In our obsession with worldly standards of success, we forget the message of the littleness of the Gospel.
We learn from the Church’s sacred Tradition and the Scriptures the sublime role the priest plays as a steward of God’s mysteries in the vineyard of the Lord, responsible for bringing the Good News of salvation to God’s holy people. Through the grace of his ordination, the priest partakes of the riches of Jesus Christ in immeasurable and unspeakable ways, and shares those riches freely with the flock entrusted to his care.
He earns none of these holy favors, he merits nothing of what he shares. His is a sublime and supernatural task that no priest is capable of carrying out without divine help and intervention at every step of this mysterious mission. It is God—in his Holy Spirit—working in and through the priest who brings this work to fruition.
This supernatural mission is carried out not on the clouds of heaven but in the trenches of the world. So it is that the priest in the western world engages in a sort of spiritual tug-of-war, battling the temptation to measure his priestly calling by the standards of the world, not divine standards. He reels under the pressure to achieve something tangible on the world’s stage, something he can feel, see and touch. Something he can show the whole world, something the world will appreciate and applaud.
It’s a concept of worth greatly influenced by the Protestant work ethic, which to great extent measures success by the external signs of wealth, achievement and production. Under this ethic, the external manifestations of success become signs of God’s favor bestowed on the believer.
The modern priest—along with modern man—is beset with the ongoing temptation to justify himself before God and man. To justify his existence, so to speak, by what he does and what he accomplishes. To live out of fear that he is not meeting certain preconceived expectations of worldly success.
Loosely speaking, we can say the great St. Paul himself faced similar pressures. He was similar to the modern-day perfectionist, struggling to justify his own existence by works rooted in the law. He sought perfection under the strictures of the Old Testament, as an observant—and highly advanced—Jew under the tutelage of Gamaliel. “If anyone else thinks he can be confident in flesh, all the more can I. Circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage, in observance of the law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the church, in righteousness based on the law I was blameless” (Phil. 4:4-6). He was winning salvation for himself, so to speak.
In Gal. 1:14, he says: “I made progress in Jewish observance far beyond most of my contemporaries, in my excess of zeal to live out all the traditions of my ancestors.”
In our own day, our concept of worth is very similar to St. Paul’s scale of advancement on the ladder of the Law. It’s very much a scorecard mentality, of winners and losers, measured by external evidence, by the numbers, by a sort of barometer of achievement. We gauge our importance, our worth, according to money, position, power and prestige. On the ladder of success, the wealthiest and most important are at the top and the poorest and least significant are at the bottom.
In Catholic circles, it is not unusual for a priest to be perceived as a success if he runs a large, wealthy, influential parish like a mean, well-oiled, corporate machine. Conversely, it is not unusual within priestly ranks to look down upon the poorer parishes within a diocese. In this way, our standards of success are worldly, rather than rooted in the Gospel.
Under this ethic, the underlying question is usually: What have you done? What have you produced? What niche have you carved out for yourself? How creative and enterprising have you been? In all of this, success is gauged upon human effort and accomplishment, displayed for all the world to see.
This ethic is so pervasive, so deeply ingrained in our psyche, that it shapes and influences our values in the Church. Most of us priests, for instance, are obsessed with the notion of production. Hence, the success of a class, an event, a mission, a talk, a service, a liturgy, is measured by the number of people who attended. We’re obsessed with numbers, which often become the sole standard of success.
How large is the collection? How much did you collect for the bishop’s appeal for diocesan ministries? A corporate mindset sets in and the bottom line becomes the yardstick for success.
This focus on the external manifestation of success leads many priests to do, do, do. To go, go, go. In short, to turn into workaholics. Too easily, then, we become obsessed with the success of the pancake breakfast, the parish festival, the drive to raise money for World Youth Day.
In my own diocese, the Diocese of Stockton, California, priests observe wryly that a pastor is more fundraiser and administrator than genuine spiritual leader. It is sometimes an inescapable reality, as the need to keep a parish in the financial black presses in on the pastor. In a fast-growing diocese like Stockton, many pastors face the challenge of building new halls, gyms, classrooms and even churches from scratch. All of this kind of activity, of course, fits neatly into the category of producing outward fruit, external evidence of production for others to applaud and admire.
