(Scripture – selection – Matthew 4:18-22)


(Scripture – selection – Matthew 4:18-22)

Most of you know the inspirational story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, but I trust that you, like me, never tire of hearing it. Recall that fateful day at Auschwitz when the Nazi prison guards assembled the concentration camp inmates in rows, and, at the commandant’s order, randomly chose ten helpless men for execution in retaliation for a recent escape. Remember how one of those chosen, a husband and father. Picture the stillness when Father Kolbe spoke up, “I wish to take the place of that man.”

Imagine the sneer of the commandant as he asked. “Who is that Polish swine?” And recall again the reply of Maximilian Kolbe: “I am a Catholic priest”.

“Who are you?” snickered the commandant! Father Kolbe did not reply:

• I am Maximilian Kolbe …
• I am a Pole …
• I am a human being …
• I am a friend of his …

His response was simply and humbly: “I am a Catholic priest.” In the eyes of God, in his own eyes, in the eyes of God’s Church and his suffering people, Maximilian Kolbe’s identity was that of a priest. At the core of his being, on his heart, was engraved a nametag, which marked him forever a priest of God. That identity could not be erased by the inhuman circumstances of a death camp, or the godless environment of Auschwitz, or by the fact that Father Kolbe was hardly “doing” the things one usually associates with priestly ministry, or that the people around him had mostly lost any faith or recognition of the supernatural they may have had before they entered that hell hole.

That identity hardly depended upon the acclaim of those around him or was lessened by the doubts and he may personally have experienced in such a tortured setting. That identity came from God, and was imbedded indelibly within, born of a call he had detected early on from the Master to follow him, and sealed forever by the sacrament of holy orders. So conscious was he of his priestly identity that he could boldly answer the sneer of the Nazi commandant and simply state what he know to be the central fact of his personal definition, “I am a Catholic priest.”

“The priest” “we read in the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) from the Second Vatican Council, “shares in the authority by which Christ himself builds up, sanctifies, and rules his Body. Therefore … the sacerdotal office … is conferred by that special sacrament through which priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are marked with a special character and are so configured to Christ the Priest that they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (No. 2).

The priesthood is a call, not a career; a redefinition of self, not just a new ministry; a way of life, not a job; a state of being, not just a function; a permanent, lifelong commitment, not a temporary style of service; an identity, not just a role.

We are priests; yes, the doing, the ministry, is mighty important, but it flows from the being; we can act as priests, minister as priests, function as priests, serve as priests, preach as priests, because first and foremost we are priests! Being before act! Agere sequitur esse, as the Scholastics expressed it. Father William Byron, the former president of The Catholic University of America, is fond of saying that “we are human beings, not human doings, and our basic dignity and identity comes from who we are, not what we do.” This is true as well of the priesthood.

On the day before I was ordained a priest, I went to confession to a Paraclete Father in St. Louis. He asked me what I looked forward to in the priesthood. Of course I answered, predictably, “Offering Mass, hearing confessions, serving people in a parish,” and so on.

“Excellent,” my confessor responded, “but enjoy as well being a priest. You know, if you were in an automobile accident the day after your First Mass and were paralyzed completely, meaning you could not ever do any of things ordinarily associated with priestly ministry, you would still be a priest.” And then words I’ll never forget, he said. “Spend time every day acknowledging that priestly identity, rejoicing in it, nourishing it, thanking God for it – and then what you do as a priest will be all the more effective and rewarding, because it flows from who you are.” Now that’s what I mean by priestly identity.

Listen to what Archbishop Rembert Weakland said to the National Conference of Priests in England and Wales in September of 1996:

I am with regard to the priesthood itself and its sacramental character, an “ontologist.” I believe that something happens when ordained that assures the validity of the acts when that person functions in the name of Christ and his Church. Such a difference does not make the person any better than anyone else, but it does assure the validity of the sacraments that a priest performs … In this we differ from so many Protestant denominations …. I have slowly come to see the wisdom of “orders” to assure order among God’s people.

