|Dear John, Good luck with your new website. While I wish you well, I’m not able to write regularly for your website. Feel free to use the attached essay on the priesthood. Should you choose to use it, please cite the reference from the Orbis book which is placed at the end of the essay. Wishing you a blessed Christmas. Don Cozzens (email received 2011-12-20)|
The Humbling of the Priesthood
The smell of beeswax candles and freshly starched surplices
lingered in the servers’ sacristy as four sleep-deprived boys assigned
morning Mass took comfort from the morning cold. Moments later, vested in
black cassock and white surplice, we went studiously about our duties.
Cruets of wine and water and a starched finger towel were placed on the
credence table and the altar candles were lighted. As instructed, we
checked to see that our surplices were on straight in the floor length
mirror. We were ready. Then with the solemnity of the Swiss Guard, we led
the priest to the foot of the altar and the sacred, mystical ritual
unfolded. Introibo ad altari Dei....
More than half a century later, I can say that serving Mass shaped my
Catholic imagination, gave me a sense of the sacred, and set me on the
path that led to ordination.
When the late Bishop Kenneth Untener was asked why he became a priest, he liked to reply: “It wasn’t my idea.” Well, I have an idea why I’m a priest today. Not a clear idea, of course. I still shake my head in wonder at the mystery of grace, destiny, and freedom that seem to be the essential ingredients for what Catholics call a “vocation”. It was my idea to become a priest—and it wasn’t my idea to become a priest. But beeswax, starch, and an amorphous sense of the sacred had their place in my pre-adolescent longing to be a priest one day.
Looking back to my altar-boy days, the priests I knew weren’t particularly gifted men. There was a certain aura about them, however; a quality hard to name. A handful were clearly bright and talented. One became a bishop, another, a seminary rector. To my young and inexperienced eyes, they were each men of mystery who daily touched the hem of the divine. They offered Mass, forgave sins, baptized, married, and buried. No senator, judge, or physician quite captured the imagination of Catholics then as did the parish priest. When my parents spoke of Doc Scullen, the pastor of Holy Name parish during the Depression and World War II years, it was with a note of affection. It was more than the respect commonly shown to clergy—it seemed to me they revered this man. They said Doc Scullen knew every parishioner by name and that he somehow found a way to get help for families in trouble. My parents’ pastor and the parish priests of my youth stirred something inside me. I wanted to be one of them.
Most pre-Vatican II Catholics in the steel-town of
But it was the priest, not the bishop, who anchored and
directed the life of a parish. And for pre-Vatican II Catholics, the
parish was the church. It was the parish, not the diocesan headquarters we
know as the chancery or
The religious world of pre-conciliar Catholics rested on three cornerstones: adherence to the doctrines of the church, a prayer life fostered by the sacraments and parish devotions, and a moral life in harmony with the commandments of God and the church. In other words, the practicing Catholic’s inner life was sustained by doctrine, devotion, and morality. In shorthand—believe, behave, and be saved. For most, behaving was the hard part, especially when it came to sex. From this perspective, a Catholic’s interior life was reduced to the condition of his or her soul—one was in the state of grace or in the state of mortal sin. Die in the state of grace, and one was saved; die in the state of mortal sin, and one was lost. The great, singular prize was salvation—to merit eternal life with God and the communion of saints in heaven. For the believer whose understanding of religion was, to a great extent, moral living, the priest was the human broker of salvation. He alone possessed the power to absolve from sin.