As a result, the pastor is unable, in many cases, to tend fully to the spiritual needs of his people. His role as prophet and spiritual leader, in intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, receives short shrift. The importance of prayer falls by the wayside and the busy, productive priest fails to take time to sit in silence before the Lord, the owner of the vineyard. The busy priest focuses on doing, rather than simply being in Christ, contemplating and sharing freely the gifts given to him, flowing from supernatural love.
Without contemplation, and without prayer, the priest has nothing to give. The great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar offers the example of the apostles in his book, Prayer. These early builders of the Church were impelled to share the Good News of the greatness and glory of the Lord by what they had seen, heard and experienced. He writes: “Everything that we can bear witness to concerning the reality of God derives from contemplation: Christ, the Church and ourselves. But no one can proclaim the contemplation of Christ and the Church in an effective and lasting way, unless he himself participates in it.”
By contrast, what happens with a worldly, production-oriented mentality? The priest loses his center, his focus, his whole purpose for priestly mission. And the more he plans and organizes, the more he feels good about himself. The priest then falls into the old, inevitable trap of justifying himself before others, and really, trying in vain to justify himself before God. To earn salvation, as Paul attempted to do before his conversion.
The dramatic conversion on the way to Damascus changed Paul’s entire perspective on the question of salvation. He would consider all of his religious achievements as “a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). As Edith Stein—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—puts it in The Science of the Cross, “the zealot for the Law realized that the Law was but the tutor on the way to Christ.”
Paul now lives on a new level, a new plane of reality. He lives in Christ and seeks to configure his life to the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. I no longer live my own life, but Christ lives in me, says Paul. For Paul, life is Christ and death is so much gain, death to self, death to the standards of this world. He yearns to experience the infinite riches of Christ, to put on the mind of Christ.
So Paul became a genuine steward in the vineyard of the Lord, a steward who bore tremendous, unbelievable fruit. He took the Gospel to the ends of the ancient world, wrote much of the New Testament and became a pillar of early Christianity.
Paul realized what every follower of Christ realizes: We must die to our plans, our agendas, our wills, our standards of worldly success for our lives. If the pastor takes this seriously, his parish is no longer his territory, his project, his plan. He is no longer the king or emperor of a fiefdom. He no longer demands, “Give me credit for building this project, for implementing this teaching series.” He no longer says, “It’s my idea, give me a copyright.”
What does this mean for the spirituality of the priest? He now recognizes the vanity of preoccupation with the importance, influence and prestige of the pastoral work he carries out. It becomes a temptation, a falsity, a thing of human insecurity that cuts against the grain of the Gospel.
The priest or pastor recognizes with St. Paul that what he does as faithful steward is really very little. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore neither the one who plants nor the one waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
The priest or pastor is a mere instrument in the hand of God, the master of the vineyard who directs all human effort. I, for one, heard this message loud and clear, by a stroke of providence, in an unexpected way on a visit to the local hospital. As I passed through the intensive care unit, a Protestant minister in one of the rooms struck up a conversation with me. He uttered words I will never forget, words that struck a powerful chord: “God allows you to do everything that you do. You are only able to do what God allows you to do.”
Wow! How true! How simple! How clear! An exhilarating sense of freedom flowed from these words. I realized it’s all about being attuned to God’s will and discerning what God will allow me to do, by his grace. It is a Christo-centric project, springing from the Lord Jesus Christ and finding fulfillment and completion in him. Apart from him I can do nothing.
A sterling example is Mother Teresa. She did the impossible by living out those words. She was merely a pen in the hand of God, writing a love letter, she said. She built houses for the sick, dying and needy all over the world, starting with absolutely nothing in Calcutta, except a mandate from the Lord. She did it with absolute trust in God, enduring fifty years of spiritual darkness after hearing the voice of Christ in a real, intimate and personal way.
With blind faith and surrender to God, a half-crippled nun by the name of Mother Angelica built EWTN, a Catholic network reaching millions of viewers across the globe. All she did was follow the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. She started in an Alabama garage and almost went under many times.