Or, as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke in May of the same year: “We priests are not dispensable functionaries; we are bridges to the very mystery of God and healers of the soul. When we claim this priestly identity unapologetically, we not only find ourselves, we also provide the Church and our culture with the sustenance they require.”

You get my point. In our Catholic understanding, priestly ordination is a radical, total reordering of a man in the eyes of God and his Church, bringing about an identity of ontological
“recon-figurement” with Christ. This priestly identity is at the very core, the essence, of a man, affecting his being and, subsequently, his actions.

Enough of theory. How about some consequences of that priestly identity?

Well, because as priests we are configured to Christ at the very core of our being, our priesthood will have the same characteristics as that of the Eternal High Priest. Two especially are worthy of our consideration: our priesthood is forever, our priesthood is faithful.

“When a man says ‘yes’ to the priesthood,” says John Paul II, “that ‘yes’ is forever.”

In practice, my brothers, this means we cannot “leave” the priesthood or quit being a priest, any more that your father can stop “being” your father. The priesthood is forever.

Now most of us know a priest who has left the active ministry. The Church’s insistence on the perpetual nature of priestly identity, and my dwelling upon it, is in no way a judgement upon those many men who have left priestly life. Two of the most eloquent explanations of the eternal dimension of priestly identity I have ever heard came from two friends of mine who have both been dispensed of their priestly obligations and are now active and prominent laymen in the Church. So do not interpret my words as some chastisement of these good men.

But, no matter how many leave, no matter how many criticize, no matter how many scandals there may be, the priesthood is still forever. It is a complete, lifelong commitment to Christ and his Church.

I hope this is obvious to you, but we can take nothing for granted: if any of you look at the priesthood as less than a lifelong, absolute pledge of one’s whole being to Christ and his Church, as simply a ministry that can be left if one becomes frustrated, or a productive way to spend some years in service to people until one wants to pursue another career, please realize that such is not the mind of the Church!

How else can I say it? The priesthood is forever! How we live the priesthood, where we are assigned, what we do – all these things will certainly change, but our priestly identity will never change. The priesthood is eternal.

If that frightens you or causes you awe, good! A seminary exists to make sure that you can freely, deliberately, joyfully say the “yes” that lasts forever. God forbid anyone would take that lightly!

It is good for me to be up front about one of the great temptations of seminary life, namely to drift into the priesthood. Our decision for priesthood, our conviction that the Lord is calling me to serve him and his Church forever as a priest, must be clear, enthusiastic, deliberate, and free. We do not become priests to please Mom, Grandma, the bishop, the diocese, or anybody else; we become priests because we have prayerfully and rationally discerned God’s call, we have carefully tested that call, and we now freely and joyfully embrace it. To sustain a lifelong commitment to our priestly vocation will be next to impossible if we simply float into it. We do not become priests simply because something better has not come along. If we do, guess what? Something or someone better will come along one day, and then we’re in trouble.

How can it happen that a man will go through the seminary and then, a few years after ordination, leave? That happens, as you well know. Why? Because issues are not faced in the seminary, such as serious doubts, sins, emotional problems, personal difficulties – and they are bound to surface later.

That’s why seminaries have spiritual directors, psychiatrists, formation advisers, clear community expectations, annual evaluations, retreats, supervised pastoral service, etc. – because the call to priesthood is so total, so forever, that one must be confident and clear about it.

Everything we do at the North American College is directed to the priesthood. We begin the year with ordination to the diaconate; the presence and example of devoted priest-faculty members, fifth-year men fresh from ordination, priests on sabbatical; the ministries of lector and acolyte the closing banquet when the vice-rector reads the list of those leaving “to preach the Gospel” – constant focus on the priesthood.

“When a man says ‘yes’ to the priesthood, that ‘yes’ is forever.” A second characteristic of our priestly identity is fidelity. You know by heart Mother Teresa’s famous dictum. “The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful; he asks us to be faithful.”

I will always recall the words that Paul VI spoke to my class after diaconate ordination: “Be faithful, always be faithful.”

