This question can be applied to other areas of life. Do you want to be married, for example? The reasons are many: to escape the merry-go-round of dating, because two can live as cheaply as one, because it would please my parents. These, of course, are fringe benefits at best, but avoid the real meaning of marriage. Likewise, to the question, do you want to be the President of the United States, one could say that it would bring wealth, fame, interesting company, and travel at the country’s expense. But would you be prepared to deal with endless criticism, political slander, overwhelming responsibilities and retain enough integrity and wisdom to meet the real demands of the presidency?
And so, we ask the question, do you want to be a priest? There is a multitude of fringe benefits: admiration, someone to make your meals, a nice place to live which you could not otherwise afford, etc. But do you want to accept the most essential demand of the priesthood?
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen has answered this question once and for all time in his 336-book, Those Mysterious Priests. It is my task, in this brief article, to provide a snapshot of what the Venerable Sheen has said, in a relatively brief exegesis. First of all, we may answer the easier question, “Why does Sheen refer to priests as mysterious?” It is because they are “amphibious.” That is to say, that they live in two worlds, at once human and divine. “No life is more adventurous,” the good bishop points out, “for at every moment, like the trapeze artist, he is swinging between time and eternity.”
The great challenge for the priest, then, is to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. It is not to be drawn into the world. One question leads to another. “What is the world into which the priest should not be drawn? It is not the world that God created, but the one man has organized, with its unremitting emphasis on money, pleasure, and self-aggrandizement. St. Paul tells us that “For the wisdom of this world is folly in God’s sight” (1 Corinthians 3:19). “Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of the present world” ( Romans 12:2).
Nonetheless, not being exclusively “in” the world is a negative description of the priest. Sheen defines the essence of the priest in two words. The priest is Priest/Victim, and these two words were never meant to be disjoined. The dissociation of “Victim” from “Priest” results in a priest who is alienated from his own essence. “Since the world is the standard,” Sheen states, how shall the priest be judged”? “By his opposition to secularism, or by his identification with it?”
In a single sentence, Sheen offers us a concise and precise summary of his lengthy tome: “The intellectual and moral commitment of the priest to the Sermon on the Mount needs also the existential surrender to the prolongation of the Cross.” Christ is the lamb who is led to slaughter. The priest is an imitation of Christ. And, in a sentence that the author italicizes, “The priest is one who makes Christ lovable.”
The priest, of course, like any other human being, needs food, drink, sleep, exercise and humor. The latter shares equal importance with its predecessors. “No professional body in the world has more humor in a get-to-gether than priests,” according to Sheen. Pope John XXIII, now St. John, once said to Bishop Sheen, that “The Good Lord knew from all eternity that I would be Pope. He also had eighty years of my lifetime to prepare me. Wouldn’t you think that with all that time, He would have made me more photogenic?” This is the kind of poking fun at one’s self that makes priests lovable.
The lightness of spirit which is characteristic of the priest who lives in two worlds is corroborated by St. Thomas Aquinas: “There is some good in playing,” writes the Angelic Doctor, “inasmuch as it is useful for human life. A man needs from time to time to rest and leave off bodily labors, so also his mind from time to time, must relax from intense concentration on serious subjects.”
Bishop Sheen was very fond of humor and used it frequently to enrich his sermons and amuse his audience. In Those Mysterious Priests, he uses a joke to illustrate an essential point. “In Boston, a maid enters a parlor one Saturday evening, and announces to all the guests: ‘For all who do not like baked beans, dinner is over’.” The point, of course, is that for the priest without Christ, his priesthood is over.
As a Priest/Victim, the priest leads people to heaven, as Christ did through His life and crucifixion. “We are winged by our wants,” Sheen reminds us. The hope of the future mansion is the house unfinished here. The priesthood learns victimhood in the unsatisfied soul.” If people choose a new streamlined, modern-day, super-star Christ without the Cross, what they will get is the Cross without Christ.
Those Mysterious Priests was written in 1977. In today’s climate, Bishop Sheen on TV probably would not work. Many would find him too flashy, too opinionated, too sure of himself, and regard many of his analogies as no longer apt. But his words and the thoughts they engender are not time-bound. They will live forever, because what He has to say is for all people and for all times. Because what he has said is timeless, they are relevant for any time. Cultures change, but the Word of God lives on forever.
If you want to be a priest, then, you should want to be a Priest/Victim. When the Final Judgment takes place, Christ will say, “My Mother spoke to me about you.”