Two young men were ordained to the priesthood for our diocese last weekend. They replace two priests of the diocese who decided to abandon priestly ministry in the past few weeks. This juxtaposition left me pondering.
I always remember, when I was still a deacon, a very wise nun, responsible for the formation of her order’s many novices, saying to me with particular intensity: ‘‘Vocation is a very fragile thing.’’ Coming from someone who seemed so certain of her own calling, it has always remained with me as a kind of caution.
In the true sense of the word, of course, she’s wrong, in that the call itself is not at all fragile or fickle. This is why we should speak of it in exalted terms and why we say that, once ordained, a man is a priest for ever. When people say, as some have been saying since the 1970s, that we should no longer put priests ‘‘on a pedestal’’, we need to question what this means and what their motivation is for saying it.
Say, by all means, that priests are fallible human beings who can fall short of the standards required of such an office, because you want charitably to recall them to the dignity of their office and you are motivated by a desire that the Church should have priests after the heart of Christ – but don’t secretly rejoice in their veniality as if it’s some triumph for the laity, or evidence that priesthood is a patriarchal conspiracy of the Church.
It makes no sense to tell those aspiring to be priests that they’re nothing special while simultaneously expecting high standards of them.
Clericalism does not stem from a distorted view of the dignity of priesthood, but from a distorted identity by which one seeks to use the dignity and power of priesthood to cover the wounds to one’s identity to the detriment of the former – in much the same way that a drowning person can drown his rescuer in his desperation to be saved.
Clericalism, like the problem of over-zealous traffic wardens, does not originate with wearing a uniform or applying rules, but in the cui bono? that motivates such activities.
The beautiful call to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ is given to a human person wounded by sin. To respond to the call requires constant conversion of heart and true Christian maturity and freedom. This freedom is more than the exercise of a choice which confirms me in my autonomy.
It is the freedom to choose the good and cleave to it wholeheartedly. Maturity requires that I be sufficiently secure in my identity as to be able to be absorbed in the good of those I will serve. The vocations crisis, as St John Paul II never tired of pointing out, lies with what one might term the response. God has not stopped calling.
Seeing two young men being ordained is a powerful witness to the dignity and beauty of the priesthood. It moves one just as seeing a bride and groom on their wedding day does, for one knows that they set out with the highest ideals of what human love can achieve when it is caught up into God’s grace.
The readiness is all; readiness not in the sense of having reached some static point of convergence between the extrinsic vocational call and the ability or suitability to embody all its ideals.
But rather a dynamic readiness: readiness which is the conversion of a heart that desires to continue giving without needing to take aspects of the gift back; readiness to be prepared for what the call requires as it takes ever deeper hold over the heart, mind and body; readiness made exponential by grace.
It’s a knowledge I would have been incapable of seeing by myself then. But being among seminarians and the recently ordained and hearing them talk of their progress, their stage of formation, their discernment, makes me realise that so much of how they are formed and assessed unwittingly promotes the idea that ordination is like graduation: that is, the concomitant of having completed the requisite preparation; that one is ready.
In truth, it is something far more wonderful and mysterious. The old rite of ordination contained the words: ‘‘Sat periculosum est hoc’’; ‘‘What you are undertaking is dangerous’’.
How reassuring then, to see that on Fr Matthew’s ordination card the Scripture quotation he had chosen as his response to this call was simply: ‘‘Do not be afraid’’.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (31/7/15).
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