Photo: Felix Carroll
The Marians at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy celebrate Holy Mass, the pinnacle of a priest's apostolic activities.
The Priesthood: A Love Story
A Marian priest, Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, hears confession at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass.
Pope Benedict XVI declared a "Year for Priests" beginning with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 19, 2009 and concluding June 11, 2010. The following is part of a continuing series that reflects upon the priesthood during this special year.
May 25, 2010
By Christi Derr
Many years ago in the sun-drenched land of Spain where temperatures and passions run high, a very wealthy young man fell in love with a very poor young woman. Gonzalo de Yepes was born into a family that had made a fortune in the silk trade. Like many newly enriched families of that time, his parents entertained plans of increased wealth and an advantageous marriage for their son. Alas Gonzalo had the heart of a poet and not a social climber. He fell in love with Catalina Alvarez, a lowly silk weaver. In doing so, he walked away from all his family's schemes and as it turned out, even their recognition of him. When Gonzalo married Catalina he was completely disowned and disinherited.
The romance stayed true, despite the terrible sacrifice it had exacted. Gonzalo and Catalina rejoiced at the birth of three sons. Love's joys do not protect the lovers from hard reality, though.
Gonzalo, raised in luxury, was worn down by the dire poverty he now lived in. When the youngest son was only two, Gonzalo died too young a man. The cruelty of de Yepes family did not relent with the death of their son. It did not relent even with the death of their grandson a year later. Catalina left Toledo with her two sons and spent years wandering from city to city, homeless, in search of work.
Juan, the youngest boy, possessed a sharp and observant character. His parents' marriage had inscribed onto his heart an understanding of true charity. Gonzalo never crawled back to his parents in order to buy a few more comfortable years on this earth. Juan learned from his father that love is worth dying for. Juan would later write, "O living flame of love! How soothingly you wound... The taste of heaven around! Death done, you lift us, living from the tomb" (1).
Catalina did not become embittered or despairing. Devotion to her sons and the memory of her husband focused her thoughts on survival, not regret. Because of his mother, Juan must have understood these words from scripture more than most, "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things"(1 Cor 13:7). True love makes no compromises; it demands that the lover give everything.
Juan never grew to an average man's height. His growth was stunted due to malnutrition and periods of outright starvation. But even as his physical stature was underdeveloped, his heart and soul flourished. The soil of Juan's heart was tilled and made fertile by a powerful example of true love. It was made receptive to a calling from Love itself "... when love burned bright with yearning, I arose ... and how I left none knows — dead to the world my heart in deep repose; ... no other light, no guide, except for my heart — the fire, the fire inside! ... That led me on ... to where there waited one, I knew — how well I knew —". He said yes to this One and became a priest. Juan joined the Carmelites, and he became one of its greatest reformers. He is recognized today as a spiritual master, a uniquely talented poet, and a doctor of the Church. We know Juan de Yepes as St. John of the Cross.
'The Heart of Every Vocation'
I tell John of the Cross' story because at the heart of every vocation to the priesthood is a love story. The story may not be as dramatic as Juan's, but every priest we encounter was called to represent the Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, in a way that is as utterly unique as his own soul is.
One does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb 5:4).
Each priest was at some time an average man, walking this earth, minding his own business, when the supernatural interrupted the ordinariness of his life and radically changed it forever. The supernatural does not come as an overwhelming force; it comes as it did with St. John of the Cross, as an invitation to love. The man who says "yes" to this invitation has to be a brave soul indeed, for the love he is invited to share in is radical, courageous, self-sacrificing and irreversible!
What a Priest Goes Through>
No greater love hath man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). A priest's love for the Church is truly a great, unrecognized love story. Gonzalo de Yepes sacrificed all his wealth and even his family for Catalina. Similarly, a young man who marries the Church turns his back entirely on a potentially lucrative career, often endures the misunderstanding of friends and family, and is even subjected to questions about his sexual orientation. Catalina endured constant temptations to despair and bitterness, but stayed true to her love of her husband and sons despite never receiving an earthly reward for her faithfulness.
A priest suffers temptations to discouragement and impurity from movies, advertisements, TV shows and even members of his own congregation. He is faithful to his life-long priestly vows despite having no earthly confirmation that all he has sacrificed for is true. Gonzalo and Catalina were in effect martyrs for their marriage. A priest also endures life long martyrdom for the sake of his Beloved. He dies to every possible enticement this world has to offer: prestige, comfort, even authority over his own life. Just as John of the Cross describes, "dead to the world, my heart in deep repose," earthly attachments are dead to all priests and priests are dead to all earthly attachments. Earthly attachments can offer a consecrated man nothing; he has already rejected it all for the sake of the glorious bride of Christ.
Jesus' Work through Priests
The priesthood is a love story on another level as well. Jesus loves us, His Church, deeply and personally through His sacraments dispensed by His priests. We can receive the precious Body and Blood of Jesus and adore Him on the altars only if a priest has first consecrated the bread and wine. Saint Francis of Assisi was often blessed with heavenly visions. Yet, Francis, who had actually seen with his own eyes the burning and holy seraphic angels, remarked that in the presence of these magnificent creatures of God and a priest, he would greet and bow to the priest first! The Angels are sinless and adore God gloriously, he reminds us, but only a priest "commands" the Lord to come down on the altar and change the bread and wine to His Most Sacred Body and Blood.