We are faithfully to our priestly identity no matter what the circumstances. This may sound Pollyannaish, but the value of our priesthood does not depend on where we are assigned, who our pastor is, or what type of ministry we are engaged in. Pastor Ignotus, the famous anonymous columnist for the London Tablet, meditates: “The priest is blamed for many failings. He visits rarely, preaches badly. He is anti-intellectual. The sociologists details his defects. ‘Men, not angels, ministers of the gospel,’ Newman heads a sermon. This consoles. For the priest there is no such thing as success, no gold, silver, or bronze. He just plods on and, when the going gets rough, there is very little he can do. Except, possibly, have a good cry.”

Fidelity will be easy when our priestly lives are happy, interesting, invigorating. Ah, but the sorrow, loneliness, frustration will come, and then can we be faithful? Yes, if we know that our fidelity is not a job, a career, a function, an assignment, but to a call, an identity, a Person, namely Jesus and his Church! It is not based on achievement, reward, or fulfilment.

In one of the parishes to which I was assigned, there was a couple I recall vividly. When I knew them they were already in their late forties, but twenty years before that, only about five years into their marriage, she had developed crippling rheumatoid arthritis, which left her twisted, physically useless, gradually confined to bed or a wheelchair.

He was a handsome, vigorous man, very successful as a stockbroker. For over twenty-five years he was faithful to her constantly. Every morning he got her out of bed, bathed and dressed her, helped her with breakfast; every lunch break he was home for a visit and to take her for a walk in the wheelchair. Every evening he helped her with supper, read to her, dressed her for bed. He could have left her; he could have had numerous affairs; on his business trips out of town how he must have been tempted to seek the sexual satisfaction she could not provide. Never! Always faithful! Not to what she could give him or do for him, but faithful to her, to his vocation, to his identity as a husband and father!

At times in our priesthood we will experience a dryness, a confusion, a doubt, a fatigue, a frustration, a loneliness, an anger – and that’s when fidelity is proved. Our Spouse, the Church, may at times seem crippled and useless, a drain; our Master, Jesus, may occasionally seem distant, aloof, absent. We are still faithful. As St. Thomas Aquinas prayed:

Give me, a steadfast heart which no unworthy affection may drag downwards.

Give me an unconquered heart which no tribulation can wear out.

Give me an upright heart which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow on me, O Lord my God, a faithfulness that may finally embrace you!”

So, we are faithful; we are priests at the core of our being; there is no “day off” or vacation from priestly identity, no sabbatical or retirement, no “office hours,” because our priesthood is not some external imposition but an internal identity that has captivated us from head to toe.

As rector, I am always getting suggestions regarding what I should tell the students at the seminary as future priests. One priest-friend at home, a very fine, savvy priest, advised me to exhort them to be duro (you know from that word that he is obviously an alumnus). Now, by duro, he explained, he does not mean strict, rough, mean. No he means tough, determined, dogged, persevering. He is on his diocesan personnel board and he says he is flabbergasted at the number of guys who come complaining about assignments, feeling they are not being used properly, wanting a change, needing time off, requiring a special assignment, tired of the demands. Whining,” as he calls it. Now I know him well enough to realize that he recognizes priests need compassion and understanding, and he provides it in abundance, by the way. But I think he may have had a point in calling us to be more duro. That could be another word for faithful: we keep at it, day in and day out, not allowing the setbacks and frustrations to get us down. Our pastor may be a crab, our people unresponsive, our assignment less than ideal. That’s when fidelity is the key.

“Faithful! Always be faithful.”

Now this is a lofty call. To embrace our priestly identity, to live it with confidence, humility, conviction, and gratitude, to acknowledge that it is forever and that it is faithful – that is a plateful and inspires awe and maybe even trepidation. Thus we need to be cognizant of the helps that we have in our priesthood, the supports to nurturing our priestly identity.

The first, no surprise here, is prayer. Prayer of course is predicated on the belief that by ourselves nothing is possible, while, with him, nothing is impossible. Prayer is built upon the trust that God never calls us to something without supplying the grace to do it. Listen to what the archbishop of Cincinnati, Daniel Pilarcyzk, recently said to the priests of the diocese of Pittsburgh at their convocation:

If the priest is to lead his people into contact with the presence of the mystery of God, which is what holiness is, then the priest himself has to be in touch with the presence and mystery of God. He has to be familiar with God in the deepest part of his being. This is what we call prayer. Put most bluntly, a priest without a deep prayer life is condemning himself to a career of superficiality in that aspect of his ministry which is, at the same time, the most demanding and the most satisfying.

