In this post, we will try to bring into relief important aspects of Mystery of the Priesthood as witnessed by St. John Vianney through comparing his experience with a priest depicted by Miguel de Unamuno. We hope to show the essential connection between the truth of the faith and the nature of the priesthood, and the fruitful tension between the truth about the man who is a priest and the truth about the priesthood given to the man.
Before we can begin this comparison, we need to make some initial observations. First of all, the priestly ministry is often viewed as a cultural convention imposed from the outside to which a man must submit if he is to be a good priest. The Catholic Church however asserts that the priesthood is not the product of human culture, but something given by God. Now these two ways of seeing the priesthood play themselves out historically and culturally. For those who do not believe in God or that God can give a gift like the priesthood, it is completely baffling that the priesthood or religion should demand so much. For those who begin to understand what the Lord has given us in the priesthood, they can not believe that God would be so generous.
Another point to bear in mind is the intrinsic nature of divine gift of the priesthood. The Catholic priesthood is not extrinsic to humanity, but takes up and perfects something God has already planted in our nature. God created men and women with a priestly character - that is as his image and likeness the highest form of human activity is to enter into the rest of the Lord through worshipping Him. Much more could be said on this point, but for our purposes it is enough to assert that the priesthood of Christ takes up this priestly quality of our humanity, restores it to is full dignity and perfects it.
Another preliminary point to be made concerns the relationship of Christians to those ordained into the priesthood by the sacrament of Holy Orders. Christ's priesthood is something every Christian recieves at baptism. In a certain sense, every Christian is a priest - part of a nation of priests. By baptism, we offer acceptable worship to the Father through Christ Jesus for the salvation of the world. But the way Christ established his Church, the baptized cannot do this by themselves. They need to be lead by someone with the special authority of Christ which comes through the apostles. It is from among the members of Christ priesthood that some are selected by the bishops or successors of the apostles to lead, teach and sanctify the rest of Christ's body. To say that they are ordained means that they are given the Sacrament of Holy Orders - a sacrament of service that gives these men special grace to serve all those who are joined to the royal priesthood of Christ. When we speak of the Catholic priesthood, it is these ordained ministers of Christ's body to whom we are referring.
One final point that is essential for our conversation is what happens to someone who is ordained in Holy Orders for the priesthood. The ministerial priesthood is conferred through Holy Orders. When the bishop imposes his hands and consecrates a man to the servcie of God, the very heart of the man is changed. A new intrinsic power now flows from the Cross of Christ through him in a manner the Christ power has never flowed through his person before. Traditionally, we call this divine change of heart sacramental "character". The priestly character conferred in Holy Orders configures a man to Christ in such a way that he is able to signify the sanctifying power of Christ every time he is faithful to his ministry, even in the midst of weakness and failure. For this power to be revealed, all it takes is faith.
But now we get to the point of our refection, an existential question that many struggle with - is the power of faith really rooted in reality or is it merely psychological, the power of suggestion that moves emotions and imagination? The personal answer to the question has grave consequences for the way we approach our faith and our salvation. For many people today, faith is something sentimental, a nice idea we return to when life gets too hard.
When I worked in a parish some parishioners would get so upset with the Church whenever an appeal was made to an absolute value - like the sanctity of life or the indissolubility of marriage. They expected their faith to make them feel better about certain bad decisions, but the truth of the faith they had to deal with was not very consoling. But the truth rarely consoles at first. It challenges us. It makes us rethink what we have done. Time and again in my own life I have had the painful discovery that what I want is not the measure of truth, the truth is the measure of what I want. And, only after we have dealt with the truth do we begin to find a consolation that nothing else in the world can give.
The truth about the priesthood is part of this. And the odd thing about reality is that it refuses to limit itself to what we expect it to be. What is real never really fits into the categories we construct for it. In the end, we accept it for what it is - or live in a delusion. Similarly, only those who accept the priestly ministry for what it actually is discover the truth about it, and this truth can make all the difference in life.
