Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Dignity of the Priesthood

One of the things which I always noticed about my dear spiritual Father were his hands. My first reaction, when I was very young, was fear. They were huge, far larger than the hands of a man of his stature are ordinarily, but I soon came to realize that they were gentle. As I got to know him better, I came to see that they were not a source of fear, but that they were a conduit a grace and peace as I watched those hands bring Christ to people and people to Christ. They were used for the extraordinary as well as the mundane. The hands which brought the Eucharist and anointed the sick also washed dishes and dug in the garden. As his body grew weak, those hands were used more and more to steady himself. The hands which had given me every Sacrament grew bruised from injury, illness, and medical procedures, but even in his last days he used them to bring Christ to others. Finally, I saw those consecrated hands for the last time as they lay still: holding the rosary which he had prayed so often.

Today would have been my dear friend's 53rd anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. At his 50th anniversary the poem, "The Beautiful Hands of a Priest" was read and I would like to share it here.

The Beautiful Hands of a Priest

We need them in life's early morning,
we need them again at its close;
We feel their warm clasp of friendship,
we seek them when tasting life's woes.
At the altar each day we behold them,
and the hands of a king on his throne
Are not equal to them in their
greatness; their dignity stands all alone;

And when we are tempted and wander
to pathways of shame and sin,
It's the hand of a priest that will absolve
us----not once, but again and again;

And when we are taking life's partner,
other hands may prepare us a feast,
But the hand that will bless and unite
us is the beautiful hand of a priest.

God bless them and keep them all holy
For the Host which their fingers caress;
When can a poor sinner do better than
to ask Him to guide thee and bless?

When the hour of death comes upon us
may our courage and strength be increased.
By seeing raised over us in anointing the
beautiful hands of a priest!

Over the last week, I have come to realize that I love priests because I love Father, I love Father because I love Christ, and I love Christ because Father made him present to me.

It would seem impossible that anyone who claims to be a good Catholic could look at the funeral of a priest as an occasion to show disdain, but that is exactly what happened and it pained me greatly because of the disrespect it showed not only to this priest, but to all priests. The reason: Ordinary Form vs. Extraordinary Form. It was only one person, but it was a person who claims to love Christ and His Church, but who entered the Church during the wake clearly because he was forced to by his parents. See, he believes in the Extraordinary Form only. He looked at the body of the man, the whom he claims fed him politically correct fluff and was responsible for his poor catechesis as a child, and the priests in attendance with disgust - as though he thought himself superior to the clergy (who in his mind are clearly heterodox, if not heretics).

This man was young when Father left our parish, so it is likely that he never realized, or at least does not remember, the orthodoxy and fearlessness with which this priest preached the faith. He does not remember the fiddleback chasubles which, until I left my home parish, I thought were used at every church. He was unaware of the devotion with which which Father celebrated the Sacraments, his faithfulness and fidelity to his priestly commitment, his unwillingness to mess with the prayers of the Mass, and the self-empyting sacrifices he made for his parishioners, and his lifelong vocation which began when Father was a very young child. Instead, he only remembers the Charismatic Masses, the willingness to let his parochial vicars experiment with the "latest fads" which were sure to engage the young people (most of which would cause Father to roll his eyes as he declared them as insipid), and his deep desire to engage the laity in parish ministry and the life of the Church. I have heard many traditionally minded Catholics describe Father as being soft. "He should have been tougher", "he should have refused Sacraments to those he deemed unworthy", "he should have put his foot down unweildingly and made it clear that he didn't care what his parishioners thought" - "he should have made it clear that he was the boss."

There were times when he did all those things, but for the most part, he was a priest of gentleness and compassion. A good shepherd, who loathed needing to be harsh, and always sought to be the gentle, welcoming face of Christ. He always saw every person who came to the Church for assistance as a soul to be welcomed and loved and he truly believed that love and compassion would draw that person to Christ far better than a harsh rebuke - the rebukes were saved for other times.

