I write this article as a pause from the great sorrow of scandal which has wounded the Church, in order to bring to mind… the spiritual beauty of fatherhood present in our priests.
Being corrected by a prince of the Church in the presence of the Holy Father himself and crowds of onlookers was not my idea of a flattering moment – nor one in which I expected to find the comfort of fatherly love. But so it was . . .
It was the year 2000, and I was privileged to attend Easter Vigil Mass in Rome during the Jubilee Year. The solemnity and exquisite beauty of the outside Mass, that spring evening, was unearthly.
The liturgy began in darkness. In front of the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, a huge fire was lit. Amidst the throng of tens of thousands, not a word was spoken as the chanted Easter sequence wafted above the crowd, intermingling with incense and the smoke of the newly sanctified fire.
Pope John Paul II turned, and began the journey toward St. Peter’s, accompanied by an endless procession of prelates of every nationality. Amazingly, no one even dared take a photograph, so holy was the moment felt by all.
But standing literally within touching distance of the Pope as he drew near, I wrestled with a temptation to get a picture. Yet, so intense was the spiritual atmosphere, and so strained the look on the aging pope’s face, I knew I would do better to pray than indulge a desire to show everyone back home just how close I came to the Pope. Nonetheless, my lower nature won out, and I raised my camera to take not one, but several shots—my white flash shattering the sacred darkness, and the high-pitched whir of my pre-digital camera, echoing against the columns about me.
I had just begun listing reasons for why what I had done was not so bad when an elderly cardinal caught my eye. Positioned about five feet behind the Pope, the cardinal witnessed my descent from pilgrim to paparazzi, from start to finish. Holding my gaze with penetrating eyes, he unlatched his index finger from its folded position of prayer. Then, with firmness and deliberation, waved it heavily, right to left, in the most elegant and severe “naughty, naughty” gesture ever produced by the hand of man. The cardinal continued to watch me intently until he completely passed by me.
I was chastened. Needless to say, I was significantly embarrassed. Being singled out by a prince of the Church, flanked by other princes of the Church, and the Holy Father himself, was not my idea of a flattering moment. But, somehow I submitted, and immediately my soul was set aright. Christ reigned again over all that was superfluous in me. I, thenceforth, enjoyed the rest of the evening in quiet exaltation.
That brief encounter made such an impression on me, that I have often reflected upon it since. What intrigued me most, however, was not so much the lesson learned, but the response elicited, deep within—a response which was the exact opposite of what I would have expected.
Humanly speaking, not only I should have been embarrassed, but a little perturbed by the cardinal’s overture. After all, I didn’t break any rules. If I were visiting Buckingham Palace, and a guard corrected me for merely waving a handkerchief at the Queen, I’m sure I would be a little irritated. But in that moment at St. Peter’s, I wasn’t irritated. Instead, along with embarrassment, I experienced a surprising sense of security, protection, and even love. There was this uncanny “rightness” in his rebuke—and an even more peculiar—a natural submission of my will to it.
It was fatherhood which I encountered; the feeling was unmistakable. The exchange was as familiar as any I have ever had with my own father over the years at home. This made me think: what was this relationship I shared with this man whose name and country I didn’t even know? As a dot in the sea of thousands, I received true and effective paternal love through a stranger who otherwise had no connection to me.
My experience that night gave me new, spiritual eyes. Like one who first grasps the incredible truth that Eucharist not only symbolizes, but truly is, the Body and Blood of Christ, I understood that a priest does not merely represent a father—he really is one. In realizing that, wherever I may find myself on this globe, I know that watchmen stand guard over my soul, like the anonymous cardinal in St. Peter’s Square, who touched me profoundly.