To shed light on the essential connection between the truth of the faith and the nature of the priesthood, we will consider Unamuno's priest in his short story Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr. He depicts a preist driven by compassion for his village community in 19th Century Spain. His heart aches because of the looming reality of death and the lake of despair it occasions. Out of this compassion, Unamuno's priest promotes the Catholic faith. The problem is that for this priest, on a personal level, the faith is no more than a pious myth, a kind of sacred story for regular people to believe so they can face death with some kind of hope. In Unamuno's world, the truth is something so dreadful that "simple people could not live with it."
The priest's charade is not malicious, but well intentioned. Father Emmanuel, despite his lack of faith, sacrifices himself continuing to proclaim the pious myth entrusted to him so that his parishioners in Valverde de Lucerana might live life to the fullest. Unamuno's priest eventually becomes part of the myth himself. After his death, his parishioners come to “believe in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr, who, with no hope of immortality for himself, preserved their hope in it.”
For me, this depiction is especially sad because it captures something many people, and maybe some priests themselves, actually believe. Namely, the truth about life really is too hard and terrifying, and we need to avoid it if we are going get through it at all. For such people, religion or religious myth is a way to cope with pain so bitter that it simply can not be dealt with straight up. Now if all religion were only myth, than life really would be a sad affair.
But not all religion claims to be myth. In fact, the Christian faith as it has been preserved in the Catholic Church, claims to be the fullness of the truth. When the Church claims that Christ Jesus saves us from sin and death, it is declaring that real salvation exists, that life does not have to be a sad affair, that everything that is good, noble and true about humanity does not need to perish. If the Church invites men and woman to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God risen from the dead, it is because it is really true that those who believe in Him will not perish, but live forever.
The biggest difference between my own experiences and those Unamuno presents is most people who live a religious charade usually do not get much of a happy ending, even the romantic ending he provides. The despair behind the myth they peddle consumes them and always hurts those closest to them.
To understand the priesthood and experiences like St. John Vianney had, the starting place is to accept the proposition that Christianity is not a myth, but the stark and surprising truth. If we look at all the evil in the world, it truly is surprising that God really did create us and really does yearn for friendship with us. His desire is so great that the Father sent his only begotten Son to become one of us so that we might be able to join in the very love life of the Trinity, leading all creation into worship and praise. This truth is also stark. To make it possible for us to choose this friendship we needed to be freed from sin and death - and for this reason Jesus, the Son of God, died on the Cross.
Most people would agree that death is stark - but it sometimes is difficult to take sin seriously. Almost, every Christian has the tendency to think - "Gee God, does this behavior really need to change? After all, I am a pretty good guy." Yet, there really is something quite broken inside us, something that really needs to change, and by ourselves we do not have the strength to change it. We need God, not as an escape or distraction, but as the only One who can help us deal with who we really are. And this is where Unamuno's priest, as compassionate as he is, is really unable to help people. Unlike the Unamuno's Christianity which preserves a social order and a pleasant country existence, true Christianity seeks to transform the heart and save the whole world. The ministry of the priest must constantly deal with the relentlessy real - it does not have the luxury of sustaining pious myths.
The purpose of this reflection was to shed some light on the curious tension in the priestly ministry of St. John Vianney and his own feelings of unworthiness. Unamuno's character really captures something of the priestly heart when it comes to the compassion that the priesthood demands. A priest is asked to bear all the sorrows of the people entrusted to him, and a huge part of his ministry to console those who feel overwhelmed. Unlike St. Emmanuel the Good, however, the Curé d’Ars really did believe the Gospel. The love of God was not a story he promoted so that people could endure their meaningless lives.
St. John Vianney understood that each and every life has a deep and eternal meaning, even if he was anxious about what this meant for himself. In the face of his own feelings of unworthiness, the priesthood enabled him to help those entrusted to him find this meaning for their lives. They discovered through his ministry that they were truly loved in the most unimaginable way. And once they found that meaning, they could not possibly go back to the way they lived before: everything changed. Many of his parishioners devoted their lives in wonderful ways to living for the glory of God.