This lecture, presented in the blog under several parts, considers the tension in the priest between the limits of his humanity and the responsibilities of his office, his lack of belief and the demands of his vocation, the appeal of the religious imagination and the rigorous realism of our faith, and, finally, the agony of laying down one’s life and the joy of encountering the Lord. As we consider this tension and the possibility of its resolution, we will see that the pathway to the Cross is through the person of the priest.
The Problem St. Jean Vianney Presents
Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was considered very incompetent by almost all his peers and even most of those who had responsibility for his vocation. A bishop, desperately in need of priests after years of suppression following the French Revolution, thought he saw something more, and arranged for the rather late vocation to be examined under special circumstances. So although he was not able to master Latin well enough to take the ordinary exams required of those to be ordained, examiners did discover someone with exceptional skills in the discernment of moral issues as well as firm grasp of the catechetical truths of the faith. Based on this, the bishop ordained him. John Vianney however would struggle for years with a basic insecurity regarding his intellectual and administrative gifts. None of his peers could believe it when he was appointed pastor of the small parish in Ars, a little farm village miles outside of Lyons in the middle of nowhere. No one could have anticipated that through his faith in the Lord, this uncultured, small, simple man, (with a somewhat annoying high pitched voice) would turn this sleepy parish into a center of spiritual renewal for all of France.
Preliminary Reflections of the Catholic Priesthood and the Person of the Priest
To unlock part of the mystery that unfolds in the witness of this country priest, we must pause for a minute to consider the abyss that yawns between the ministry of the priesthood and the worthiness of the person to whom it is entrusted. In a few, but rare cases, this abyss is spanned – and the person grows into the ministry, becomes completely one with his most high calling. This is certainly the case with the Curé d’Ars. But no one begins the priestly vocation with a personality and character commensurate to the calling they have received.
Fulton Sheen, in his book, The Priest is not his Own, explains this phenomena in terms suggested by the Bible and the Roman Canon. After the words of institution, the Roman Canon recounts the sacrifices offered by Able, Abraham and Melchizedek. He says that Able offers God a blood sacrifice and that this is analogous to the many priests, especially in our century, who have laid down their life for the faith. Maximillian Kolbe, the subject of a future lecture, is an example of this kind of priest. In Auschwitz, he volunteered to be executed in substitution for another man who was the father of a family. He did this out of love and compassion, bringing hope to a hopeless place. There are many priests today all over the world who continue to offer this sacrifice of blood on behalf of others.
Bishop Sheen goes on to explain that not all priests are called to shed their blood for the faith, but that many priests spend their whole priestly ministry ready to do so. These priests offer with their lives a sacrifice like Abraham, a voluntary sacrifice. To understand what Bishop Sheen is trying to get at with “voluntary,” consider specifically Abraham’s willingness to offer even his own son, an image of God the Father. A couple of examples of just such a priest might be Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan or Jean Bernard, both of whom we will also consider in future lectures. They were fully willing to die for the faith, and almost did. But God used them in other ways. There are many such priests today who quietly do their ministry, rejected, despised, and at the same time joyful, their all too voluntary sacrifices completely hidden, except to the Lord.
Finally, Bishop Sheen explains that priests, whether they shed their blood or live their ministry ready to or not, all priests are a kind of sacramental sacrifice like that offered by Melchizedek. Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine when he blessed Abraham. These gifts were a signs of something beyond themselves. The foreshadowed a greater reality that no one could have anticipated. In fact, their full meaning was not revealed until the night before Jesus died, “This is my Body ...my Blood."
The point is, like the bread and wine at mass, that the priest signifies something more than he appears to be. Today at mass, the bread and wine continue to look like bread and wine after they are consecrated with Jesus’ own words, but we know by faith that they are not just bread and wine. They are the body and blood of Jesus. The point of the doctrine of transubstantiation and the real presence is that when we share in these gifts we enter into communion with the Lord himself, and our encounter with Him is transformative, giving us real power to live a new life. Similarly the priest appears to be a man, sometimes even a pathetic man. But he signifies something far beyond himself, and as he faithfully offers his ministry, what he signifies leads to a real and life changing encounter with the Lord himself.
Discussion continued in the next post -