Since then, God has continued, at different times and in different settings, to open my eyes to the transcendent mystery hidden, but present, within our fathers, the priests. I treasure these moments, as so many photographs in my heart, which I love to look at from time to time. There is the remembrance of a young priest I know, who frequently weeps as he says the words of consecration. Equally touching is the thought of another priest who sometimes blushes as he holds the Host aloft. Edifying is the countenance of a priest in my diocese who, oblivious to all around him, offers the Sacred Victim to the Father with the intensity of a soldier in battle, and the stateliness of a king. I can still see an elderly priest at a March for Life cradling a little bird of a child in his enormous and once athletic arms. And I can hear the rumbling tones of affection and love in the voice of a wizened old priest during his exposition on marriage to a group of young adults.
But of the many and varied beauties which enshrine the souls of our priests, it is fatherhood, real fatherhood, which I hear in their voices, see in their gestures, and sense in my heart. It is this fatherhood which most reveals to me the mysteries of the God with whom their lives are so intertwined.
I write this article, then, as a pause from the great sorrow of scandal which has wounded the Church, in order to bring to mind—as God has so often brought to my awareness—the spiritual beauty of fatherhood present in our priests. A beauty not attained by accomplishment, but conferred by grace in Holy Orders. It is my hope that, in this day when the priesthood is so often presented as a heap covered over by refuse, this article may pull aside the debris to give a glimpse at the majestic vessel, crafted by the hands of God, beneath. It is a mighty vessel made to weather the seas of the ages, carrying each of us securely—like the strong arms of a father—through the journey of life.
So much could be said about priestly fatherhood, too much for this reflection. Perhaps one aspect of the fatherhood exercised by priests would be their participation in the sacrament of Reconciliation. It should be highlighted since it is so little discussed, yet goes directly to the heart of the matter.
Several months ago, I was again in Italy. Not speaking the language, I located a confessional with the word “English” posted on it. I parked myself in a pew, and waited my turn. The anonymity of the confessional was consoling to me as I waited, but even still, I knew this confession wasn’t going to be easy. I went in. Much to my alarm the confessional was arranged so there was no darkness, no screen and no where to hide. The sole division between penitent and priest was a low counter something like that at an information booth or tourist center. The priest saw me, full-view, the moment I entered. What could I do? I braved myself, and for love of God, unveiled, with complete frankness, my sin and my struggle.
What happened then amazed me. Despite our different national origins, there was an immediate bond between us, a kinship of beloved father with dear daughter. The priest responded to my questions with sincerity and candor. There was no judgment, no scolding, no humiliation. Addressing me with concerned attention, he outlined, in a mere ten minutes, all the major points I needed to follow to overcome the difficulty. He was perfectly balanced, between giving a stern warning, and a warm embrace. I left that confession knowing exactly what to do, and more. I could rest in the peace of being loved by one who truly cared for my soul. I am still riding on the strength imparted that afternoon.
Of course, we have all had less than illuminating experiences in the confessional. We have had priests who scared us, misunderstood us, and even fell asleep in the confessional. But anyone who makes confession a regular part of their spiritual life can be asked, as well, how many more times the power of God has profoundly moved their souls through the words, gestures, or even presence of the priest. The positives infinitely outweigh any negatives.
Upon honest consideration, we must admit what a tremendous service priests render in hearing our confessions, and what especial fatherhood. If love can be measured by the degree in which one accepts another in view of his/her faults, how great is the love of priests, who in the confessional, befriend each of us in full sight of our most deplorable deeds? We so easily take for granted this remarkable act of humanity and supernatural act of love. We go in, we go out; our sins are forgiven. But have we ever considered the person on the other side of the screen?
When speaking on the topic of “Martyrdom and the Priesthood,” Fr. John Hardon once said that without the ability to offer Mass each day, a priest would not be able to live, since as a confessor, he would be crushed by the weight of the sins he bears in the confessional. What a tremendous thought! A priest, standing in the place of Christ as mediator between God and man, takes on, in some mystical way, the load of our sins. One would wonder if priests can actually “feel” the weight. If they do, they don’t seem to show it. But maybe this is because the “weight” is not really a weight to them. Maybe the burden of our sins isn’t any more a burden to a priest, than “being there” for one’s child is a burden to a father who really loves.
