Spiritual symbiosis: What it takes to be a good priest
I’ve just finished reading Rekindle the Gift of God by Fr. Roch A. Kereszty, O. Cist. Ignatius Press recently published this “handbook for priestly life” as a help to priests who, for whatever reason, need to refocus on the source of their priesthood and on the basic elements which can make their priesthood both effective and personally fulfilling. Now, me, I was a layman before I entered the seminary at age 19, and I was still a layman when I left the seminary at age 20. And while my wife and I (married 50 years next May, if we make it) still occasionally “admit” that we missed our vocations, that’s just a bit of marital humor.
So why did I read this book? The answer is astonishingly simple: We lay people need good priests. We can’t afford to have even one slip the harness before God calls him home. And we can’t afford to have even one become convinced he’s a failure unless and until he hears it from Jesus Christ after he dies. Being a good priest is a matter of symbiosis with those of us who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders. Not sure about this? Read on.
In one sense, of course, the key to being a good priest is exactly the same as for being a good lay Catholic or a good deacon or a good religious: Conformity to Jesus Christ, who suffered purposefully and joyfully in the effort to help those entrusted to His care to recognize and embrace His Father’s love. But each particular vocation has its own built-in parameters, its own clear channels of prayer and action, its own kinds of grace, its own triumphs of love and responsibility, its own particular forms of loss and failure, and its own temptations to inaction and even despair. This means that every vocation can experience its own doldrums—periods of drifting slowly and aimlessly, with no sense of progress or fulfillment.
At those times, in any vocation, we can be like the bruised reed which (says Isaiah) Christ will not break or, more aptly in this case, like the smoldering wick, which Christ will not quench. Indeed, Christ will not, but we might allow this to happen in ourselves, and in fact it cannot happen without our interior consent. It is just this which makes Fr. Kereszty’s title so very apt. Each vocation has its own special character and its own special trials. How, then, does the priest who sees himself smoldering “rekindle the gift of God”?
Some vocations are transformative of our very being along lines similar to baptism, but with their own specificity. The man and woman who have, before the witness of the Church, mutually conferred the sacrament of matrimony on each other emerge as persons with new and more specialized engraced capacities for new and more specialized purposes. They have been made over, so to speak, for the purposes of marriage, to be fruitful for God, for each other and for the community of which they are a part, through the special power of the marital form of sacramental life, lived as fully and as faithfully as possible. They are called now to make a sacramentally-focused use of all the natural and supernatural gifts Our Lord has given them.
The same, obviously, is true for priests. By the sacramental power of Christ conferred in Holy Orders, each priest is made over into a man who acts in persona Christi capitis, “in the person of Christ the head”—that is, the head of His mystical body, which is the Church. A whole book could also be written about the resonance of marriage with Holy Orders, since St. Paul teaches in his Letter to the Ephesians that the relationship of husband and wife in marriage is a sign of the relationship of Christ and the Church: “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). This means, among so many other things worth saying, that each time a man fails in his marital commitment, that failure teaches us, at an ecclesial level, something about the bruised reed and the smoldering wick (or worse) of a tired, troubled or tempted priest.
This bruising and this smoldering in the two vocations arise from corresponding types of lassitude, or lapse, or betrayal of Christ’s infinite yet Divinely targeted fruitfulness. It may help a priest “in the doldrums” of his vocation to recognize this parallel, just as it may help a man or a woman, “in the doldrums” of their marital vocation, to recognize the parallel in reverse. It is often easier to spot a problem in a form which is somewhat removed from our own daily personal anxiety or discontent. Both Holy Orders and Matrimony are utterly transforming. It is the task of priests, as of married couples, to bring this constantly into focus: To pray, to reflect, and to enrich their daily mission with the particular self-emptying needed for each vocation to bear its own sure fruit.
