Priesthood Today: Personal Character, Not Credentials
Fulfilling the Lord’s will and doing his work is what Our Lord asks of priests
Father Richard Gribble Comments Off on Priesthood Today: Personal Character, Not Credentials
Contemporary society marks people as “important” if they have the proper status and credentials. Credentials are found in various forms. Titles such as Dr., Rev., Esq. are credentials that some earned through education. Positions such as CEO, president or member of Congress imply that one has power and/or influence. Economic status is certainly another credential. If people know we have money or other assets, we are placed above others. Even achievements, such as athletic records, business and/or academic awards, and recognition from society are forms of credential.
While it is certainly not bad to have credentials or to achieve position, goals or status as a product of our hard work, we must realize that none of these worldly credentials are important to God. Rather, fulfilling the Lord’s will and doing his work in the world is what Christ asks of all his followers, especially his priests.
What Scripture Says
Scripture provides numerous examples that suggest God does not look on the outside — that is, our credentials — but rather looks to the heart. The story of the choice of David to replace Saul as king of Israel is an example. From outward appearances, David, described as “ruddy, a youth with beautiful eyes, and good looking” (1 Sm 16:12), was not even considered by his father, but credentials are not important to God.
Isaiah felt totally unworthy for his call (cf. Is 6:5-8) to be a prophet, and Jeremiah was called from the womb of his mother (Jer 1:4-10).
POPE FRANCIS’ ADVICE
“People love their priests, they want and need their shepherds! The faithful never leave us without something to do, unless we hide in our offices or go out in our cars wearing sunglasses. There is a good and healthy tiredness. It is the exhaustion of the priest who wears the smell of the sheep … but also smiles the smile of a father rejoicing in his children or grandchildren.”
— Pope Francis, Holy Thursday homily, April 2, 2015
The New Testament is equally if not richer with examples. Who did Jesus choose to be the members of his inner circle? None of the initial Twelve had any status within Hebrew society. They were all ordinary, probably poorly educated men. Immediately after receiving Peter’s answer to the question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15), Jesus tells his disciples what the cost of their discipleship will be, stating, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mt 16:26).
Worldly gain and credentials are of no significance to God. When the apostles argued who was greatest among them, Jesus responded, “For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest” (Lk 9:48). Jesus also reminded them that places of honor were not important. Rather he said that when invited to a banquet, sit in the lowest seat and possibly you will be asked to move up higher (cf. Lk 14:7-14). St. Paul, as well, although a zealous pharisaic Jew and Roman citizen, and thus one with credentials, clearly indicated that such status was of no concern to Christ, writing in Galatians 6:15, “For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”
What Should Be the Goals?
Unquestionably, the goal that all Christians seek is to live with Christ forever. Along the road of our Christian journey, however, there are important goals, often marked by qualities of our character that we must seek out. While it should go without being mentioned, a foundational brick to our character is personal integrity. Are we men of the Gospel; are our words and actions consistent?
In a statement that challenges us, by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, then serving as rector of the North American College in Rome, states: “We claim to be men of faith, prayer, love, simplicity, chastity, fidelity, honor and generosity — and often we are not. … Priests without integrity are the Pharisees, scribes, and hypocrites of today, and he who thinks that such does not apply to him is the worst one” (“Priests for the Third Millennium,” OSV, $20.95).
It is essential that we be responsible to others: The People of God are counting on us to be the example they need. According to Cardinal Dolan, “It is tough to be men of calm magnanimous integrity if we lack the honor of accepting responsibility for our own lives.”
As men of character and manifesting personal integrity, we serve as public witnesses to others. People observe what we do and hear what we say, and thus we are viewed as representatives of the Church. We might not like this responsibility, but it comes with the role we have chosen. We must always be aware of how we are perceived. Cardinal Dolan explained: “We are ever conscious of the fact that we are a public persona in the Church. For better or worse, rightly or wrongly, we represent the Church to people. How people think of Jesus and his Church often depends on how we come across, how our human qualities are perceived. What a heavy responsibility.”
Failure of a priest to maintain proper public witness can be devastating to the faithful and harmful to the Church. The problem of observing inconsistency in the lives of the ordained is noted by Cardinal Dolan: “Sure, it’s silly to leave the Church because of the foibles of a priest, but many certainly do, and we must be scrupulous in seeing that we never give anyone such an excuse. God forbid anyone should ever grow apart from Jesus and his Spouse, the Church, because of something one said or did, or something we did not say or do when we should have.”
As ministers to God’s faithful, we must always make ourselves available. Too often, clergy protect themselves by shutting out those to whom they should minister. Certainly, there is a need, as described later, for all priests at times to step back and make certain they do not suffer burnout. However, our ministry requires us to be as available as possible. As one priest once told me, “What are we saving ourselves for; there is plenty of time to rest in eternal life.” The Australian priest David Walker has written in the Australasia Catholic Record, “To be available is the basis of service” (“The Spirituality of Ordained Ministry,” April 2010).
