalice. The secret prayers are slowly whispered, and then a deep and reverent bow is made. There is no hurry. The words of the Eucharistic prayer, especially The Canon, are savored. All bow in unison with the priest when the hosts are placed back in reserve in the tabernacle. Not a particle or drop of the ablutions is lost on the corporal, and fingers are carefully washed with water, sometimes wine, over the chalice. The expression on the face of these holy men, and their silent prayers, say to me that they believe and that they care that we believe. They may never know how much this means to me – and how often watching this unfold has brought tears to my eyes and has deepened my faith. It’s a display of the temporal and eternal unfolding before my eyes, a veritable feast, and certainly not empty drama or show. I wonder if others have appreciated this, too.
There are a lot of scenes that live in my memory, small events that I cherish and which are graces to me in the spiritual life. Let me present a few of those to you. (A few I will leave anonymous to protect the humble dignity of the more identifiable priests.) I remember Fr. White, S.J. from my high school, a man’s man with the strong hands of a pottery teacher. He taught me the Memorare and the Suscipe in English Class, and wouldn’t let up until all of us had learned them. Fr. Bob, a retired Oblate of Mary Immaculate, blessed my St. Benedict Medal crucifix – the one I wear nearly every day. I remember him very tenderly cradling it, still dripping with holy water from the baptismal font, and kissing it. Fr. Bob commented that his brother had come down to help him pack for his new assignment as the only priest for hundreds of miles on a remote island in Alaska. He said, “All I own fits in a suitcase, but I was glad he was coming to see me. Maybe for the last time.” There was a Jesuit, a tough administrator, who saved me from being laid off, and made sure my family and I were taken care of. A diocesan priest, at his 25th Anniversary Jubilee Mass, said, “Peace be with you.” And the congregation, packed standing room only, said in return, “And with your spirit” with such emphatic supernatural spirit, that he had to pause for a moment to contain his emotion. I was so happy for him; it was such a victory for heroic, self-sacrificing priesthood that showed itself in the love of his congregation. I remember another priest, a monsignor in a crisp black cassock with purple piping and satin sash, with extended hands over the head of a father and husband who had dropped to his knees for a blessing. Quite moving. And I observed another monsignor, an elderly man with a magnificent mind who usually wore a faded clerical shirt and worn pants, wearing a magnificent red cassock for the visit of a bishop to celebrate the dignity of the day. Then he hid it under a chasuble and other vestments. (I just caught a glimpse.) The same priest who basically has nothing, pays to rehabilitate and employ needy people out of his own pocket, without a word said to anyone. And an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, giving a parish mission wearing a plain black cassock and a massive crucifix on a chain tucked into his belt. He blessed the attendees each night with that crucifix, and in my imagination I could see the Oblates who risked life and limb to preach to the Indians on the Great Plains. And a well-known Father of Mercy burning up the ambo preaching Truth, but soothing and quiet in the confessional. And another priest, a very holy and humble man, whom I overheard in a whisper offering to help a fundraiser make its goal out of his own empty pocket. These are some of the priests I have known and whom I hold close in memory and prayer.
Hearts and Hands of Christ
All of this reminds me that the hands and the hearts of these blessed men are configured to those of Jesus Christ, regardless of the circumstances around them. There’s a special dignity that the sacrament of Holy Orders confers. Let me share a magnificent story that was shared in another article, about St. Francis of Assisi:
The saint was close to the end of his life, unable to walk and suffering from an eye disease and the stigmata. As he was brought through a region, some people from a nearby town came to ask for his help with their parish priest. They had discovered that their priest was involved in a scandalous relationship with a woman of that town. The saint was brought to the town and placed before the priest in front of everyone. They thought that the saint would upbraid the fallen priest. St. Francis instead fell to his knees, took the priest’s hands into his own stigmatized hands, kissed them and said, “All I know and all I want to know is that these hands give me Jesus.” It was said that the priest was converted.
So when I hear people complain about the priests they have known, I can’t help but think of these good men I have known, and the impression they have made upon me. I see the attitude of the saints like St. Francis, and reflect upon their sacred role in our liturgies and in our daily lives. And I know that despite their special mark and vocation, they too are human and fail like me, and by grace rise again. I am certain they are under even greater assault by the Evil One, and endure the sneers of a secular world which hates them. They need my prayers even more than I need theirs. In a complementary way, they inspire me to want to configure my hands and heart to Christ in my vocation as a husband and father. And that’s the way it should be, in my estimation.
A Prayer for Priests
Heavenly Father, from whom all fatherhood originates, please bless our priests that they will serve with fidelity and fortitude and become truly holy. Give them the grace of perseverance in serving the faithful as “other Christs,” pouring themselves out for us in the Liturgy and in life. Extend this grace to earthly fathers, so that they as the priests of the domestic church may also be faithful and strong. May their example of holiness in caring for their wives and children inspire another generation of faithful, and call from among them priests to carry on the Church. We ask this through Jesus the Christ, through the intercession of St. Joseph, model father, and through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of All Priests, who crushes the head of Satan. Amen.
And may we never fail to appreciate the beautiful hearts and hands of our priests.