Pope John Paul II drew millions of people to himself in life and in death. He was a charismatic media personality with formidable spiritual and intellectual gifts. In everything, he pointed to Jesus Christ, to God, seeking no glory for himself. Somebody once asked him: How do you attract so many people? And he answered: “Must be the Holy Spirit.”
All three of them—Mother Teresa, Mother Angelica and John Paul II—sought first and foremost to be in Christ and to be transformed by him. And so they bore tremendous fruit. They were not preoccupied with numbers and production, but were given that and much more.
In the Gospel, Jesus reaches out to people personally, one person at a time. He doesn’t seem preoccupied with numbers. Every encounter brings healing, a sense of wholeness and forgiveness. This is at the heart of the mission of the Gospel: a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. We see no mention in these encounters of five-year plans, complex organizational structures and charts, complicated mission statements, nor committees.
Pope John Paul II, in his book Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, writes of the importance of the personal encounter with the believer, centered in Christ. “Every human being is an individual person and therefore I cannot program a priori a certain type of relationship that could be applied to everyone, but I must, so to speak, learn it anew in every case…. Every person is a chapter to himself. I always acted with this conviction, but I realize it is something that you can’t learn. It’s simply there, because it comes from within” (pg. 65-66).
All of this tells me it’s not about numbers, it’s about people and what God is doing with them, in and through the paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ. I know not the results of my day-to-day ministry. I know not the results of my homily every Sunday. Nor do I know the results of one-on-one encounters with people in baptism interviews, confessions, counseling appointments and casual conversations.
I do know that somehow, in some way, the faith is being talked about and transmitted. I do know that somehow, some way, according to God’s design, the Word of God comes from the heavens and does not return without bearing the fruit God desires. I do know the greatest resource in my parish—any parish—is not money, not pastoral plans, not programs and committees, but the people themselves in intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, in a lifelong journey to God. This is something that cannot be numbered, not quantified according to worldly models of success.
In our obsession with worldly standards of success, we forget the message of the littleness of the Gospel. We forget the message of the hidden dynamism of the Gospel. We forget the parable of the mustard seed—the tiniest of all seeds, that grows to become the biggest tree, the biggest shrub of all. We forget that the farmer sows, and God makes the seed grow, miraculously and in a hidden way, while the farmer sleeps. We forget the miracle of the loaves and fish, what great things God does with the little we put forth. We forget the widow’s mite and the great value her generosity has before all-seeing God.
We forget we as priests are icons of Christ, acting in persona Christi, endowed with supernatural grace and power that moves people in hidden, mysterious ways we don’t even understand. The priest, for instance, who simply celebrates the Mass in a profoundly reverent way allows God to melt the most hardened of hearts. The priest who prays silently before the Blessed Sacrament inspires others to imitate him, to bend the knee in adoration before the Almighty. The priest who listens in rapt attention to the Word of God proclaimed inspires others to do likewise. What priest has not been profoundly touched by a confession from a tear-filled penitent in a grace-filled moment that is the work of Christ? These and many others are the holy encounters that cannot be quantified, that cannot be measured, that don’t fall into our categories of production and success.
In our obsession with numbers and the bottom line, we forget the words of Jesus: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” I’ve served at a six-thousand-family parish with people spilling out of the entrances to the church and at a rural mission with twenty-five people at a Sunday Mass. It’s the same Eucharist, with the same Jesus Christ calling people to himself. The lesson? Leave the numbers game to God. He acts as he wills. He is the master strategist, the owner of the vineyard, reaping fruit as he wills and sees fit.
When we emphasize our human efforts, we value in a disproportionate way the personality, the talents, the charisma, the dynamism of the priest. We begin to think our preaching by itself will change hearts, inspire sanctity, move mountains, draw hordes of people to our Masses. We begin to think the Mass is our show. We fall prey to the ever-present seduction of narcissism.
In my own parish, before I arrived, a young Hispanic man wowed people with his dynamic preaching and charisma. He won a large following by bringing the Gospel to life, by preaching that it is alive today, at this and every moment. But he caused divisive scandal and controversy with some borderline heresies he proclaimed and with adulterous behavior. Banned from preaching or any kind of ministry in the diocese, he left our parish and founded his own church.