The power of absolution was trumped only by the priest’s power to celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass—to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Not only could the priest make one right with God through absolution, the priest made it possible to do more than touch the hem of the divine—he made it possible to receive Holy Communion, to be mysteriously, unspeakably close to God. “My God, what a life! And it is yours, oh priest of Jesus Christ.” (Henri Lacordaire)
Humbling of the Priesthood
Post-Vatican II priests are leaning into cold, humbling winds their pre-Vatican II brothers were mostly spared. Consider the following realities and issues—an aging, dwindling priest corps, a drastic drop in the number of seminarians, the questioning of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests, conflicting theologies over who is suited for the priesthood by gender and sexual orientation, and parents dissuading their sons from even thinking about a life as a priest. Nothing, however, has buffeted and humbled the priesthood as the shocking, staggering, sexual betrayal of children and adolescents by a significant number of clergy and the corresponding cover-up of the abuse by many bishops. The fallout from the clergy abuse scandals for priests and bishops—and for the church in general—is difficult to exaggerate. Moreover, unless church leaders are committed to identifying and correcting the systemic and institutional factors at play in the abuse scandals, for example, the secrecy and divisiveness of clericalism, the priesthood will continue to flounder.
From a spiritual perspective, a humbled priesthood is a good thing. One of the great contributions of the Council was its emphasis on the church as the pilgrim people of God and that all the baptized, in terms of spiritual dignity, were equal members of the church. Only in a metaphorical sense, then, is the priest a man set apart. He is ordained to be the pastoral leader of the parish community, but not the only leader. His ministry as preacher, sacramental minister, and servant-leader remains essential to the health and vibrancy of the church. But the priest is not the only one anointed by the Spirit with gifts and talents for the good of the church. Finding his place along side the deacon, the lay ecclesial minister, the vowed religious, and the many untitled ministers in his parish will be an on-going challenge for the priest of the post-conciliar church.
There are, of course, other challenges facing the post-conciliar priest. Engaging and relating to educated, thinking, believing Catholic women is a daunting challenge for large numbers of priests. Many don’t quite know what to do with the articulate, well-read women of their parish even as they admit that a church that does not hear the Word of God preached in the voice of women remains skewed and handicapped. At the same time, priests sense the power differential between laity and clergy has changed. Catholics have come to imagine God differently in the post-Vatican II church. They no longer seem to be afraid of God’s wrath—at least in the sense of spending an eternity in hell for missing Mass on Sunday. Pastors have known for some time now what recent surveys have made clear: more than two-thirds of Catholics don’t celebrate Sunday Mass. For the majority of the faithful who fall into this category, there is little need for a pastor in the sense that Doc Scullen was pastor to the people of my home parish. Rather, they tend to see their parish priest more as a chaplain—someone on the margins of their lives they can call upon for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. It’s not this way, of course, in many of our healthy, vibrant parishes, but the mindset holds, I’m convinced, for large numbers of Catholics.
On to the Sacred
It began for me with beeswax candles and starched surplices,
with stained glass windows, with sisters who smelled of Ivory soap and
unruffled priests who appeared to be genuinely happy men. Growing up as an
altar boy in the village I knew as Holy Name parish gave me a priceless
gift—a sense of the sacred. And without a fundamental sense of the
sacred, a sense of the hidden presence of God, Catholicism loses its
savor. That’s why the sacraments—especially the Eucharist—are
central to the life of faith. But the presence of the Spirit, the unbidden
touch of the sacred, can’t be restricted to the sacramental life of the
church. At least from time to time, Catholics discover the presence of God
in their homes, their workplaces, in shopping malls, in sprawling cities,
in the silence of the woods. They experience the sacred in our great
cathedrals and churches and in hospices and soup kitchens. The college
students I teach speak of finding a sense of the sacred on their service
Having, by God’s grace, a sense of the Holy, priests should by their very presence foster a sense of the sacred, a sense of mystery. Perhaps as much by the integrity of their lives as their preaching and ministry, priests should prompt people to wonder at the hidden presence of the divine. The best priests I knew as a boy did this. The best priests I know today do this. The ones who mask their humanity behind the persona of the priest, who never seem to be quite real, never do.
The cold, humbling winds continue to blow and today’s
priests lean steadfastly into them. In these days without sun, no one
thinks priests can walk on water, but the One who once did stands with
them. That should be enough.
A slightly different version of this article
appeared in Reclaiming Catholicism:
Treasures Old and New, edited by Thomas H. Groome and Michael J.
Daley, Orbis Press, February, 2010. Permission for use in the John Carroll