The season of priestly ordinations is in full swing. Having just completed years in seminary, this years class of 477 ordinands are now receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. With all humility and charity I offer this blog post as something of an open letter to our newest priests.
Living With the Smell of the Sheep
I ask you to reflect back on something Pope Francis said early in his papacy. He reminded all priests that they must be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Some took this admonition to mean that priests need to get out into the world to “make a difference.” This was the same misguided assessment that resulted in the emptying of rectories, monasteries and convents in the 1970’s as many priests and religious abandoned their vocation to become social workers.
Please understand that we do not need more social workers in this country. As of 2010 the United States had over 650,000 social workers, with thousands more graduating every year. What we need are more priests. As of 2013 there were less than 40,000 total priests in the United States, of whom only 26,550 were diocesan. In addition, 20 percent of U.S. parishes currently do not have a resident pastor according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
The Holy Father was right, you do need to be “living with the smell of the sheep.” There is no better way to acquire the smell of the sheep, however, than in the confessional.
Ours is a sick world. Sin is rife and grace is often lacking. While Our Lord’s mercy is limitless, our faith instructs us that the individual who dies while in a state of mortal sin spends eternity in hell. As our spiritual fathers, you must do all that you can to help keep those souls entrusted to you in a state of grace.
However, this commission to care for those in your care also requires truth and clarity on your part. People will stay away from confession if they are permitted to remain comfortable in their sin. Where apathy and lukewarmness exist, the Church will always suffer.
Please understand this: we the faithful want you to give us straight talk. Give us fully caffeinated, 100 percent authentic, unapologetic Catholicism. We want the truth. We can handle the truth!
Don’t get me wrong, there will be pushback no doubt. Very possibly it may start with the pastor of the parish you are assigned to. Many priests have spent decades not discussing sin. They have been like the parent who wants to be their kids best friend. They have made avoiding the angry email their life’s ambition. Some will not appreciate your candor. Regardless, while you must be charitable and obedient, you cannot forfeit your own soul because of their brand of cowardly Catholicism.
From the ambo speak of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Speak of the constant spiritual warfare underway in our lives. Speak of Satan, the Prince of Lies. And speak of sin. The obligation to do so comes with your ordination. Accept this as you did your very calling to the priesthood.
In addition, you must speak out against the evil which permeates our culture of death: fornication, cohabitation, contraception, abortion, same sex marriage and euthanasia. Recognizing the symptoms and diagnosing the “disease”, do not commit spiritual malpractice by avoiding the treatment and cure. Souls are lost when priests abdicate their God given responsibility. Trust God, and trust the faithful in the pews, who ultimately will listen and respond to your fatherly concern for their eternal souls. The world needs more sanctifying grace at this moment in time. More people need to avail themselves to God’s infinite mercy.
The Most Beautiful Thing This Side of Heaven
Sacred scripture tells us that there is nothing more important we can do than to love God with all our heart, soul and strength. (Luke 10:27). There is no greater priority for a Catholic priest than to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. St. Peter Julian Eymard advised the faithful:
“Know, O Christian, that the Mass is the holiest act of religion. You cannot do anything to glorify God more, nor profit your soul more, than by devoutly assisting at it…”
The Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, hang a little board in the sacristies of each of their orders chapels around the world which reads:
Priest of God,
Celebrate this Mass as if it is your first Mass,
Your last Mass and your only Mass.
It is with this level of reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar that you will restore devotion to the Eucharist and a sense of the sacred to the Liturgy. Even if your first parish assignment as a priest presents you with an environment heavily infused with the secular and profane, do not despair. You offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. You are an alter Christus.
Back in the 19th century English priest Father Frederick Faber described the Mass as “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven”. Please remember that beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. Just as truth is objective, so is beauty (and for that matter goodness too). People recognize beauty when introduced to it. Lead by example and challenge others to do the same.
Challenge your parishioners. Catechize them. Teach them that we pray as we believe. Introduce the writings of Ratzinger and Guéranger to the faithful. “The Spirit of the Liturgy” and “The Holy Mass” are required reading if you are going to restore the sacred and revitalize the faith.
The False Charge of Clericalism
I’ve blogged on this before. There is a good chance some people will accuse you of clericalism as you seek to be the priest God is calling you to be. It does not take much: a sprinkling of Latin in the liturgy, a refusal to use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at daily masses, traditional vestments or even the request to be called by your last name (Fr. Smith, for example, instead of the warm and fuzzy “Fr. Bill”).
Don’t discourage. Turn to your brother priests for camaraderie, particularly those who are experiencing similar challenges. No doubt, some will call you aloof for this. So be it. Just as married men do well to keep company with other married men, Catholic priests do well to spend time with other priests. They will be your band of brothers.
And one more thing: please wear the cassock! If there is anything that drives an aging Modernist to drink, it’s a young priest in a cassock. You boldly proclaim your priesthood when dressed for “spiritual battle.” It is also great for the next generation. Much like a policeman or fireman, a Catholic priest’s uniform is the collar and the cassock. Children notice. Don’t be afraid to be a Catholic superhero!
Pope Pius XII, was addressing priests of any era when he wrote in the encyclical “Mediator Dei”:
“The indelible mark on the souls of priests comes with the power of the priesthood and it conforms them to Christ. Their hands have been consecrated so that whatever they bless may be blessed, whatever they consecrate may become holy and sacred in the name of the Lord Jesus. Let all who would live in Christ flock to their priests.”
Amen. And congratulations. Deo gratias.