Nearly every single day, except on Sundays, I walk the Way of the Cross with Our Lord and Our Lady on behalf of bishops, priests, and seminarians. Over time, Christ showed me in prayer how essential and central the Cross is in the life of the priest in a way that differs from the laity. Priests are called to be configured to Christ on the Cross at a higher level.
When Our Heavenly Mother looks upon her priest-sons, she is filled with tremendous love because they are called to be a close reflection of her son the Eternal High Priest in a way the other vocations simply cannot be called to. Priests are ontologically linked to Christ. They are called to climb up onto the Cross with Christ and to pour themselves out in kenotic love for the salvation of souls as other Christs.
The Cross and the priest as victim
The clergy sex abuse scandals, corruption, and mediocre response to the pandemic by some in the hierarchy has shown the Church that too many of her priests have simply put down their Cross or they refused to pick it up on ordination day. Our Lord stood over them on ordination day holding their Cross. When they prostrate themselves on the floor and surrendered everything to Him, they were committing to walking the Way of the Cross every single day in their priestly ministry.
This sacrificial dimension of the priesthood must be reclaimed because it is the path to renewal. Priest-saints are made on the Cross. It is only through the Cross that the priest can enter into the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for it is on the Cross that the Divine Love is poured out for the salvation of souls. This is where his identity is fully revealed in order to enter into union with Our Lord’s Real Presence which is the re-presentation of the Cross at every Mass.
In his book, The Priest Is Not His Own, Venerable Fulton Sheen focuses on the victimhood of the priest as he is called to be united to Christ the Eternal Victim-Priest. This victim dimension sheds light into the nature of the priesthood and how the priestly vocation must be understood through a completely sacrificial dimension that imitates Christ Himself.
The priest is not a social worker, social justice warrior, administrator, or fundraiser. He is called to be crucified with Christ for the salvation of souls. It is through this daily crucifixion and outpouring of kenotic love that the priest can be a faithful and holy minister of God’s Word, the Sacraments, and live his calling to pastoral charity.
The laity and renewal of the priesthood
The laity can help renew the priesthood by coming to a deeper understanding of the sacrificial nature of the priesthood. One of the first ways we must do this is by abandoning erroneous views of the sacrificial nature of the priesthood beginning with our worldly views of celibacy. The reality is, many in the laity view the priesthood with a form of condescending pity in this department. Until we embrace the priest’s calling to sacrifice himself entirely to Christ for the salvation of souls then we cannot help priests embrace their true identity on the Cross.
Those in the laity who view priests as lonely or repressed fail to grasp the higher spiritual calling they have been given so that they can fulfill their priestly ministry of leading us to Christ. There will be no marriage or sex in heaven. The priesthood is a sign to us of this reality. Their sacrifices reveal to us that we are made for God and for heaven. Human love is a great gift, but it is imperfect and it cannot completely fulfill us. Only living in intimate union with God can lead to our ultimate happiness and fulfillment. A priest’s entire life is meant to be lived in intimate union with God so he serves as a guide to us on the way to heaven.
Do we pity Christ for dying on the Cross? He freely dies for us so He can rise again in order to conquer sin and death. Then why do we pity priests for giving up their very lives in service and union with Christ for the Church and the conversion of souls? Fulton Sheen talks about the sacrifice of Christ in a way that relates to how we can come to understand the sacrifices of priests. He states:
The victimhood of our High Priest should not, however, be thought of as a tragedy in the sense that He had to submit to death, as the lambs had to submit to the knife of the Old Testament priests. Our Lord said: “Nobody can rob Me of it [My life]; I lay it down of My own accord. I am free to lay it down, free to take it up again; that is the charge which My Father has given Me.”
Our Lord freely gives Himself over on the Cross as the new Paschal sacrifice. He accepts his victimhood for the salvation of souls. The priest does the same thing at ordination. Unless a man is poorly formed in seminary or immature, after six years of seminary, he should know exactly what he is agreeing to, even if he cannot fully know what he will encounter in ministry.
He knows that he is forsaking his own freedom through a promise of obedience and he is accepting a life of celibacy for his Bride the Church, and if he is a religious priest, he is also accepting a communal life of poverty. If the priest understands what he has chosen, then we in the laity should fully embrace their sacrificial vocation. It should deepen our love for them since it is through their sacrifice and powerful witness that we are led more deeply into the mysteries of our Faith.
The supernatural witness of celibacy
Priests invite us to rise above the things of this world to the things of God. Their promises lead them to a freedom that often is a much greater struggle for those of us who must live entirely in the world, even as we are not of it. The call to celibacy is a call to surrender entirely to the Divine Love:
The priest is pledged to celibacy not because human generation is wrong, but because it must yield so that he can devote himself wholly to a higher form of generation: the begetting of children in Christ by bringing to Him those who never knew Him, by restoring to Him those lost in sin, and by arousing in those who already love Christ the inspiration to serve Him more fully as a religious or priests. The energy that otherwise would be used for the service of the flesh is not buried in a napkin. It is transformed so that it serves chaste generation in the Spirit.
Too often the vow of chastity is presented negatively as the avoiding of carnal and sinful pleasures… Chastity is fire.
The Divine Love is an inferno. It is this burning love poured out from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Cross that leads to the supernatural love of the priesthood. This love is only found through sacrifice, through victimhood united to Christ on the Cross.
In order for true renewal to take place within the priesthood, there must be a return to the sacrificial nature within the priesthood itself. Priests must once more—as so many already do—pick up their Cross and Walk the Way of the Cross each day leading the souls in their care to Calvary.
In order for the laity to help strengthen and encourage the priesthood, we must abandon our worldly views of their sacrifices beginning with celibacy. Only then will we be able to call them to the heights of supernatural charity they are meant to reach. If we want saintly priests, then we must call them to walk the Way of the Cross united to Christ and Our Heavenly Mother surrendering everything in the process. We must seek to do the same within our own vocations.