Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Loving Shepherds

The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers.

We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests - in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odour of the sheep”. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep”, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.

True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets. It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep”, where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction” – not function – and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.
Pope Francis, Homily, Chrism Mass, March 28, 2013

Reflection – We had a very wise holy priest come through Madonna House a number of years ago – it would have been before I went to seminary myself, so some time in the 90s. He gave a talk that I still remember quite clearly that echoes Pope Francis’ words here.

He said that it is the nature of priest, more or less the definition of the word, to offer sacrifice. In all religions that is what ‘priest’ does; in the Catholic faith it is the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass which is the one eternal sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary made present in the life of the Church by the sacred actions of the priest.

But he said that for a Catholic priest, offering sacrifice alone is not enough. That a priest who simply looks on his ‘job’ as being the offering of the sacrifice of the Eucharist will become just another professional, a functionary. Instead, the priest has to become the sacrifice with Jesus. To be so united, identified with the ‘function’ he performs every day on the altar that it becomes the interior structure, the configuration of his own heart and being to the mystery of Christ crucified.

Well, that made a powerful impact on me, and certainly formed me in my own journey towards the priesthood. So now we have this beautiful reflection from Pope Francis calling us priests to be all sheepish, to live with the odor of the sheep, to put our skin in the game, as it were. And along with that, the dreadful prospect of becoming a ‘manager’, a functionary, a sad priest. For us priests, all of this rings very true, a very familiar struggle, a choice that lies before each of us more or less each day. Alleluia! – God does not force our consent to enter the mystery of life he has given us.

Now I do realize that the majority of my blog readers are laity, not priests, and so I want to address them (you) in this reality of the priestly call. Because, while it all gets very complicated and messy, this business of priest and people in the church, I do simply want to highlight the need of the laity to love their priests and support them.

Sometimes the shepherds might withdraw from the sheep because some of the sheep have pretty sharp teeth, you know! It is so easy, in a parish situation, for the priest to get criticized and gossiped about and picked at and harried from all sides. Father is too rigid… Father is too liberal… Father isn’t pastoral enough… Father is too wishy-washy… Father is disorganized… Father is too controlling… Father preaches about abortion too much (which usually means once)… Father never preaches about abortion…

On and on and on it can go. Well, it comes with the turf of being a priest, and most pastors I know take it in stride. But it can, and does, create a barrier, you know. It can and does get in the way of the shepherd being right in there with the sheep.

So, love your priests. He’s not perfect; we’re all just human beings muddling along together here. If you have a priest who is angry or cold or indifferent, invite him for dinner. Maybe he’s been hurt in the past. If you have a priest who holds theological views wildly divergent from you, invite him for dinner. Talk to him in a peaceful amiable way. Befriend. Pray. Love. It helps, you know. It makes a big difference, in fact. And the priest who has been loved and supported and even healed by that love of his people can then renew himself in pastoral charity and evangelical zeal for the church and the world.

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