A woman who joined his new congregation told me, ever so confidently, that great preaching produces great conversions. She was dead wrong. It is the humble heart, open to the power of the Spirit, that leads to conversion. It’s not what dazzles, what impresses and leads people to emotional highs—it’s the presence of the Spirit in quiet, unseen ways that bears genuine fruit. It’s the surpassing power of the crucified Christ, in his boundless love that is able to change hearts. St. Paul writes: “When I came among you it was in weakness and in fear, and in much trepidation. My message and my preaching had none of the persuasive force of ‘wise’ argumentation, but the convincing power of the Spirit. As a consequence, your faith rests not on the wisdom of men but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5).
St. John Marie Vianney, whom Pope Benedict XVI has held up as a model priest in this Year of the Priesthood, proved to cynics and skeptics alike that God’s supernatural wisdom and power is able to work wonders. In the nineteenth century, against all odds, he turned a backwater parish in Ars, France into a place of pilgrimage where droves of people came for confession and renewal in his holy presence. People from all over France came to hear his words of counsel and wisdom at a time of disbelief resulting from the French Revolution.
In modern times, the life of the late Msgr. John J. Sweeny mirrored something of the experience of St. John Vianney. Msgr. Sweeny was the holy, revered pastor of Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, California for more than thirty years. In an article on Msgr. Sweeny in this magazine, Arthur J. Brew described Msgr. Sweeny as “quiet, almost shy, pastor” who “never delivered any memorable sermons and could get lost in a crowd of his peers.” Msgr. Sweeny celebrated Masses on occasion in the Angels Camp, California area before falling ill, and one parishioner told me he was not an impressive presence.
Yet this humble servant of Christ turned Our Lady of Peace into a bastion of orthodoxy in a sea of heterodoxy and modernism. As Brew describes it, Our Lady of Peace succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Msgr. Sweeny took a parish nobody wanted, with a half-million-dollar debt. It became a spiritual oasis for thousands of people, who flocked to his parish for Mass, perpetual adoration and confession. Msgr. Sweeny sought Christ, not production numbers, and got the numbers besides.
The future Pope Benedict XVI, in the book God and the World, tells of a priest in a large German city whose vocation was inspired by a priest “bereft of all exterior gifts.” Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger says: “He was a hopeless preacher, a dreadful singer, and so on, and yet under his care the parish really blossomed. In the end four or five priestly vocations were awakened in this city parish, something that happened neither under his predecessor nor under his successor, both of whom were far more capable. We can see how the humble witness of someone who does not have the gift of persuasive speech can itself become a sermon, and how we should thank God for the variety of gifts” (page 432-33).
It all goes back to this: to what extent does the priest image the holiness of Christ and radiate his joy? To what extent are God’s people able to see in the priest that Christ lives in him, that the priest no longer lives?
A lot of people can put on a narcissistic show that razzles and dazzles. But how many, like the apostle Paul, are willing to put on Christ? How many are willing to preach Christ crucified, as did St. Paul?
If we preach Christ crucified, we must be emptied of all vestiges of self. The kenosis of Jesus becomes our kenosis. Only then will the Risen Christ manifest himself through us. A letter from Mother Teresa to a struggling priest, printed in the book of Mother Teresa’s private writings, Come Be My Light, speaks to the heart of this truth. She writes: “You had said ‘Yes’ to Jesus—and he has taken you at your word. The Word of God became man. Poor. Your word to God became Jesus—poor and so this terrible emptiness you experience. God cannot fill what is full. He can only fill emptiness—deep poverty—and your ‘yes’ is the beginning of being or becoming empty. It is not how much we really ‘have’ to give—but how empty we are—so that we can receive fully in our life and let him live his life in us….”
Take away your eyes from your self and rejoice that you have nothing—that you are nothing—that you can do nothing. Give Jesus a big smile each time your nothingness frightens you.
This is the poverty of Jesus. You and I must let Him live in us and through us in the world…. Keep giving Jesus to your people not by words but by your example—by your being in love with Jesus—by radiating His holiness and spreading His fragrance of love everywhere you go….
Let Jesus be the victim and the priest in you.
It is the Lord’s priesthood, not mine. Its success is measured not in human terms, but in the mysterious ways of Jesus that surpass any human measure or quantification.