The Month of the Priesthood

One of the relatively minor and nonetheless frustrating consequences of COVID’s rude invasion into society can be observed in diaconal and priestly ordinations. These typically large-scale celebrations have been reduced to minute gatherings, sometimes even without the ordinand’s immediate family. These joyful Masses are now celebrated with a noticeably somber tone as, for instance, the laying on of hands and kiss of peace are reduced to a bare minimum, and all is done with masks and gloves. Even the dates for ordinations, which before had predictably followed the end of the academic year, whenever that might be, have been pushed back for weeks or months, or even suspended until further notice. This uncertainty, coupled with a summer punctured haphazardly by ordination invitations from friends, often on short notice, highlights the reality that now there is no normal or usual time for ordinations.

Yet, upon reflection, that is perhaps fitting for ordination to the priesthood, as it is a vocation where we are often confronted with the widest range of persons, events, and circumstances. What is a normal day for a priest anyway? Now, there is no month or even season of ordinations, just as, to my knowledge, there is no month of the priesthood. This, though, gives rise to a question: if there were a month of the priesthood, what month would be most fitting?

Our culture has a peculiar relationship with the month of September. It marks both an end and a beginning: it bids farewell to summer and to all passing things found in it, like suntans, beaches, and relationships, and beckons the beginning of fall and of a new school year in full. Often even the colors start to change: the greens of summer give way to the beginnings of the shades of fall. September is a month of closure and finitude, as well as of potential and future. That this mixture of emotions and sentiments is not mere imagining is attested to by popular (in the broad sense of the term) music: it seems that September has more songs dedicated to it than any other month, and these are of the widest range of moods. Consider, for instance, “September,” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, which includes such spirited phrases as: “Golden dreams were shiny days / dancing in September / Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day.” Redolent with exuberant enthusiasm, the tune seems almost foolishly myopic: golden dreams, shiny days, and never a cloudy day in the whole month of September? Or “September Morn,” by Neal Diamond, a nostalgic ode recalling a past romance: “We danced until the night / Became a brand-new day / Two lovers playing scenes / From some romantic play / September morning / Still can make me feel that way.” Of more recent memory, and decidedly more subdued, is Green Day’s melancholic “Wake Me Up When September Ends”: “Here comes the rain again / Falling from the stars / Drenched in my pain again / Becoming who we are / As my memory rests / But never forgets what I lost / Wake me up when September ends / Summer has come and passed / The innocent can never last / Wake me up when September ends.” There is something about September that makes it a strange cauldron for the emotions, a curious amalgam of the brightest optimism, the firmest hope, and the saddest despair. It is hard to identify what that something is: perhaps it is quite simply the nature of the month itself.

Be that as it may, I do not have great feelings one way or another about the month of September. What I do have great feelings for is the priesthood, since it is my vocation and my life. I mention September because, in a sense, living out the priesthood is like living a September in suspended animation. Again, as far as I am aware, there is no month dedicated to the priesthood (maybe June, the month of the Sacred Heart, would be the closest) but, if there was, September would be well suited for it.

As we study in seminary, we look upon the greatness of holy orders, and the conformity with Christ that it brings. Perhaps most of us, especially right after seminary, could recite from memory what the Angelic Doctor and the Church say about the sacraments in general and holy orders in particular: a sacrament is a “sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy,”1 and that those who receive this sacrament of orders “are taken from among men and ordained for men in the things that belong to God in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”2 This is all true, but it is the sort of thing you learn from books, and that you can keep tucked away in a book on a shelf. There’s another reality, or another face, of the priesthood, one that can’t be taught but only lived.

This other reality also starts with what a sacrament is. The Latin word sacramentum was already in use when Christianity arose, and, among other things, it referred to the oath a Roman soldier would take. It was a solemn pledge of his allegiance to the emperor and to his legion. Usually the soldier would receive a tattoo as well, which marked him as a member of his particular cohort.3 For better or for worse, that tattoo meant he couldn’t avoid being associated with his unit. If he did something brave or heroic, they all took part in his bravery or heroism. But, if he did something stupid or cowardly, everyone would share in his stupidity or cowardice. There was no getting away from the unit; he was forever marked as a part of it.

The priesthood works in a similar way: like it or not, when a brother priest (be they diocesan or religious, it doesn’t matter) does something brave or heroic, we all take part in his bravery or heroism. But, if a priest does something stupid or cowardly (or, of more recent memory, sinful or criminal), all of us look stupid or cowardly (or sinful or criminal). There is no getting away from it; we’re all in this together, as members of a team or cohort.

There’s another reality that follows from this sacramentum, yet another that can’t be taught, at least not directly, and it is this: it hurts to get a tattoo. In the same way, too, and worse, it hurts to be a priest. In a sense, the sacramental seal is like an open wound that never heals, a sacramentum that’s always open. It would be wrong to say that the wound ever closes, as C. S. Lewis put it so well, because, on the contrary, it has so many ways to hurt us that we discover them only one by one.4

That hurt arises because the open wound is right in the priest’s heart, a heart open to receive everyone that comes to him. If “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus Christ,” as Saint John Vianney said, then the priesthood shares not only in that love, but also in the lesion of that pierced heart from which flowed blood and water. Again, C. S. Lewis describes the situation: “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. . . . The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”5 And nowhere is this truth more salient, more clearly seen, than in priests who serve as spiritual fathers for so many.