Let’s get a little more practical about this prayer that is so essential to bolstering our priestly identity.

The divine office is a prayer particularly priestly. What a spirit of solidarity comes from realizing that every day we are united with our brother priests of the Church universal in this anthem of praise and petition! On the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of Presbyterorum Ordinis, Pope John Paul II said, “Prayer, in a certain sense, creates the priest. At the same time every priest creates himself constantly through prayer. I am thinking of the marvelous prayer of the breviary, the divine office, in which the whole Church, through the lips of her ministers, prays together with Christ …”

The greatest of all prayers, The Eucharist, is where we experience our priestly identity most intimately. Is there ever a more powerful moment of configuration with Christ, of acting in persona Christi, than when we say. “This is my body; this is my blood”? Notice we do not say, “This is his body”; no, we say, “This is my body! This is my blood!” We are Christ!

“The priest is a man of the Eucharist” continues the Holy Father in that same exhortation cited above. “In the span of nearly fifty years of priesthood, what is still most important and the most sacred moment for me is the celebration of the Eucharist. My awareness of celebrating in persona Christi at the altar prevails. Never in the course of these years have I failed to celebrate the Most Holy Sacrifice. If this has occurred, it has been due entirely to reasons independent of my will. Holy Mass is the absolute center of life and of every day of my life.”

Flowing from that would come our prayer before the Holy Eucharist. I once heard a woman psychologist, addressing priests, say how rewarding she felt it must be for a priest to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Every man, she said, needs to see something he has brought about, created – most men have that joy when they see their child. A priest has that when he beholds the Eucharist. Here is a life he has procreated, brought about with God’s help. Prayer before the Eucharist is a powerful boost to our priestly identity.

Another help for us priests is prayer in union with Mary, the Mother of the First Priest. Cardinal Szoka’s moving words about our Lady in the life of a priest during his homily at the North American College a few years ago on December 8 reminded us of this. As our natural lives and identity were formed and nurtured in the womb of our earthly mother, so is our priestly life and identity fostered under the care of our heavenly one.

Another way to guard our priestly identity is to develop strong friendships with brother priests

The companionship and support of our “comrades in arms” is an inestimable help in vivifying our own priesthood. Of course this presumes you keep the company of good, wholesome priests, not cynical, wavering ones. In fact, avoiding priestly company is usually a sign of trouble. Father Stephen Rossetti, who has done pioneer work in clerical problems, says that an indication that a priest is headed for trouble is that he is reclusive, a loner, especially uncomfortable in the presence of his brother priests.

We priests can bring out the best in one another. When we visit, share a drink, meal, day off, or vacation, discuss things, let off steam with one another, challenge one another, ask a brother if something’s bothering him, or pray together, we enhance one another’s priestly identity. Events such as support groups, days of prayer, study days, priests’ retreats, convocations, confirmations, forty hours, deanery meetings, priests’ funerals and jubilees, or just plain get-togethers – these are all good ways to build up our common identity as priests.

The art of developing and maintaining genuine friendships is one we hope is part of our life at the college.

Examine your conscience: Do you have real friends in the priesthood? Do your friends drag you down or bring out the best in you? If you were in trouble could you share with a trusted friend? Can you discuss topics like prayer, theology, vocation, fears, worries, with a good friend?

One priest you may not consider a friend, but one whom you as a priest should love, trust, and stay in touch with, would be your bishop. The intimate bond between a bishop and his priests is a theological necessity, which is to be a human reality as well. There is not a bishop I know who does not have the welfare of his priests as a top priority. As I have in the past, I encourage you now to remain in close contact with your bishop. An older priest I respect told me that twice each year – at the conclusion of his retreat and on the anniversary of his ordination – he would write the bishop a very personal letter, just reviewing his life and renewing to him his priestly promises. An excellent idea! Closeness with our bishop is a good insurance in protecting our priestly identity.