Father was raised and ordained in what is now called the Extraordinary Form and celebrated the Sacraments for the first decade of his priesthood in that manner. He would often speak about both the beauty and the imperfections of the Traditional Latin Mass as well the excitement and confusion that surrounded Vatican II. He would never be called a traditionalist, but he was happy to see the Church returning to so much of what had fallen by the wayside after Vatican II. In his last years, we spoke often about his theological opinions and even after knowing him for so many years, I was often surprised by his traditional views which I did not know he held as well as the progressive views he held. Through these conversations, I came to see where a many of my own opinions came from and why people always fail when they try to fit me into their stereotypical theological box.

You don't have to agree with everything a priest does and says, and there are often plenty of times when criticism is warranted, but we must never lose sight of the innate dignity of the character of the priesthood which is present on the soul of every priest and always show honor to the priest. As St. John Chrystostom wrote "he who honors a priest, honors Christ, and he who insults a priest, insults Christ." 

“What a priest unites in himself is what tears him apart. At every moment of his life he must answer two callings and entirely satisfy each of them without ever sacrificing either . . .. Transcendent yet incarnate; here is that same fundamental dualism which . . . constitutes the mystery of the Church and the paradox of Christian humanism.”
Cardinal Suhard

I have known faithful priests and unfaithful priests, orthodox priests and heterodox priests, priests who are liturgical masters and priests who are liturgical nightmares, but one thing always remains: they are deserving of respect because of their priesthood. We should pray for them all, offer support to the good and faithful, and offer direction to the troubled. We must be patient and forgiving of their failings, even when they anger us and never place ourselves in the position as the judge of their souls always remembering that they are consecrated to God and the Sacraments come to us through their hands. Although there are a few who are truly bad, the vast majority are good men who are doing the best they can with what they have to work with in their own human fraility.

I will leave you with this quote:  

"You must never forget that priests are, and that they remain, men.

God does not perform a miracle to wrest them from the human state.

The priesthood does not of itself give a person the power to do everything or to excel in everything. It is important to remember this lest you fall into a very old error . . . that of dehumanizing the priesthood and consequently of setting the priest outside of ordinary life.

That does great harm for by thus isolating him, as unbelievers do, to the exclusive realm of ceremonies . . . he is deprived in good part of his reason for being. If men refuse to pass through him, he no longer can be, at least fully, their mediator."
Cardinal Suhard

 Jesus, Savior of the world, sanctify Thy priests and sacred ministers.


owenswain said...

I thank you much for this post and its timing. As I am in the midst of an interview process for a particular position the euphoric gloss of simply being potentially hired has transitioned to realizing in said role I will undoubtedly be close at hand to plenty of liturgical aberrations and imperfect humanity. As I've contemplated this I've begun to ask the Lord to forgive me my pride and help me to form attitudes where love for Christ and compassion for souls rule the day to day should I land this job (indeed, even if I do not). Some, like the Catholic brother in your story would probably see this as a sinful compromise. So be it. This morning after meeting with a deacon I realized, if hired, I am a servant and serve I must with grace and humility.

You mentioned elsewhere that this post is your controversial post. What a shame that expressing such a view as you have, to honour all priests, should be seen as controversy by some. There is an rigidity, a hardness of being among some "rad-trads" which parades itself as upholding truth but just as love without truth is not actually love, truth without love is no truth that anyone can embrace as their own.

Fr. Cory Sticha said...

Thank you for posting this! I think we Catholics forget that a priest is special because he stands in Persona Christi - in the person of Christ - not because Fr. So-and-so is a "good person" or well liked. It also doesn't help that both priests and laity have spent much of the past 40+ years working to undermine the authority of the ministerial priesthood by an overemphasis on the royal priesthood of the laity.

DominiSumus said...

Owen, my prayers are with you as you look forward to this new endeavor.
I have worked in parishes with varying degrees of liturgical propriety and I must admit that at times I have found a certain hardness develop in me in reaction. I have always tried to be careful to keep it in check and in humility remember that I am not responsible for the world - rather I must remember my place and be a humble servant.