Tuesday, February 7, 2006

What Does it Mean To Be A Priest?

(An Answer of an 83 Year-Old Priest)

I was ordained a Catholic priest on May lst, 1948 by a tall, gray haired, distinguished, stately Bishop who instructed me and my classmates about the "state" we had just entered. But what was that "state" of Priest? What did it mean? What had happened to me?

That very day, a young Paulist priest, about six years into the priesthood and whom I viewed as an "older" chap, casually remarked to me that I would spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what DID happen to me! Now, with my typical late reaction tendency after 56 years of "priesting", I begin to plumb even further what he implied. And with some apprehension. I have a sense of the unsettling priest-insight of " Take back Thy Power." And it slightly frightens me. But what Power? Let me muse on Power in the priesthood.

In 1946, a Russian woman, Baroness Catherine de Hueck or Mrs. Eddie Doherty, addressed over 400 seminarians, all of us preparing for the Catholic priesthood at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She was a woman of remarkable charisma who emanated the very essence of a mysterious "power." She vibed out some kind of energy which permeated the huge hall. She spoke with remarkable vigor of her work in establishing centers for the hurting poor, the dirty poor, unwanted and rejected by "clean" citizens. She had gotten "in there" and had hurled herself into the sad and grim world of poverty. We were almost dumbstruck with her emotionality.

Yet, as impressive as her observations were to us about our duty to engage in the social needs of our age, she utterly bowled us over with her view of "priest." She urged, pleaded, cajoled us to remember that, once we were ordained priests, to "walk among the people - - - and you will strew blessings along your way…." She didn't urge that we should be great scholars or preachers or fund raisers or policy makers. She said: " Just walk among the people. Walk among the people." What was her meaning?

That was so, so long ago and it has rung in my heart down through all these years. I can still hear her proclaiming that admonition - - -It has been an integral part of my own spirituality and identity. In that statement is contained, I think, the core of what priest is. In there is the profound reality of what really did happen to me that joyful day as I knelt before Bishop Stephen Donahue.

When I was a little kid in St. Paul the Apostle grammar school in New York, the Holy Cross Sisters taught us something about a "seal" or " character" of Baptism. It was as if God had stamped the soul with some kind of Mark whereby the lucky one was "adopted" by the Lord in a very special way. Once one was "sealed", it was forever. We intuited by some kind of pre-articulation that there was no way one could be UN-baptized. No matter what kind of child of God I became, good or bad or ugly or nice, I would always have that Divine Father for eternity. I would carry that "seal" or Mark with me where ever I would go; wherever I should "walk". Whatever I would do, consciously or not, I would make my way "Marked" for God. Were I to rant later in my life and "resign" from that Childhood, my membership would remain intact in spite of any personal rebellion or sin. My resignation would be inoperative. I would simply be an inactive, non-practicing child of my Heavenly Father.

There was some kind of "power" in this marking. (or as Sister called it "Character") My prayers, my actions, my thoughts, my feelings were all suffused with this foundational level of "being." We were also taught that there was an advanced state of such "being" in a sacrament named "Confirmation" where we would be more deeply marked by the Holy Spirit and gifted with Fortitude whereby we would be prepared to endure and suffer and even fight for the Ancient Faith. All this by some kind of Power from elsewhere which we believed to be from the Lord. Now it was to be no longer I but the Lord working through me in my day to day Christian life. I carried these "markings" with me everywhere I went. Conscious awareness was not necessarily called for - - it just was!!!

Living in such a framework made it easy for me to move into the towering world of the Priesthood. We were taught (and I deeply believe it) that through the Sacrament of Holy Orders we were profoundly Marked a third and final time (and THIS is the point) as ALTER CHRISTUS, or Other Christ! From henceforth, we would be empowered to act in the very Person of Jesus, Himself.

This would mean that I, a dirty necked kid from Manhattan's tenements, would through the PRIESTHOOD of Jesus, take bread and wine and "transform" such into the Body and Blood of The Lord!!!!! This profound Marking would be with me and in me, as a very part of my essence, for eternity! Whether I became another Iscariot or another Xavier, I would be priest forever. And, further,I would be a priest whether I was conscious of it or not. We were constantly reminded of the Scriptural point: You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, not according to Luther or Bing Crosby or Joe DiMaggio.

Graham Greene portrayed the insight marvelously well in his engrossing novel, THE POWER AND THE GLORY in which he describes a bad priest, a drunkard, a lecher, an exploiter of the poor but who, through the power of the priesthood can and does celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass for the Catholic faithful. They personally know his faults but they also know his "ghostly" powers. In effect, it is again not I but "HIM Who strengthens me….." This is why even a proud priest has to be humble at the Consecration of the Mass when the Transubstantiation occurs!! He knows that it is not he who does this miracle every day……he acts only " in persona Christi…"

With an insight that the Catholic laity has owned for centuries, the priest is treated with incredible respect even with all the scandals of recent years. It is certainly not because of the human side of these men, but because of the Alter Christus understanding.