This is an unavoidable part of the priestly life. This is the price we pay to really be spiritual fathers, to really give life to the ones that God entrusts to us, and not just once, but rather again and again, even when they disappoint, even when they fall. It is said that there is an African proverb: “A child is like an ax; even though it cuts you, you’ll still just pick it up [again] and carry it on your shoulder.” Spiritual fathers need to have that resolution, that determination, to continue picking up their children time and again. Now, more and more, we pick up the entire family, which is broken and a mess with all of its problems, and problems pile up.

Perhaps, especially right after ordination, we all have had some of Venerable Louis of Granada’s naïveté. The preacher once wrote a letter to Saint John of Avila, telling him what an excellent and sweet thing it must be to be a spiritual father. John of Avila wrote back a tender but blunt reply:

With great attention and almost smiling to myself I read the words that Your Reverence wrote in your letter, that it seems to be a sweet thing to beget children and bring souls to the knowledge of their Creator; and I replied within myself: Dulce bellum inexpertis [war seems to be something sweet to those who haven’t experienced it]. I confess that the begetting doesn’t entail much work, although it’s not entirely free from it, because if this work is well done, the children we are to father by the word should not be children of voice as much as children of tears, because, if one weeps for souls and another converts them by preaching, I would not hesitate to call father first the one who won them and brought them to the Lord with pain and birth pangs; such a one is a father before the one who, with opulent and composed words, called them from without.

Those who take on the office of father will learn to weep so that the words and divine reply that was given to the mother of Saint Augustine through the mouth of Saint Ambrose might be theirs: “The child of so many tears will not be lost.” At the cost of cries and the offering of one’s life, God gives children to those who are true fathers, those who not once, but rather many times, offer their lives so that God might give life to their children, just as earthly fathers usually do.

After listing the requirements and sufferings of the spiritual father, the doctor from Ávila concludes, simply: “Therefore, he who desires to be a father should have a gentle heart, a heart of flesh, so as to be compassionate toward his children (which is a martyrdom in itself), and another heart of iron, in order to suffer the blows that death gives, in order that these do not demolish the father, or make him leave his task entirely.”6

A heart of flesh, and a heart of iron, to feel and not break, to hope and not be crushed, to be saddened but not broken. This reality came to the fore during my first pastoral assignment at a large, predominantly Hispanic, low-income parish, with around 700 children in the catechism program. The Tolstoyan dogma that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” was applied with a vengeance, and it seems a mere handful of happy families were to be sufficient for our community. The difficult situations ran the gamut, and it seemed that, if each unhappiness were its own color, we could have easily competed with Crayola. In the midst of the mess, however, there were so many good children, who wanted to be good, and desperately clung to anything that gave them hope. One particular child stood out. Unbaptized, even though he was six or seven, he came from a family colored with rusty red anger, midnight blue sadness, and unmellow yellow anxiety. Yet, in the midst of it, and possibly because of it, he constantly sought comfort in coming to play games at the parish, to be with the other children, eat the snack, and pray.

One such day, as I was far away in another wing of the building (trying to sort out the various shades of someone else’s problems) one of the assistants brought this particular child to me, and, with an exasperated air (having traversed the halls and several flights of stairs), rather formally remarked, “He insisted that he had to see you,” which I suspect was a very summarized summary of a much longer, and much more frustrating, chain of events.

The only thing the child wanted was to hand me a piece of paper, at which point he said, “For you,” and returned docilely to take the assistant’s hand. The paper was a folded piece of lined paper, removed (certainly) or stolen (not unlikely) from a school notebook. It had been colored with markers which had copiously hemorrhaged through the paper (with its blood, that is, its life),7 and I could see the whole chromatic spectrum spilling out. When I opened it, though, I was surprised: there was a beautiful, indeed, intricately crafted rainbow, with all the colors in their proper order, drawn as carefully as possible, with the simple note, “I love God.”

“I love God”: but for how long? What hope does such a one have? Do we take solace in the fact that, maybe, he could be an anonymous Christian, à la Rahner, so that, even if he is never baptized, he can live a good, upstanding life? In today’s world, I find that unlikely. Furthermore, for Christ, there are no anonymous Christians; for Him, no one is anonymous. Everyone has a face, a name, a value.

Personally, two thoughts come to mind which perennially keep hope alive: the story is told of one of the early oratories our religious family ran in Argentina. There were well-behaved children from intact families, and plenty of children from difficult families and terrible situations. Despite their best efforts and prayers, the religious could witness the latter group start down the path of vice and criminality; all their hopes and, indeed all their efforts, would seem to have been in vain. Yet the chaplain of the local prison once paid a visit to the priest in charge, and made the comment, “You know, I can always tell which of my prisoners were children in your oratory.” “Is that so?” “Yes, because when they are hurt or dying, they are the only ones who let the priest come see them.”