And, even though I am stressing healthy friendships with brother priests, let me not exclude good ones with the laity. They keep us on the ground. In general, our people have never had an “identity crisis” about the priesthood. They love and cherish priests, and value our ministry. While we always have to be careful about having favourites in a parish, we can and should, as we go along, cultivate close associations with people who bring out the best in us and see deep down in us that indelible mark of priesthood.

So many things can whittle away at our priestly identity that sometimes it is in jeopardy and we don’t even realize it. Thus we need the guidance of someone who knows us well, who can warn us of danger, who can encourage us when we fall. So is a trusted spiritual director a real blessing in nurturing our priestly identity, as is the grace and mercy that comes from regular celebration of the sacrament of penance.

A fourth guarantee of priestly identity would be, and this might seem somewhat generic, a way of life appropriate to priests. Under this rubric I would list such safeguards as clerical dress, a comfort in being called “Father,” simplicity of life, avoiding plush restaurants and places of entertainment, and the temptation for fancy and extravagant clothes, cars, vacations; retiring for the day at a proper time, a disciplined way of life. Common sense, perhaps, but all practical ways to protect our priestly identity.

I suppose all of these safeguards pale when we conclude with the most important aspect of fostering our priestly identity: a close, intimate relationship with Jesus. We are only priests because of our call from him and our union with him. Especially are we called to be united with him on his cross. Here, of course, he was most the priest, and we are most priests when we share in his suffering. This can be physical – we think of priests who have been tortured and imprisoned because they were priests, or priests who are sick in mind or body. This can be a spiritual suffering, as men struggle with dryness in prayer, wrestle with sin, fight temptation, or confront doubt. This can be emotional suffering caused by loneliness, inadequacy, discouragement, or the heavy burden that comes when good priests suffer with their people. The presence of the cross is not a sign that something is wrong with our priesthood, but that something is right with it! The classical writers called this “victimhood,” as the priest, like Jesus, take upon himself the sins, worries, and cares of his people, knowing full well that he will stumble a lot more than three times going up the hill of Calvary.

I have spoken about priestly identity; I have urged a sense of confidence and gratitude for our priestly vocation; I have listed some ways to safeguard and foster this identity, this “pearl of great price” that we cherish in holy orders. Now a word of caution.

Clericalism speaks of privilege, prerogatives, special treatment, being served rather than serving; it prefers sacristies to streets, and is usually more concerned with cuff links and cassocks than care of souls. Clericalism does not indicate a sense of confidence in one’s priestly call but rather such a lack of confidence in self, God, and vocation that one must prop up one’s weak identity with externals and pettiness.

What I ask you to do is contemplate the difference between clericalism and priestliness – one is a vice, the other a virtue. You know the difference, because you have seen both. I call you to priestliness, not clericalism. When with Maximilian Kolbe, you say to yourself, to your people, to your God, “I am a Catholic priest,” we say that gratefully, humbly, confidently, never arrogantly, and we say it, not expecting to be served, but expecting – like Father Kolbe – that it will lead to sacrifice for and with our people.

And it all started not with us, but with that call, that whisper from the Master to “Come, follow me,” that call all of you hear, that call all of you are discerning and translating, that call which will become audible on ordination day, that call you will answer, please God, every day of a long and fruitful priestly life. As the Holy Father Pope John Paul II said to newly ordained priests, a few years ago, “Up to the evening of your life remain in wonder and in gratitude for that mysterious call which one day echoed in the depths of your spirit: “Follow me!”

Allow me to conclude with an old poem attributed to St. Norbert:

O priest, who are you?
Not through yourself, for you are drawn from nothing.
Not for yourself, since you are mediator of humanity.
Not to yourself, for you are married to the Church.
Not your own, for you are the servant of all.
You are not you, for you are God.
Who are you, then?

0 You are nothing, and everything.

Reproduced with kind permission of Archdiocese Timothy Dolan from Priests for the Third Millennium, written when he was Rector of the North American College Rome.

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