He adds an additional dimension: “Availability is of little use, if priests are not approachable. … Priests who are angry and arrogant towards their people, who abuse the faithful physically, mentally or verbally or who give scandal by an unchristian way of life undermine their credibility and make it difficult for the faithful to approach them. Surely nothing other than the behavior of a mature Christian life can be expected or tolerated in an ordained priest. Such an attitude will not only make them approachable but draw the faithful to them.”
Availability necessitates that priests today be in communion with the faithful; the image of an earlier time where clergy stood above the laity, possessing some special inside track to God and life eternal, must enter the dustbin of history. Pope Francis, in “Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus” (Crossroad, $16.95), addressed the need for priests to stand on level ground with those they serve: “The faithful will experience our ritual gestures as empty and abstract if we cannot tell them, I am the one who lives with you. I rejoice when you laugh, and I suffer when you cry. The people see us as superfluous if we do not transform our friendship into good liturgy, if we are incapable of making holy their daily bread. People somehow can recognize sterility and, when they do, their joy slowly departs.”
Cautions to Avoid
Knowing the short-term goals to achieve the ultimate end of eternal life leads directly to a discussion of various pitfalls and hurdles that must be negotiated to minister well to others. The issue of professionalism holds great significance for priests today. The hyphenated priest is the norm in some clerical ministries, especially true when higher education is referred to, where you often see or hear people identified as “the psychologist and priest” or similar appellations.
In such settings today, professional academic discipline too often trumps the clerical vocation; scholarship takes precedence to the basic ministry of the priest. Such an attitude is completely backward; we profess vows of chastity and obedience to serve God’s people. Therefore, the priority, and thus basic ministry of the clergy, is preaching the word and celebrating the sacraments.
Burnout or becoming “stale” is another pitfall to be avoided. Priesthood calls us to serve God’s people, but we need to refuel ourselves continually to properly meet the needs that come our way. Thus we must meet our personal needs while doing our best to meet the needs of God’s people in ministry.
We need to take time for ourselves. It is important to understand that the word “no” is a complete sentence. We can and at times must say “no” when we are asked to assist others.
We need to vary what we do and find satisfaction in activities outside our day-to-day ministry. Hobbies, interaction with other people and additional interests are essential. We must take care of ourselves physically, including receiving sufficient exercise and rest, eating properly and, equally importantly, maintaining our spiritual health.
Related to the challenge of burnout and the possibility of becoming stale in our ministry to God’s people is the possibility of apathy and the fear of failure. Apathy, the dread that we will lose the spirit, “the fire,” that once motivated us to do God’s work in the world, is a constant fear in apostolic ministry. Pope Francis, in “Open Mind, Faithful Heart,” wrote, “Apathy … is a feeling that eats away at the apostolic perseverance required in our mission as pastors of God’s faithful people.”
Caution is necessary to avoid the tentacles of a dispirited attitude. The pontiff warns: “We do well to recognize apathy as a reality that besieges us constantly; it is a daily threat to our lives as pastors, and we need to be humbly aware that it is always with us. That is why we must nourish ourselves with the Word of God, which gives us strength to continue moving forward.”
If we allow ourselves to be conquered by apathy, we can become paralyzed in our ministry; and then we will not be able to respond when called to act on behalf of others. Pope Francis addressed this concern: “At times, apathy takes the form of paralysis: one simply refuses to accept the rhythms of life. Other times it appears in the clownish priest who in his activities seems incapable of grounding himself in God and in the concrete history in which he must live. Occasionally, he reveals itself in those who elaborate magnificent plans without any concern for the concrete means by which they will be realized. Conversely it can be seen in those who get so wrapped up in the minutia of each moment that they cannot see beyond them in the grand plan of God.”
Clearly, we must be watchful that we do not fall victim to apathy for indeed such a failure will be destructive to both the minister and the faithful.
What God Asks of Us
There is no need for credentials in our Christian life of service. All we need to know is that we have done what God asks of us. God has given us the opportunities and gifts to serve the faithful. Our privileges are many, but so too our responsibilities. As men of integrity and humility, seeking to always be available, we must strive to always move forward, evading the pitfalls and obstacles that seek to derail us from our apostolic mission. What we do might not be fancy or catch the eye of the world, but God, who knows and sees all, is aware of our efforts. This is what will lead us to eternal life, and that is all we need.
FATHER RICHARD GRIBBLE, CSC, is a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and presently serves as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts.
The Value of Priestly Identity
In “Priests for the Third Millennium” (OSV, 2000), Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan sets forth what it takes to be a Catholic priest in the third millennium. He emphasizes that priestly identity, whether through regular confession, the need to celebrate daily Mass or praying the Liturgy of the Hours, is a life worth living, worth sharing and offering up to the Father through Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
The book will renew the joy of being Catholic in the hearts of seminarians, priests and the people they serve.