Jesus forgives our sins and renews a soul to its baptismal innocence through a priest.
Saint Faustina relates these words of Jesus in her Diary, "When you approach the confessional, know this, that I Myself am waiting there for you. I am only hidden by the priest."
A priest I know once had a miraculous confirmation of this teaching while hearing a woman's confession. When the time came to administer the words of absolution, the penitent became visibly shaken. After the sacrament was completed she told the priest the reason for her emotion. As Father pronounced the words of forgiveness over her, she saw Jesus standing right behind him, pronouncing the same words over her. The Lord, with His bleeding wounds from the Crucifixion, was visible to her. Jesus said the very words the priest said and simultaneously made the motions of blessing he made.
Life without Priests
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Heb 5:1). Sometimes we take this sacramental love of Christ for granted. Imagine what your faith life would be like without priests: no Mass, no confessions, no priest present at the death bed of a loved one or your death bed, no sacramental marriages — a life empty of sacramental grace.
In countries where the faith has been persecuted, Catholics don't have to imagine this scenario. They have lived it. Sister Mary Grace Kelly, SRMSHJ, started her religious life in Poland. She heard from Poles what life used to be like there under Communism. Polish priests were arrested or killed by authorities. For years Catholics suffered through life bereft of the sacraments. They could only gather in the churches, lay out the robes of the priest on the altar, and weep. This is a good meditation to have in mind the next time we are tempted to complain about how boring Father's homilies are, his eccentric manners, his curtness with the altar servers, or the thousand other petty complaints we level at priests.
Now, of course, in light of all the horrific scandals involving priests of late, it is clear that not all complaints are petty. Some are just. So we unfold the third part of this love story — our response to it.
The Challenge of the Laity
Saint John Marie Vianney once brilliantly observed, "If the monks are excellent, the priests will be good. If the monks are good, the priests will be fair. If the monks are fair, the priests will be an abomination." Having all the recent headlines in mind, want to take a guess at which of these three options describes the times we currently live in? We don't have "fair monks and nuns." We scarcely have any monks and nuns at all! The consequence of few monks and nuns praying for priests is all around us.
Now in actuality, the number of priests and bishops who have perpetrated evil is a very small percentage of all priests. But the horror of the acts and the fact that the men doing them represent Christ has severely traumatized the victim, the Church, and the world. The Cure D'Ars' quote illustrates perfectly the "workings" of the body of Christ. Until our monasteries are full of excellent nuns and monks, and in fact even when they are, it is up to us lay people to pick up the slack and pray for our priests.
When my brother Jeff was in college he used to attend daily Mass. The priest at the school was the typical sandal-wearing, guitar playing, tolerant-of-everything-except-orthodoxy, Newman Center priest. When he wasn't busy at a peace rally or protesting a local nuclear plant, he would occasionally say Mass. At one of these Masses, Jeff knelt during consecration. The priest, annoyed that he had not been enlightened with the "the people as Eucharist" teaching, asked him to please stand. My brother quietly declined. The priest, not so quietly, demanded he rise. Jeff quoted the scripture verse, "at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend." The now furious priest stopped saying the Mass and stormed out of the Church!
Fast forward 20 years. I happened to catch a Mass that this same priest was celebrating. When I learned that he was the celebrant that day, I braced myself to encounter similar antics to what Jeff had witnessed. Something very different occurred. The Mass was late in starting; the sacristan went to find the priest. The former hippie priest, now looking very much like a monk, had to be roused from an ecstasy. He was lost in adoration of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament! He is a very Christ-like priest now. He continues works of social justice, but also strives for proper worship of God. What had happened in those years? Prayer! He himself had been going on retreats at a monastery. And someone, somewhere prayed for this priest!
The Power of Every Prayer
I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; ...I am praying for them...I am glorified in them (Jn17:6-10). At the Last Supper Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood. Jesus spent a good deal of time before His Crucifixion praying for His newly ordained priests.
As in all things, we do well to follow our Lord's example; we should also pray for priests. We never need fear that in the case of a bad priest our prayers will conceal or consent to the evil he does, or even take the place of action. Scott Hahn reminds us that the worst form of God's wrath is when He does nothing. When an offending priest is defrocked, put in prison, or never ordained that is God's mercy at work.
On the other hand, every prayer said for the hundreds of thousands of good priests is realized in these men becoming more and more conformed to the Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ. Prayer invites the Holy Spirit to act powerfully in the consecrated soul. He supports and sanctifies it. The Paraclete comforts the lonely, strengthens the weak, warms a heart that has grown cold, gives zeal to the compromised — in truth makes of him an Alter Christus.
We have only a couple of months left in the Year for Priests. Let us show our gratitude to a generous God and to the generous men He chose out of the world. Let us pray for them. Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, pray for all priests.
1 — The Living Flame of Love, Songs of the soul in its intimate communion of union with God's Love. St. John of the Cross
2 — The Dark Night, Songs of the soul, which rejoices at having reached that lofty state of perfection: union with God by the way of spiritual negation. St. John of the Cross
Christi Derr is married to Gary. They have five children. She has a bachelor's degree in East European Studies and is pursuing a master's degree in English.