Yes, the fatherhood of priests is real, very real. Who can forget the worldwide outpouring of grief at the death of Blessed Pope John Paul II? Countless persons still remark how much they miss him, as if speaking of a member of the family. But Blessed John Paul was a member of the family, a great and universal family. He was a father who magnificently fulfilled his role and powerfully impacted the lives of his children everywhere. Should we be surprised by such far-reaching paternity? Did Our Lord not promise he would give “brothers and sisters and mothers and children,” a hundred-fold, to those who leave everything for his sake (Mark 10:30)?
Perhaps, some would consider this discussion of the fatherhood of priests inappropriate, given the scandals of recent years. But how should we respond to these outrages? Certainly, we must admit wrongs, and see that justice is rendered fully to guilty and afflicted alike. But should we, as believers, lose faith in the midst of so much heartache? Should we refuse to acknowledge the sublime nature of the priesthood, like one who rejects the beauty of marriage because of the incidence of domestic violence? Can we act thus and remain authentic in our convictions as Catholics?
Of course we cannot. But then how can we reconcile the enormous evil of sexual abuse, and other scandals by some priests, with the profound holiness of their state, and in particular, with their spiritual fatherhood?
Perhaps the answer lies within the question itself. Why are we so repulsed by outrages committed by priests? Is it not because their call is so holy? Why do crimes of priests against youth leave such indelible and searing scars? Is it not because of the insane betrayal of the role of spiritual mentor which they play? The truth is, the priest scandals could not be so hideous, and so excruciatingly painful, if the fatherhood of priests was not so sublimely profound. As experience and reason testify, the corruption of the best is the worst.
Hence, the scandals in the priesthood neither disprove the supernatural reality of Holy Orders, nor the spiritual fatherhood of priests, but rather, point toward, all the more convincingly, these realities. The enemies of the Church would use scandal as “proof” that the priesthood is yet one more antiquated institution headed for it its end. Shall we allow ourselves to lose heart?
In his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning, acclaimed psychologist and holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, referred to the “defiant power of the human spirit” when elaborating on the astonishing resiliency within each person to overcome evil, one’s own, or that wrought by others. In light of the indomitable force of grace, how much more should we, as Catholics, profess and hold tightly to the defiant power of the priesthood!
Yes, the priesthood will go on forever. We will forever see the Thomas Beckets in our world lying prone on the cathedral floor mingling their blood with Christ’. The Ignatius Loyolas begging to be “wheat in the lion’s teeth.” The Patricks, the Miguel Pros, the Isaac Jogues, and the Francis Xaviers, all laying down their lives to bring Christ’s Gospel to the world. We will forever see the Fr. Vincent Capodannos tending broken bodies of men on the battlefield. The Father Mychal Judges rushing towards 9-11 infernos to administer the last rites. The Cardinal O’Connors praying outside abortion clinics to save the lives of the innocent. We will see the Fr. Jims, Fr. Larrys, Fr. Joes, Fr. Steves, Fr. Marks, Fr. Christophers, on and on, in every age. We will see them because the priesthood is not a human institution, and does not draw its life from humanity. It draws its life from Christ, our High Priest, who lives forever to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25).
The priesthood will not be destroyed by scandal. But scandal will fuel the passions of young hearts to become all the more chaste, holy, sacrificing, steadfast, compassionate, hidden and heroic. The priesthood will irresistibly draw men, in every age, since it is the pinnacle and perfect fulfillment of all that is noble and masculine. For it is in persona Christi, that the priest is configured to Jesus Christ who is Man, Martyr, Hero, Husband, Leader and Father, par excellence.
“You are a priest forever by the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110). Dear priests of the Heart of God! Christ reigns in you! Christ reigns through you! Christ reigns forever in the great and fatherly hearts of priests!
Gratefully dedicated to priests everywhere from your daughter, a daughter of the Church.