In our last post, we considered a particular problem which the witness of the Cure d'Ars suggests. The priest signifies something for us - and not just for us Catholics, but for the whole world. But what he signifies is disproportionate to his person. His existence points to Christ, under a specific aspect. While all the baptized participate in the mystery of Christ, the priest, in fact, participates in a unique way. But what distinguishes the priest's participation in the mystery of Christ from every other form of participation? In this post, we will try to identify what is unique to the priesthood. In particular, we will see that the priest shares not only in the priesthood of Christ in a unique way, but also in the mystery of Christ as victim. In Christ, and in the vocation of the priesthood, the work of sanctification (i.e. the ministry of making the Church holy) involves a special kind of self-offering.
Whatever it is, it is difficult to be faithful to. Even the Cure d'Ars struggled with this. In our last post, we considered how almost all his peers and superiors viewed him as incompetent. Some held him as too incompetent to be a priest. This was not for lack of intelligence. But it did have a lot to do with his own insecurities over his very late and very poor education. Yet if we stop here, we do not really fully see why the John Vianney struggled with a lack of confidence and why this lack of confidence was so great that he actually attempted to forsake his parish ministry on occasion. Here, we are going to consider a mystery that is at the heart of the priesthood for every man who tries to live it out to the full -- this feeling of unworthiness.
John Vianney was very concerned about his own salvation. Even as his efforts as a pastor met with great success, he had to fight back thoughts that perhaps he was decieving himself concerning where he really stood with God. Some of this self-doubt may have been brought on by his peers and teachers. Some of it also seems to have come from God. In fact, after he was made pastor of Ars, he asked the Lord to allow him to see the truth about himself. And even great saints can find the truth overwhelming.
The reason for this is that our hearts are filled with every kind of misery and weakness. This does not mean we are completely evil. But it means that what is good, noble and true about each of us needs to be saved – and only God can save it if we let Him. He never imposes Himself, but patiently deals with the darkness we suffer as we are ready and willing. This is why there are deep wounds that the Lord, in his mercy, does not allow us to see all at once. Otherwise, the magnitude of our brokenness can overwhelm us, and we despair.
So normally God allows us just a tiny peak of what he is suffering with us and in us. When He gives us this glimpse, it is only to move us to trust Him and cling to Him all the more. For the fact is, we are powerless to deal with the pain we carry within. And, God never intended that we should try to deal with it by ourselves. He yearns to deal with it - but to do this, as we have already mentioned, we must surrender to Him. In the case of the Curé of Ars, God wanted John Vianney to rely on Him alone - so the Lord showed him something about himself to completely humble him. And it did.
The unfortunate side-effect of this vision was that John Vianney struggled off and on with the desire to run off to a more austere form of religious life, and there in hidden anonymity to work out his salvation. He was afraid, in the effort to help others find salvation, he was taking the time he needed to fully surrender himself to the Lord.
It is here that we find a great mystery of the spiritual life that applies to everyone. When the Lord gives us a great work, He also gives a great grace - not only for the edification of others, but also for our own salvation. God is always more generous with those who are generous to Him.
Although John Vianney would run away on occasion, God always brought him back. The Curé was almost oblivious to the grace of God at work in him because he could only see his brokenness. The Lord however sent his parishioners and friends to intercept him before he got too far. It was through others, through those he ministered to, that the priest of Ars slowly accepted that God was sanctifying him, not despite his priestly ministry, but because of it. John Vianney learned to accept his unworthiness as an integral part of the mystery his vocation signified.
So, what is it the priest signifies? What is the reality to which his very person now points because he has been joined to the office of the priesthood? Fulton Sheen suggests a secondary meaning of Christ’s word’s “This is my Body” sheds light on this question. When the priest says the words of consecration, not only is bread and wine changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, the priest is also identifying himself with Christ in a sacramental way: He is a visible sign of an invisible reality, and that reality is Christ crucified. He is, after all, saying, “This is my Body.” Bishop Sheen suggests that we see at every mass what the person of the priest is become through Holy Orders a “priest-victim” who signifies Christ himself.
But now we get to what is perhaps the oddest part of this exploration. The priest is supposed to signify Christ, the Priest-Victim, whose perfect sacrifice has saved us from sin and death. In most cases, however, there seems to be very little of Christ’s perfection in the priest’s own personality. Not only do others see this - but the priest himself suffers it. Most priests experience something like John Vianney: they feel unworthy to point to Christ and at the same time, feel compelled to offer themselves as a sign of Christ for others. So what is it in the grace of Holy Orders that allows us to find Christ crucified in the priest? In order to answer this question, we will consider literary examples of the priesthood provided by Miguel de Unamuno and Graham Greene in our next post.