In fact, Fr. Kereszty’s fine book has three important features which make it useful not only to priests but to all Catholics. The first feature is that the book (seemingly oddly) begins with a section entitled “Discerning a Vocation” (which, after all, the targeted priestly audience has already done). In reviewing the characteristics that are generally essential to an authentic priestly vocation, however, we explore personality traits which apply in different ways to any Christian vocation. Similarly, in terms of vocational growth and vivacity, the section on “Prayer and the Priest” cannot fail to be helpful for all of God’s priestly people.
The second feature is the emphasis on the vital sacramental ministry of the priest. Lay people too can baptize as needed, and they are the ministers of Matrimony, but as a general rule the layman’s life is marked by, and depends heavily in the order of grace on, the sacramental ministry of the priest. This is very often true in Baptism and marriage preparation, and always true in the Eucharist, Confession, Confirmation, and Anointing of the Sick, not to mention the supreme worship given to the Father and the supreme graces received by all through the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice at every Mass. Insofar as priests need to increase their sense of the astonishing vitality of their sacramental ministry it is because their people—including mostly the laity—are on the receiving end of each priest’s mysteriously magnificent and astonishingly effective connection with Christ.
Fr. Kereszty does not focus on this lay side of things; he is not a layman reading this book that he wrote for priests. But the third feature of the text which makes this connection with the laity is that about thirty percent of the book is devoted to the priest’s ministry of the confessional and the centrality of issues relating to marriage and sexuality. Under these headings the author’s advice on how priests can be most helpful is the same good advice that, in one way or another and at one time or another, every lay person needs to hear.
As one would expect, of course, the book gives pride of place to “The Mystery of the Priest”, his personification at once of Christ the head and Christ the suffering servant. Thus Fr. Kereszty describes the fullness of ordained identity as priest, prophet and king (or, as he lists them in reverse: shepherd, prophet and teacher, and sacramental minister). There is also a chapter on priestly life, which covers celibacy, community life, and the necessity of a certain poverty—a genuine worldly detachment—that must be associated, in different ways, with diocesan priests and priests in a religious community. Above all, I would add, priests have a special reason to live in a way that proves to all the truth of Christ’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”. Not that the kingdom of God will be theirs, but that it already is.
Finally, in the chapter on Prayer and the Priest, we find one section on “Humility and Boldness” and another on “Prayer, Mission, and Reform”, both of which have special meaning in the priestly life. The explorations of all these topics are clearly calculated to “rekindle the gift of God” in the priest.
But once again, precisely as a layman, I found this book important and spiritually engaging enough to read all the way through. I was motivated partly, of course, by the importance of finding out whether the book is worth recommending to priests (it is). But a paradoxically more self-interested truth is that I kept learning about how being a priest is all about me. I say that with tongue in cheek, certainly, but in the deeper sense it is completely true to God’s plan. We must obviously pray for our priests, and support them however we can. But lay people simply do not exist for priests in the same way that priests exist for lay people. Priests serve us as direct, personal, engraced and transformed representatives of Jesus Christ at every point in life. We must pray for them as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
The priest who grasps this vital reality, and who succeeds in conforming himself to Christ’s love in the exercise of Christ’s authority, will bear tremendous fruit even when he cannot see the fruit he is bearing. After all, in this inability to see he simply mirrors his Lord and Savior in the Garden and on the Cross, who accepted for Himself even the loss of that consolation in His sacred passion: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” That cry fulfilled a prophecy, but it expressed a sense of abandonment no less real. So too can every priest grow into an unbreakable union with Christ even in times of desolation. Let us all, then, strive to rekindle the gift of God, not only in ourselves, but in our priests.
By the way, I thought that, in my own response to God’s call to marriage and the lay apostolate, I would soon set the world on fire. Some new priests may think the same. But I did not then understand the difference between “my results” and God’s gifts. Truly, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain, and He pours out gifts on his beloved while they slumber (Ps 127:1-2). Still, my title does ask what it takes to be a good priest. Happily, our own prayers and sacrifices can serve as kindling for such a gift—such a conflagration of love.
Fr. Roch A. Kereszty, O. Cist., Rekindle the Gift of God. Ignatius Press, 2021. 247 pp. Paper $15.26; eBook $11.67. Bulk discounts available
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