On Sunday, Fathers Day, Fr. Gerry was in a great spirits. It was, after all, his day. He has adopted children whom he raised as a priest with great love. He was bustling about the sacristy and asked me if there was a Deacons Day.
Smiling, I replied, “No, but there is a year for priests.” Fr. Gerry laughed.
Fr. Gerry is one of those priests who decline honors and sees himself as a servant. These are the sort of priests who are a bit embarrassed that Benedict XVI has proclaimed a “Year for Priests” that began on June 19.
We have been blessed with many wonderful priests in the history of the Church. In our book Ascend, we include profiles of some of them; Ignatius of Loyola, Miguel Pro, Bartolomé de las Casas, Mychal Judge, Thomas Merton, Matteo Ricci, John Henry Newman. And the witness of John Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, has stood the test of time to exemplify how a pastor can help to deepen the faith of his parishioners when they open their hearts to the free gift of grace offered by God, who brings all people to himself.
But in his letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, the Holy Father used some rather troubling quotations from John Vianney that seem to indicate Benedict’s approval of a certain clericalist outlook on the life of the Church.
Certainly I do not wish to find fault with John Vianney. His words were directed to a particular people in a particular place and time. I do not pretend to second-guess him. But when Benedict quotes these words favorably in a modern context they present a certain disconnect. These words seem to indicate a certain clericalist mindset that is troubling.
Among the quotations of John Vianney that Benedict cited with apparent approval are these:
“A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” I think St. Lawrence would disagree. He said the poor and outcast are the treasures of the Church, not priests.
Benedict quoted John Vianney as saying of the priest: “God obeys him.” Really? Should not the priest obey God?
“After God, the priest is everything!” Wow. So how far after the priest is the Gospel ranked?
“It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth…” Got that? Everyone else is apparently unnecessary. I can almost hear John Henry Newman screaming in despair.
And here is perhaps the most insulting passage in the Holy Father’s letter: “Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there …” Oh really? I wonder how this passage sounded to the descendants of the Christians of Nagasaki, who kept their faith for hundreds of years without priests when the missionaries were expelled from Japan. I think of Black Elk, the Lakota catechist, who ministered to his impoverished people when no priests could minister there.
Don’t get me wrong. We need priests. And we also need bishops, deacons and laity. When we elevate priests to some sort of divine arbiter between God and humanity, we set ourselves up for the kind of crises we experienced here in the United States with the clerical abuse crisis and we have heard about in Ireland, where priests and religious systematically tortured, raped and enslaved children.
So we have this year for priests. Let’s observe it. Let’s encourage those priests who follow in the way of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, and challenge those priests who consider themselves a divine caste above the People of God. It is the role of the laity to remind priests of these word of John Vianney quoted by Benedict in his letter as advice to his fellow priests: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back.”
What we need is less triumphalistic, clericalist proclamations such as this letter by our Holy Father that focus on priestly dignity and privilege, and more everyday witness by priests like Fr. Gerry, who strive to live as servants of God’s people.
Many of our parishes have had decades of “years for priests.” When do parishioners get their year?