Recently, 43 good men, mostly Catholic priests and a few deacons, spent four days together in a seaside Retreat house in New Jersey, seeking a deeper relationship with their God and searching for better ways to serve His people. There were grizzled, wrinkled, battered veterans among them (one with an oxygen tank to keep him alive and a few others on canes to relieve the crippling pain of arthritis). There were young, wide eyed, “bushy tailed” rookie priests and still others in between.
As a participant-observer, I saw in them a touching, simple, direct piety which I rarely see. I watched these 43 good men, attentive and humble, as they listened to the presentations of a brother-priest, the “retreat master.” Uncritically, they gratefully drank in his words in their wish for an expansion and growth of their own priesthood. I watched them as they sat in the Chapel during their “free time”. Their reverence and devotion to their Eucharistic Lord was patent. There was no doubt as to their belief in the Real Presence of Jesus before them. The silence in that chapel, while profound, was deafening with the vibrations of Faith.
I saw one young priest kneeling before a huge outdoor crucifix, his eyes fixed on the image of Jesus, unembarrassed, utterly oblivious to his surroundings. The uncomplicated sincerity of this scene brought a ‘gulp” to my throat. I saw priests deep in contemplation, gazing out over the sea, with an invisible but plain sign saying “Don’t enter. Talking with God.” I saw others walking up and down the little boardwalk with their Rosaries dangling from their hands, petitioning Mary, the Mother of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and mother of priests for honesty and authenticity in the priesthood.
I listened to a former and successful radio announcer describe the “draw” to priesthood away from the phoniness and glitz of modern media. I listened to a former professional baseball player (and now a pastor) speak concretely and directly how the Lord called him from the diamond to the sanctuary. I listened to raspy, untrained but loving voices as they sang praise to Christ in the concelebrated Masses. I heard a young priest pray aloud that we might know how much we help Him to carry His cross by bravely carrying our own and uniting our pain to His.
Is it the Hand of God I felt when, immediately upon arrival, the mysterious “brother priest” bond became so palpable? Did I not feel this in every mission and hamlet I visited in Africa with any priest I met? African, Irish, English, Dutch, German, American, Spanish, any priest……? These men I had just met, fairly shrieked out a vibe that they knew that they were somehow special to God. Somehow I sensed that this self awareness could be shared in its fullness only with a brother priest.
There was, consequently, a refreshing absence of the New Age posturing of “We are all the same…” Collaterally, there was a unique kind of joy which is unlikely in a more heterogonous society. This joy was pervasive and unlike other gatherings I have attended. We could all afford, in this climate, to openly assent to Lumen Gentium (no. 8) with the Church’s distinction that Holy Orders confers a priesthood different from that of Baptism not only in degree but in kind. One could sense this self awareness even if it was seldom articulated. These men knew that Holy Orders conferred on them alone a special dimension of Christ’s own personal power. These priests were awed by what they are and humbly grateful for being chosen. In this pervasive climate there was no need for pretense or sex sensitive diplomacy. There was no pressure to placate the shrill voices of special interest groups.
The message streaming from the physical setup and the roster of the participants was apparent: “We are men set apart.” It is that very realization which clarifies the obligation to be holy and to be faithful and brave shepherds and leaders. The retreat climate, temporarily at least, freed these men of God from any fear of being called “elitists” because they know the truth, deep within themselves. Priests are different. During this retreat they were able not only to face the truth but to tell themselves that it is the Truth of Christ which ultimately and alone saves anyone. These men were able to be truly honest with themselves this week and to admit their deep inner conviction about being a priest. They admit that it is not basically doing that matters. It is basically being that matters. There is a Being about the Priesthood which is uniquely special. It is even ontological.
This brave and honest point they saw and admitted. They are Other Christs. And other Christs in a way only they possess. Let us be honest. Priests are broken, vulnerable vessels but they have a power no one else has. Does any one dispute this claim? The more a priest knows who he really is and what he really is, the more priestly, under God, he becomes. Being aware of the spiritual mark, the character, the “branding” is more conducive to real priesthood than all the techniques and mechanisms drummed up by ecclesiastical P.R. shills. Facial tics and body language are important to assess but more profoundly, even more pragmatically, it is primary to know “what happened to me when I was ordained.”
This “goodness” sample of the “43” might well be generally representative of the priesthood as a whole. The 4-8% of “evil” priests is saddening and serious but statistically minimal. I am tired of special interest lobbyists throwing in my face the infrequent example of the wayward Bishop or the thieving Monsignor or the predatory priest as if these were norms. Would that this frenetic critic had been at this retreat and had seen the true character of priests. Did he show the same zeal at the faults of Jewish and Protestant leaders? Or the abominable failures of teachers in the Public Schools? Why the gleeful rushing to publicize the occasional failure of Catholic clerics and not those of other groups? Is it because our failures are relatively rare? The Bishop of Bridgeport thought so, years ago, when the Thorn Birds made such a big splash. Bishop Curtis then noted: “It is sensational because it is so unusual. This does not apply to most priests.” The “43” say Amen to that. Perhaps there is some subtle and hidden agenda for the media. Envy or bigotry and evil? Who knows?
However, the Goodness which the “43” signify is the true norm of Catholic priests. By its own weight and power, this very goodness will defuse any attempt to defame Christ’s own priesthood. The street-wise Catholic knows this through the sensus fidelium (the instinct of the faithful). Despite the turbulence of public scandal, the Catholic Church will more than survive. For those who might unnecessarily worry, a little peek into a priests’ retreat (anywhere) will more than dissipate the negatives about our Priests. Goodness is from God and Goodness is overflowing in the Catholic Priesthood. You can bet on it.