Many years ago, a priest for whom I have great respect said to me during a conversation about vocations, “We don’t need more priests. We have too many priests.” I was so stunned that I did not know how to understand his comment, nor how to respond.
I think I understand now. We don’t need more priests; we need more holy priests. My friend was a holy priest, and thanks be to God for making our paths cross. There are other kinds of priests, who cause great grief to the Church. Thanks be to God also for Pope Francis, who has made public his awareness of the need for holy priests – priests who live the holy vocation, who serve in the name of Christ our Lord. Pope Francis recently received in audience Monday seminarians from a Pontifical College at the Vatican. In his comments to the seminarians, he included this:
You, dear seminarians, are not preparing to engage in a profession, to become employees of a company or of a bureaucratic organization. We have so many, so many half way priests. It is a sorrow, that they do not succeed in reaching the fullness: they have something about them of employees, a bureaucratic dimension and this does no good to the Church. I advise you, be careful that you do not fall into this! You are becoming pastors in the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to be like Him and in His person in the midst of his flock, to feed his sheep.
“We have so many, so many half way priests.” Half way priests. This is one way to describe the many who seemed to begin a response to a holy calling, but who chose a “compromise” along the way. Men who perhaps really heard, at the first, a call to leave the world and follow Jesus with all their heart, mind, soul and strength – but they wanted a compromise with the world, half way. It does not work. Half way does not work, in one’s relationship with God.
Do we need more priests? We might say we need fewer half way priests, and more whole-hearted, wholly consecrated, wholly committed – holy – priests. We don’t need employees of a [religious] “company”, or CEOs of one either. We need pastors of souls, for the Kingdom of God.
St. Augustine saw, discerned and wrote of the irreconcilable clash of the two loves that vie for the heart of a man, the two gods, the two callings in the souls of men. Every man must choose and choose definitively: I will follow God, or I will follow men and this world. I will seek His will, or I will pander to theirs. Augustine said it this way (City of God, Bk XIV Ch 28):
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.
There is no compromise! But through the ages men have tried to make a compromise with God, to find a middle ground, to have it both ways – indeed to have both cities, the City of Man and the City of God. Men and women are tempted to this impossible compromise – laity, clergy, religious and secular. There is no compromise. “Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
This leads to a thought that ought to be very troubling. Yes, among the Catholic laity are citizens of the City of God, thanks be to God. These are Catholics seeking holiness, seeking sanctity, seeking to be faithful to God and to His intentions for us – willing to say “no!” to anything but God and His will. But there are also among the lay members of the Church, citizens of the City of Man who are trying to work an impossible compromise, trying to be acceptable to God while still following the loves, ambitions, and values of the secular world. They can be active in all the social events, fund raisers, committees and boards of the parish, but they are lukewarm spectators during the Mass.
Among the clergy, and the consecrated religious – those who are religious leaders – there are, as well, citizens of the City of God, and others who are citizens of the City of Man, seeking to work the easy but impossible compromise with God. These, who wear the titles and clothing of the City of God, are in their hearts citizens of the world, of the City of Man – “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” For the clergy and consecrated religious, the burden and responsibility before God are great, and thus the moral imperative is grave. Jesus was strong in His warnings and judgement against the scribes, and the Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Mt 23:13)
Yes, the result of religious leaders loving the world and seeking a middle ground – and thus avoiding the cross, promised by Jesus – is hypocrisy within themselves and grave scandal to those who innocently follow them. Their Gospel is not of life, but of the world, and it is received and loved by men who love their sins. But Jesus warned, in fact to His disciples, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Lk 17:2) A religious leader, a guide for others seeking God, must – must – be true to God and seek His approval in all things, and not pander to or seek the approval of men. He must seek to please God, and not be a man-pleaser. He can do good for men truly, only if he is true to God. The religious leader can be a blessing for men only if he seeks the blessings of God in all things. He must be a man of prayer, in communion with God, before he can speak a helpful word to others. Pope Francis urged those seminarians to the path of holiness:
And this path means to meditate every day on the Gospel, to transmit it with your life and your preaching; it means to experience the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And never leave this! Go to confession, always! And in this way you will become generous and merciful ministers because you will feel the mercy of God upon you. It means to nourish yourselves with faith and with love of the Eucharist, to nourish the Christian people with it; it means to be men of prayer, to become the voice of Christ that praises the Father and intercedes continually for brothers (cf. Hebrews 7:25).
The advice that the Pope is giving the seminarians should seem obvious. Be men of prayer! Be men close to the mind and heart of Christ, the Good Shepherd! Use time every day to reflect and meditate on the Gospel!
We might add some advice along the same lines. Do not be seekers of the praise and glory of men! Jesus said, “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44) Do not pander to their desires, making light of the Gospel with easy truths and funny stories, making short the holy sacrifice of Mass to keep from offending their schedules, catering to the comfort of parish contributors while ignoring the mission of the Church, and the true spiritual needs of the sheep. Take precious time with the Lord – before the Blessed Sacrament, in His Holy Word. Meditate upon and pray the Scripture Readings personally, in quiet and solitude, before the Lord. Be the man who unfolds His words to reveal Jesus the Word for the people in Holy Mass. Be the man who “trembles” at His Word! (Is 66:2) Be the man who finds his life in His Word, Jesus!
We need to pray for the Church! We need to pray for holy bishops, and priests, and deacons, and religious sisters and brothers – and all lay Catholics! All are called to holiness! None are called to mediocrity, to lukewarmness, to half-heartedness in the things of God. All are called to holiness. All are called to His Cross, and are given a cross of their own, to carry and to follow behind Him. All are called to offer their lives as a living sacrifice, in union with His, which is our spiritual worship. (Rom 12:1)
The priestly vocation deserves to be lived faithfully, generously and heroically. The Pope challenged the seminarians whom he addressed to take a sober assessment of themselves, and their personal response to the call of God. He said,
If you – but I say this from my heart, without offending! – if you, if one of you, is not willing to follow this way, with these attitudes and these experiences, it is better that you have the courage to look for another way. There are many ways in the Church of giving Christian witness and so many ways that lead to sanctity. In the ministerial following of Jesus there is no room for mediocrity, that mediocrity that leads always to use the holy People of God for one’s own advantage. But Heaven help evil pastors, because the Seminary, let’s say the truth, is not a refuge for the many limitations we might have, a refuge from psychological lacks or a refuge because I don’t have the courage to go forward in life and I seek there a place that defends me. No, it’s not this.