Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reverend Know it All on the Kind of Priests we want

Dear Rev. Know-It-All,

Is there an Encyclical or a Papal Teaching on how the lay person is required to respect their priests? We have someone in our lay community, who does not like the way her pastor gives homilies and is constantly criticizing him. We know this is wrong, but we don't know how to correct her without hurting her. Especially now, in the Year of the Priest, I would think there would be something from Rome.

Please help.

Clara Qalysm


Dear Clara,

First, the simple answer to your question: Yes. There is something recently written, Pope Benedict’s letter of June 16 inaugurating the Year of the Priest. That said, I am delighted to hear that some one is upset by the sermons in your parish. Hopefully, she is upset for the right reasons.

Somehow we have gotten the impression, (I think it started somewhere in the 1950's) that we are supposed to like priests. What an odd assumption. If a priest is doing his job, he should make us feel at least a little nervous, if not downright uncomfortable. We assume that Mass should be entertaining and that sermons should be enjoyable. The job of the priest is not to entertain. It is to do what Jesus did. Certainly you don’t believe that Jesus was crucified because He was such a nice fellow. It seems they didn’t have to look far to find a mob that was willing to shout “Crucify Him!” He must have irritated a few people. The job of the priest is to continue the work that Jesus did. Certainly, preaching and teaching were part of it, but so were healing the sick and casting out demons. However, Jesus’ ultimate work was to offer Himself as a sacrifice in reparation for the sins of the world.

When I was a young priest many years ago, I was given a new assignment as an assistant pastor. Shortly before I arrived to take up my new duties, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, came to me in a dream and told me that I would have to pray a lot in this new assignment.

When I arrived at my new rectory, I noticed a beautiful wood carving of St John on the mantelpiece in the front room.

A few weeks later, I noticed that the statue of St. John was gone, and in his place was a mechanical monkey.

It seems the pastor had taken his vacation in Las Vegas, where he had won the little wind up monkey in a game of chance. When he needed a refill at the bar, he just switched on the monkey who banged a little pair of cymbals and the bar maid would fill his glass, and he would switch the monkey off, until pressed into service once again.

Thus, it was that the patron saint of priests was replaced with a mechanical monkey.

In the 20th century, we became accustomed to the priest as headman of the immigrant community. That changed into a kind of social director which has developed in our times to “pious bureaucrat.” The priest goes to meetings, conducts programs, fills out forms, visits the school, and glad hands everybody in the vestibule. He does weddings for young couples who have been living in sin for the past two years, then goes to the banquet where he gives the blessings at the beginning and end, thus giving the whole thing a veneer of sanctity. He conducts funerals, reassuring us that perhaps there is life after death and, doubtless, God, who is merciful, will overlook Uncle Mortimer’s gun running business and countless adulteries. After all, Old Mort had a kind heart.

A priest should be good with young and old, but not too good with young. He should be kind and pastoral and never critical he should preach a nice, though brief, sermon. He should go to all the events, the wakes the weddings, the men’s club, the women’s club, the youth group, and having done all that he should be a man of prayer, or at least appear to be. He must have the wisdom of age and the energy of youth, and be ready to rush to the hospital in the middle of the night to give the “last sacraments” to some reprobate who has not darkened the door of the church since his First (and last) Communion.

Above all, the priest makes sure that the fund raising is on schedule and the buildings are in good repair. Keep banging the cymbals, Father. At least keeping up the buildings has something to do with the ministry of Jesus. He was, after all, in the building trades for about 18 years.

In his letter of June 16th, on the year of the priest, it doesn’t seem that the Holy Father is urging people to celebrate the priesthood as much as he is urging priest to remember their calling. The letter is mostly a meditation on the life of my old friend, St. John Vianney. He was the Curé (the Pastor) of Ars, a small town in the south of France. After the French Revolution, the faith in France was in terrible shape, almost as bad as it is now. St John was to this little village of perhaps 250 souls, few of whom practiced their faith. He was not well received. In fact, they hated him.

For years, a group of women offered a special Mass intention. After a while, Fr. Vianney asked what they were praying for. They told him, “For a new pastor.” He went right on praying for their special intention. When he arrived in the parish, he prayed “Lord, grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life!” He then went around for a month meeting his parishioners, getting to know the life of his little village, then he went to the pulpit and denounced their sins, especially their dances, which were nothing more than seduction.

As the pastor of Ars, Father Vianney realized that the Revolution's aftermath resulted in religious ignorance, due to many years of the destruction of the Catholic Church in France. At the time, Sundays in rural areas were spent in the fields working, or spent dancing and drinking in taverns. In modern America we work, run errands, go to sporting events and watch soft core pornography on our televisions. Vianney reminded his parishioners that Sundays were meant for the worship of God. Father Vianney began by giving sermons referring to the tavern as "the devil's own shop, the market where souls are bartered, where the harmony of families are broken up, where quarrels start and murders are done." No wonder they hated him.

I wonder what he would have to say about the way people come dressed when they bother to come to church at all. I bet he would have a few thing to say about video games and television programming as well. We live in an age when the Catholic Church is being systematically attacked from without and within. The ignorance of children regarding the faith and the sacraments is appalling. The torrent of pornography to which children are exposed is unfathomable, and that’s just prime time TV.

Our entertainments have corroded our sense of right and wrong just as they did in Ars 150 years ago. I am genuinely shocked when young people come to arrange a marriage and they are not living together. No one thinks twice about what in a former time would be called adultery or perversion, in fact it is celebrated. Parents are at a loss, unable and sometimes unwilling to do anything. God forbid the priest should fail to be in step with the times. We priests have been so in step that many of us have been swept away in the same river of filth and narcissism that is currently engulfing the world.

The problem then, as I see it, is not that someone in your parish is critical of the priest, but that only one person is critical of the priest. People want to love their priests because they are such nice fellows and give such nice homilies. This is a mistake. The priest is to be valued because he absolves sins and offers the sacrifice of Calvary, the only sacrifice which can make up for the barbarities of the age. In his own life, the priest is called to offer the sacrifice of the Mass as an expiation for his sins and the sins of his congregation, even if the congregation believes itself sinless, and worse still if the priest refuses to acknowledge his own weakness and sinfulness. The priest is supposed to be the one who leads his people to repentance, having himself wholeheartedly repented.

Allow me to quote from the Pope’s letter as he quotes St. John “The great misfortune for us parish priests – (St. John Vianney) lamented - is that our souls grow tepid"; meaning by this that a pastor can grow dangerously inured to the state of sin or of indifference in which so many of his flock are living. He himself kept a tight rein on his body, with vigils and fasts, lest it rebel against his priestly soul. Nor did he (St. John) avoid self-mortification for the good of the souls in his care and as a help to expiating the many sins he heard in confession. To a priestly confrere he explained: "I will tell you my recipe: I give sinners a small penance and the rest I do in their place". Aside from the actual penances which the Cure’ of Ars practiced, the core of his teaching remains valid for each of us: souls have been won at the price of Jesus' own blood, and a priest cannot devote himself to their salvation if he refuses to share personally in the "precious cost" of redemption.

We want to like the priest for the same reason we like the softball coach, the scout leader and Santa Claus. Again quoting St. John Vianney, the priest is to be valued for a quite different service, “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put Him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest. ... After God, the priest is everything! ... Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is. 'O, how great is the priest! ... If he realized what he is, he would die.' (St. John Mary Vianney)

If only a few more priests would take these words to heart and forget what their congregations thought of them.

Rev. Know-It-All

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