The Knight of Columbus of the 3rd degree have a special commitment to protect and enhance the Catholic priesthood. Many Catholics still respectfully open doors for priests, give them seats of honor, call them "Father" and seek counsel and guidance from them - - - - in spite of the smearing and cheapening of the Office by some unworthy clerics. And why? Because of the "Mark" - - the quasi-metaphysical Branding of this priest soul!!! The Christ is present in this vessel of clay in a way nowhere else to be found. This is all about the Presence of Jesus.

This is also a huge unreachable feeling about Christ. It was almost humorous that during the filming of Mel Gibson's masterpiece THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, some of the workers on the set, moved by the sight of the actor, James Carvezial ( 33 years old with initials, J.C.), made up as the Redeemer, would kneel as he passed by. They were so deeply into the Passion of Jesus that they were impelled to reverence the Master - - even though it was ONLY a very good man taking the role.

This clearly surfaces the erroneous notion that the priest should be " one of the boys." Perhaps, painfully, the priest realizes that he is set apart and that he one of God's "special ones." He can never be like one of the "guys" and be true to his calling. He might use Marine language. He might hang out in Bars. He might engage in whoring. He might get seduced by money. No matter what - he is "set apart." Such a realization has become such a burden for some priests that they have "left" the priesthood in an attempt to get out from under the guilt of being "Another Christ."

To be a priest with this understanding that I am another Christ and that I cannot have the consolations of other men and that I am set apart, means a huge loneliness in my life. It means that I, like Jesus also must have my personal Gethsemane.

So, to set a man into the priesthood without his understanding the Mark of the Lord on him and the terrible price that he must pay for his privilege of being Christ in the world would be cruelty personified. I recall a young priest who "left" and returned to his former life, telling me that in the Seminary he was in GRADUATE SCHOOL and not in formation to be a priest. It was as if he were preparing for dentistry or journalism or public relations. Another young priest who likewise returned to his secular life mocked the notion of "seal" and testified that he never heard the "Poof" of the Holy Spirit marking him as priest. Without an identity of alter Christus, the priest is severely hampered in his personal growth and happiness.

The poor judgment of seminary personnel and/or their theological shallowness has allowed such young men to think of priesthood as a job or profession or social engineer. The harm done these students is incalculable. Obviously, we are beginning to reap the unhappy effects of the poor leadership and training of recent decades. Clearly, the priest's power stems from his being set aside by the marking of Ordination. Obviously, again, the greatest expression of this power is the Mass where he offers God back to God in the most Perfect Worship possible to man. As correct as is the notion of "Meal" at the Mass, - - Sacrifice is more theologically central to our Meaning. Emphasizing the "eating" as paramount can feed into a more humanistic or even narcissistic notion of Worship.

The great Fr. James Gillis CSP, reminded me as a young priest that a Priest who does not offer "sacrifice" is a misnomer. Priest instantly implies offering a Sacrifice. I am enthused when I hear the beautiful Gospel hymn WERE YOU THERE WHEN THEY CRUCIFIED MY LORD? because I can almost shout: Yes Yes Yes I am there every day when they crucify Him because I offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which re-presents Calvary for me.

I am appalled and saddened when I learn that some modern priests will not say Mass UNLESS THEY HAVE TO. Does such a priest not know who he is? That when he says Mass, Jesus moves in him as in no one else? Does he know that when he gives Absolution HE forgives the sins of man In the person of Christ? That AT THAT MOMENT in one sense he IS Christ? I doubt this unenthusiastic priest knows who he is. I doubt that he sees his own identity as a priest.

I tried to make the point with a woman Eucharistic minister in a Nursing Home who told me of the many confidences she received from the residents.
If I could only hear confessions, she said, I could be of such help! I suggested that she could hear as many confessions as she liked. There is, however, an essential point to be noted. She couldn't absolve from sin. Only Christ can do that and Christ does it through His priests. Only THEY are so marked and empowered!

So when a priest is overcome with what he is and he cries out in a spiritual terror: Take back Thy power, one can appreciate this man's feeling inadequate even if so honored! And always in his deepest self, he knows that others of his culture were more worthy and smarter and more sensible and braver and better looking and endlessly better suited than he. But always he knows that it is not a question of chosing but of being chosen.

Finally, the Russian was right. Let the priest simply walk among the people. Let the Christ blessings be strewn along the way. When the priest walks, Christ walks in a special way in him because of the Marking. This is Christ's man and if one looks deeply enough with Faith and some theological sophistication, this is Christ.

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