February 7, 2010

The Curé d'Ars and Graham Greene: The Priesthood and Divine Mercy

Mercy is love that suffers the weakness of the beloved.  It bears an offense to affirm the dignity of the offender.  Divine mercy is God's loving presence, dwelling in the abyss of our own misery.  He reveals how much He suffers with us whenever we behold the Christ crucified.  This is a mystery every Christian must experience.  It is especially attached to the priesthood in the tension between the greatness of the ministry and the unworthiness of the minister.  This post is the fourth and final part of a lecture given on the priesthood.  It attempts to highlight the importance of praying for priests in this Year For the Priest.

Graham Greene's work the Power and the Glory presents a priest who helps us understand a dimension of the priestly witness of St. John Vianney. Graham Greene's whiskey priest is a very different man than St. John Vianney, and not just on the level of sobriety. The whiskey priest is fleeing for his life during the Mexican persecution of the Church in the 1920s. He is an unlikely martyr struggling with insobriety and self-absorption with a record of infidelity to his priestly promises. His ministry seems completely futile. Yet, he cannot help himself from being a priest.

He knows that he is a weak and petty man. In fact, he is too weak to flee for his life. He wants to escape. He could apostatize like one of his friends - but he sees his friend's tormented existence and he knows he is not strong enough to bear it. So he is driven to put his life on the line so that people can have the mass and confession: not by courage or piety, but by a certain sense of duty he cannot refuse.

It is concerning this combination of a sense of duty and feeling of unworthiness that we can draw a connection with the Curé d'Ars. John Vianney had no more of a sense of progressing in holiness than does the character created by Graham Greene. In fact, he felt that something about the priesthood was endangering him. The priestly ministry thrust him into a place where he was so concentrated on the salvation of others, he felt as if he were neglecting his own.

This anxiety over death -- death in this life or death in the life to come -- is a common experience for all those who follow Christ. We have an instinct for self-preservation which constantly balks at carrying the Cross. It is the love of God in us that helps us order this instinct for his glory. It is possible to follow Christ crucified in this way, not because of personal greatness or worthiness, but because of God's grace alone, the gift of his life that flows from the cross.

In the case of the priesthood, fidelity to serving Christ in his people, even when he is barely recognizable, is the Cup of the Covenant, the pathway to the place of crucifixion. The priest can follow this pathway because of a gift he received in Holy Orders. It is the grace of Christ, the very life of the Risen Lord, given in this sacrament that drives the priest - even if he does not know it. If he tries to deny it, it will not leave him in peace. This is because grace, in particular the grace of Holy Orders, comes in the form of love, and only by surrendering in love do we ever find the rest for which our hearts long.

This sheds some light on why the Year for the Priest is also a time to pray for priests who struggle with the priesthood. The Lord desires them to rest in his love. And yet some of them are tormented like Graham Greene's characters or like the Curé d'Ars on those occasions when he left his parish. On the one side there is the call to love God's people that lives in the hearts of the ordained. On the other, there is anxiety, some form of fear that makes a man want to runaway. It is in the cross section of these two movements that the Lord chooses to dwell with us, where he discloses the power of his mercy. As the brothers and sisters of those the Lord allows to dwell in this holy place, we must pray for them, that they might discover the embrace of the mercy of the Father.