Now, no one would hold up such children as model students of the oratory; there are no delusions of Dominic Savio or Aloysius Gonzaga complexes here. However, as is said in sports, “A win is a win.” It might not be a very pretty win, and it might be cutting it rather close to the final whistle, but a win is a win: a soul for heaven is a soul for heaven.

The second is a thought from Saint Manuel González, priest and bishop, Apostle of the Abandoned Tabernacles, but also a great educator. Writing to those tasked with forming children, he remarks that no matter how bad a child becomes, no matter how much work, prayer, and sacrifice we poured into a soul who ultimately went down the wrong path, that child will never be as corrupt or as evil as they would have been had we not done so. He reminds us that the seeds sown in souls always bear fruit: we can pray that it will be the fruit of good works but, sometimes, it will sow the seeds of contrition, perhaps even at the end of a long life of sin.8

Admittedly, it can be frustrating, infuriating, and saddening. Sometimes, it can be tempting to ask God to send a massive flood to cleanse the city and put an end to all the problems. Yet such a solution isn’t in keeping with the Divine way of solving things now. In the movie Monsieur Vincent, Saint Vincent asks his wealthy benefactor about starting a new apostolate, gathering up abandoned newborns. The woman is reluctant, and would prefer simply to ignore the problem. As tactfully as she can, she proposes that Saint Vincent just let the children die, since they are “the children of sin.” Saint Vincent, gently, but very firmly, replies: “When God wants somebody to die for the remission of sins, He sends His Son, Madam.”

A flood isn’t in keeping with the Divine solution to the problems of the world. Rather, Christ Himself tells us how they will be solved: not with water, but with fire: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk 12:49).

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not surprising that both the Triumph of the Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows are celebrated in September: the cross reminds us that hope triumphs over despair, and that the good conquers evil, which, no matter what, will never have the last word. Our Lady reminds us that the children we give life to as fathers are a source of sorrow and sacrifice, but the joy that awaits far outweighs the sacrifice.

I don’t believe that anyone in Rome is taking suggestions for a month of the priesthood, but, if they were, my submission would be September. Maybe we can keep that in mind in a clearer and hopefully more joyful 2021!

  1. ST III, q. 60, a. 2, corpus.
  2. Prebyterorum ordinis, 2.
  3. See, for instance, Robin M. Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 66-67. Jensen notes that Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, and others use this imagery.
  4. See C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 61.
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991), 121.
  6. Saint John of Avila, Carta 1; Obras completas del Santo Maestro Juan de Ávila (Madrid: BAC, 1970), 20-22. The translation into English is mine, originally printed in Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Fatherhood in Crisis: The Absent Father (Chillum, MD: IVEPress, 2017), 65-68.
  7. Gn 9:4.
  8. See Manuel González, La gracia en la educación o Arte de educar con gracia (Palenica: El Granito de Arena, 1956), and Miguel Fuentes, From Wolves to Lambs (Chillum, MD: IVEPress, 2018). The English translation of this second text is also mine.
Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer About Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer

A priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer is originally from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and studied at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. After graduated, he entered the seminary and was ordained in 2015 after finishing his philosophical and theological studies and obtaining a licentiate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. Currently he resides in Fossanova, Italy, at the Cistercian abbey where Saint Thomas Aquinas died, is a doctoral student in philosophy at Regina Apostolorum in Rome, and works as parochial vicar at the co-cathedral of Santa Maria in Sezze, Italy.

Comments

  1. i believe that a God is no doubt teaching us many lessons during this time of covid19 lock down. At this point the priesthood is hit the hardest . What many priest have taken for granted is perhaps! Their role and service to God and his people that are in their care. I believe the role of the priest became almost redundant and gave way to the laity who sought to compete with the priest in dictating how the priest should conduct his sacred duties. The lack of reverence shown in relation between the parish priest and dominant lay leaders have brought the Church to a place mere communal gathering and mundane expression of worship to God void of holy awe and reverence for the living God.

    It is not therefore, the ceremonious ordination of priests and large gatherings at such a time as such that is important , as much as the creating of the merciful and clean heart of priests. The chief role of a priest is to leAd his congregation to salvation through his sermons, his offering of masses ,giving of confession and other pastoral duties.

    Priests in God’s eyes have fallen short of God ‘s sacred mission to feed the flock with real manna that builds up the body of Christ the Church. That is why God says, in Exekiel34:11-28, that He Himself will be our shepherd and bring us back from places where we have strayed to the mountain of Zion where we will be properly fed Him.

    I believe the priesthood under the levitical order with inception of its function through Aaron have missed the mark of carrying out God’s plan of salvation. The true order of the priesthood at this time is not to go back to the levitical order but to the order of Melkezidec ,to the true Eternal High priest, Jesus Christ , of the tribe of Judah. A priest who administers true righteousness and peace to their people.

    Thank you
    Bernadette

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