As the Jubilee Year for Priests begins, allow me to offer a brief reflection on the beauty and dignity of the priesthood. I write as one who has lived in this state of life for more than twenty years and who has regular contact with many good priests from around the world. Pope Benedict’s call to dedicate a year to deepening our appreciation for the priesthood is an invitation to reflect deeply on the mystery of priestly grace being lived in our midst. We have all been blessed, literally or figuratively, by the ministry of priests, and we all must thank God for this great gift to our Church and our world.
Some realism about the priestly vocation has to both enlighten our view of priests and dampen our expectations of them. Catholic priests are not worldly leaders, they are not perfect and they are not God. Rather, they are God’s chosen servants given the duty of blessing, teaching and leading souls to heaven, and for that reason they have a fierce reckoning to go through on the Day of Judgment. On the final day, the High Priest Himself will weigh His black-robed servants in the scales against the souls that were sent them for care, and the scales will not lie.
The failure of a priest is sad and hurtful, but that just proves that the priest is immersed in the woundedness of the human condition and given to the people for their welfare. He always bears the scars of battle and sometimes fails. He always has to apologize more than the average man for his failures because they have a greater impact on people, and if his public profile is higher than most, his humiliation is often much greater because his faults and failings are usually seen in living color by thousands. That is the tremendous risk of being a priest, but he knows about it ahead of time and he takes it for the sake of the souls he is called to serve. The priest has to throw away everything to serve God’s people, including his comfort, his ambitions and his ego.
Even though priests don’t ask it enough, every priest needs the prayers of his people to support him against the wiles of the world, the flesh and the devil. More than anything, however, he needs prayers to strengthen and confirm him in the grace that he has been given to be that shining light of faith to the world. The grace from these prayers always returns to the one who prays because everyone who prays for priests is served better by them. Prayers for the priesthood in general add more soldiers to the ranks of the clergy and keep some of the failing ones from leaving. Prayers for individual priests and their souls are enormously helpful to a priest’s integrity and his generosity of service. We must never underestimate the power of prayer for God’s servants. They are always fruitful for the Kingdom of God.
People can sometimes be very generous to priests in a material way, and I can say from a personal standpoint that such generosity is always appreciated by us. However, priests really don’t need material gifts or homes offered to us as substitutes for the sacrifices we make for the Kingdom. The Church takes care of us in these aspects of life. What we need is spiritual support for our spiritual work and every once in a while a healthy reminder from the laity that our vocation is not of this world. The prayers of the faithful have gone a long way to sustaining priests in their commitment to the salvation of souls just as the prayers of priests bring so many of the laity the strength they need to overcome the difficulties of life and be fortified for our ongoing spiritual combat.
Just as every soldier deserves good leadership in war because his life will depend on it, so God’s people deserve good priests who are spiritual warriors fighting for their souls, because if these are lost, everything else is, indeed, lost.