What a Priest Is and Is Not

The end for which God has instituted the priesthood has been to appoint on earth public persons to watch over the honor of his divine majesty, and to procure the salvation of souls.

— St. Alphonsus Liguori

It is indeed a profound grace to embrace the invitation to become a Catholic priest, requiring immense courage and strength for a man to persist through the rigorous journey of six to eight years in seminary, ultimately pledging his eternal commitment on Ordination day to serve the Lord and the Church. This vocational calling represents a distinctive path, demanding unwavering perseverance to lead a priestly life of self-surrender, characterized by the sacrifice of worldly power, pleasure, and prestige in service to the Kingdom. Though a highly honorable calling, sometimes we misunderstand this vocation, idealizing it, and priests, in a way that is unhelpful for ourselves and others.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger describes the nature of the priesthood in his book Called to Communion:

Sacrament means: I give what I myself cannot give; I do something that is not my work; I am on a mission and have become the bearer of that which another has committed to my charge. Consequently, it is also impossible for anyone to declare himself a priest or for a community to make someone a priest by its own fiat. One can receive what is God’s only from the sacrament, by entering into the mission that makes me the messenger and instrument of another. Of course, this very self-expropriation for the other, this leave-taking from oneself, this self-dispossession and selflessness that are essential to the priestly ministry can lead to authentic human maturity and fulfillment. For in this movement away from self we are conformed to the mystery of the Trinity; hence, the imago Dei is consummated, and the fundamental pattern according to which we were created is brought to new life. Because we have been created in the image of the Trinity, the deepest truth about each man is that only he who loses himself can find himself.

The vocational calling to the priesthood is not for every man. It is a serious commitment where he gives his whole self for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom. St. Norbert has said:

O Priest! You are not yourself because you are God. You are not of yourself because you are the servant and minister of Christ. You are not your own because you are the spouse of the Church. You are not yourself because you are the mediator between God and man. You are not from yourself because you are nothing. What then are you? Nothing and everything. O Priest! Take care lest what was said to Christ on the cross be said to you: “He saved others, himself he cannot save!”

People often view priests in extreme ways: either as fools for embracing a life of celibacy or as men who have already received the crown of glory in sainthood. However, many fail to acknowledge the humanity inherent in a priest. Like any of us, a priest is composed of flesh and blood. They are not immune to wrongdoing; priests can also become caught up in their vices and succumb to temptation just like anyone else. None of us is without sin; priests, too, suffer with fallen human nature and thus grapple with concupiscence.

This by no means excuses the men who should have never become priests in the first place, who, from the beginning of their priestly journey, had only malice and corruption in their hearts. They had ill intent to disgrace the role of the priest and create scandal in the Church and, in the words of a priest I know, are “creeps.” St. John Chrysostom stated, “If priests sin, all the people are led to sin. Hence every one must render an account of his own sins; but the priests are also responsible for the sins of others.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when a man receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, his capacity to sin remains; however, he does receive an indelible mark or spiritual character bestowed upon him by the Holy Spirit. This enables him to minister to the People of God as an instrument of Christ for the Church (1581). St. Bernardine of Siena once said, “The power of the priest is the power of the divine person; for the transubstantiation of the bread requires as much power as the creation of the world.” A priest acts in persona Christi not by his own authority or name, but through the power granted to him by Christ Himself. This power allows him to change the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to absolve sins.

When we place a priest upon a golden pedestal, we will eventually be met with disappointment. We should not idolize a priest and follow him throughout his priesthood from parish to parish. He is a man of God, not Elvis Presley; he does not need “fans.” I do not refer to those who have changed parishes or followed priests because of a need to escape liturgical abuses or lukewarm priests. These are certainly exceptions. But the importance remains on keeping the Mass about God.

Priests have to work towards growing in holiness and traveling along the path of the spiritual life, through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. They are not canonized saints on the day of their Ordination. When we expect a priest to be perfect, devoid of any shortcomings, we set unrealistic expectations. The fact is that a priest is human, not a supernatural being.

Furthermore, a Catholic priest is not merely a “Mass machine,” mechanically delivering sacraments endlessly and tirelessly day in and day out. Priests are human beings. Upon receiving ordination to the sacerdotal priesthood, a man does not relinquish his humanity, nor does he cease to experience personal strengths and weaknesses. Some priests may have felt the desire to enter the priesthood at a young age, while others may have discerned their calling later in life. Their life experiences leading up to ordination do not vanish with the laying on of hands; rather, these experiences remain an integral part of who they are as members of the clergy, shaping their identity in the same way our own life journeys define us in the present day.

Critiquing a pastor’s decisions regarding parish matters is often tempting, yet we rarely subject ourselves to the same scrutiny. I recall a quote by one of the main characters from the movie Keeping the Faith, when Fr. Brian Finn says, “Catholics want their priests to be the kind of Catholics they don’t have the discipline to be.” It’s crucial to remember that we may not be privy to the entire narrative behind a priest’s choices, and perhaps it’s not necessary for us to fully understand. This is particularly true for our pastors, who shoulder significant responsibilities and must make decisions for the well-being of the entire parish community that helps build up the Mystical Body of Christ. They possess insights and knowledge that surpass our own, entrusted as they are to shepherd our souls because we cannot shepherd our own souls. St. John Chrysostom has said:

Do you wish to know if the people of any place are righteous? Look what sort of a pastor they have. If you find him pious, just, sound, believe the people will be the same, for they are seasoned with the salt of his wisdom.’

We have the role of the laity in the Church and should not attempt to take on that which belongs to the role of the ordained minister and the Presbyterate. We are called to focus on our own vocations and live them out faithfully as witnesses to Christ in the world, which then gives priests the strength to persevere in their own vocations. If it is not a matter of sacrilege or liturgical abuse that needs to be addressed, then we can pray for peace of mind and heart with regards to the issue or concern at hand.

Despite the challenges of sacrifice, contempt, and ingratitude that often accompany the calling to priesthood, there are still men who choose to dedicate themselves entirely to God and become Catholic priests. It is crucial that we offer our prayers for these priests, as they greatly rely on our support. A favorite prayer for priests of mine is by St. Therese of Lisieux:

O Jesus, eternal Priest,

keep your priests within the shelter of Your Sacred Heart,

where none may touch them.

Keep unstained their anointed hands,

which daily touch Your Sacred Body.

Keep unsullied their lips,

daily purpled with your Precious Blood.

Keep pure and unearthly their hearts,

sealed with the sublime mark of the priesthood.

Let Your holy love surround them and

shield them from the world’s contagion.

Bless their labors with abundant fruit and

may the souls to whom they minister be their joy and consolation

here and in heaven their beautiful and everlasting crown.

We should offer prayers and penance not only for the priests we love and cherish who are strong defenders of the faith, but also for those who are half-hearted in living out the truth. The priesthood demands a life of sacrifice, as priests serve the Church and the People of God tirelessly each day. Let us wholeheartedly support this sacred vocation by praying earnestly for more good, holy, and faithful men to answer the call to become Catholic priests.

Photo by Michael O’Sullivan on Unsplash

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Christina M. Sorrentino resides in Staten Island, New York, and is a freelance writer, theology teacher, and author of the books Belonging to Christ and Called to Love - A Listening Heart. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Ignitum Today and has contributed to various publications including Word on Fire, Radiant Magazine, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review. She has also appeared on Sacred Heart Radio, and has been featured in the National Catholic Register's "Best in Catholic Blogging". Christina blogs at Called to Love - A Listening Heart and can be followed on Twitter @cmsorrps4610.

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