Maturing in the Priestly Life
How to navigate the stages of spirituality, culminating in a prayer to be free
Years ago, during a community retreat, the retreat master used this story, which I colloquially recall in this form: “When I was a young priest, and just ordained, I prayed that I might be a faithful priest. This understanding became defined as being a holy priest. Later, I asked to be a more prayerful priest. As I moved more deeply into my priestly life, I prayed that I would be a loving priest. After many years of service, I realized that mercy was the most important thing, and I prayed to be a forgiving priest. Now, I am old, and I pray to be free.”
I have heard that story used in several iterations since then, and although I was not that young (nor as old as I am now) when I attended the retreat, the cognitive stages of priestly spirituality, which the story invoked, resonated then and have stayed with me ever since. Few priests forget their ordination day, but the sense of optimism and zeal, doubtless present on that day, tends to lose articulation as the years pass. Decades of priestly ministry teach us all a great deal about the People of God, about ourselves and above all about God’s grace.
We all have had images of priesthood fixed in our minds. In a Maslovian way, priestly life moves through stages or passes through cataracts, which mark us. Ideally, the priest moves through ministerial life growing deeper and more richly into his relationship with God, and his priestly spirituality may change as well. We have all learned different forms of prayer, meditation and ways of living in the world. The celebration of the holy Eucharist, so much the joy of Catholic priestly life, becomes taxed as the decline in the number of priests multiplies the number of Masses. Our lectio divina passes through preferences and varying levels of interest. Liturgical directives, among other instructions, require new reference points.
Often, a failure to respond dynamically to these changes can leave us in a spiritual drought, and those heartfelt, evangelical dreams of early ministry are attrited by the world, by age and by changes that seem relentless. As we know, not everyone who puts on the chasuble at ordination is buried in the chasuble.
Perhaps understanding the dynamic stages of the spirituality of our ministry and our own pastoral needs can help center us in our own priestly life. In as much as we may recognize ourselves in the opening story I mentioned, perhaps we will also recognize strengths yet unnoted, and see our maturation in priestly life as part of God’s plan.
St. John Henry Newman on Simon of Cyrene
Reflecting on the Fifth Station of the Cross, in which Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross, St. John Henry Newman reflects:
“At length his strength fails utterly, and he is unable to proceed. The executioners stand perplexed. What are they to do? How is he to get to Calvary? Soon they see a stranger who seems strong and active — Simon of Cyrene. They seize on him, and compel him to carry the cross with Jesus. The sight of the Sufferer pierces the man’s heart. Oh, what a privilege! O happy soul, elect of God! he takes the part assigned to him with joy.
“This came of Mary’s intercession. He prayed, not for himself, except that he might drink the full chalice of suffering and do his Father’s will; but she showed herself a mother by following him with her prayers, since she could help him in no other way. She then sent this stranger to help him. It was she who led the soldiers to see that they might be too fierce with him. Sweet Mother, even do the like to us. Pray for us ever, holy Mother of God, pray for us, whatever be our cross, as we pass along on our way. Pray for us, and we shall rise again, though we have fallen. Pray for us when sorrow, anxiety, or sickness comes upon us. Pray for us when we are prostrate under the power of temptation, and send some faithful servant of thine to succor us. And in the world to come, if found worthy to expiate our sins in the fiery prison, send some good angel to give us a season of refreshment. Pray for us, holy Mother of God.”
— “Newman Reader,” Part II, Stations of the Cross, Litanies, etc.
Personal and priestly holiness is at the center of any priestly formation program. It is the inception point of priestly formation. In the ordination rite, we are cautioned by the bishop to be a faithful priest. Being a holy priest is the same as being a good priest. As my novice master repeatedly told us, “Keep the rule, and the rule will keep you.” Holiness and faithfulness were the same.
However, it did not take long to discover that the daily demands of ministry were their drivers. In the present day, younger priests seldom get the chance to season quietly over several years in pastoral service, safe in the orbit of a wise elder who is both experienced mentor and gentle guide. They are committed earlier more and more to important ministerial tasks and must assemble the necessary professional resources and spiritual depth, in short order.
Like Jeremiah, ministerial life begins with a sense of raw inadequacy: “The word of the LORD came to me: / Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / before you were born I dedicated you, / a prophet to the nations I appointed you. / ‘Ah, Lord God!’ I said, / ‘I do not know how to speak. I am too young!’ / But the LORD answered me, / Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ / To whomever I send you, you shall go; / whatever I command you, you shall speak. / Do not be afraid of them, / for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer 1:4-8).
We know the next development in Jeremiah’s calling — God places the words (skills) in the young prophet’s mouth and empowers him for the tasks ahead (which we know are formidable and will only increase immensely with age and time). Our help is ever in the name of the Lord, but the empowerment of priestly ministry does not come quite so fluidly after ordination in latter-day ministry. Many priests find themselves administering institutions and parishes requiring considerable secular competencies. Modern legal and social demands are better rewarded by a counseling degree, an MBA, or a professional qualification than some of the material learned in the seminary.
Growing in Ability
When I was studying theology, a middle-aged priest in my community shared with us a bit about his ministry with the homeless and trafficked persons. They were heart-wrenching stories, and we were all impressed by his commitment and faith. Most important to me at the time was the coda to his ministry talk. “Twenty years ago,” he concluded, “I could never have done the work I do now.”
We cannot help but realize that we grow in ability and experience as we age. God does put needed words in our mouths, but it is not uncommon that it takes years to receive and develop them. Nor is it unusual that many priests reach their full priestly ministry in their 50s through their 70s. Along the way, however, there can be several false starts and weathering moments. We are cultivated and pruned, and assuming we do not miss the lessons can become something more — maybe much more. Like Ezekiel’s cedar: “Every tree of the field will know / that I am the LORD. / I bring low the high tree, / lift high the lowly tree, / Wither up the green tree, / and make the dry tree bloom” (Ez 17:24).
We begin priestly service knowing the importance of personal holiness. But, it takes little time before we realize that holiness is like education: there is a lot more specialization, focus and specifics than the general state. The why of holiness is long ingrained, but the how grows in importance.
Therefore, becoming a more prayerful priest takes on a simple strength. It is the gateway to holiness and a discipline that marks the state of holiness. Intuitively, we recognize that the first step on the path to greater holiness is prayer. The more demanding the ministry, the more we learn to pray. “Pray more, worry less,” was the message on a coffee mug I received as a gift one Christmas.
There is a syllogistic connection, however, between worrying and praying. Like cool water on a hot day, prayer refreshes and renews in difficult times. We instinctively turn to prayer as we navigate the deep waters of pastoral ministry. My experience is that more worrying leads to more praying, and not the other way around. Nonetheless (and because of this) praying only increases exponentially in importance in priestly life.
Our hunger for holiness translates into a hunger for prayerful communing with the God who we have consecrated our lives to serve. The more challenging a situation in public ministry, the more we feel the need for counsel and communion. Paul speaks to this in 2 Corinthians: “We are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him” (5:6-9).
To preach the value of love, and to extol the purpose which love entails, would scarcely be credible if we do not promote at the same time the conversation and communication which lovers make triumphant. To love God more is to desire to pray more to God. Never give up prayer, writes St. John of the Cross, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.
Mary’s Unique Position in Priestly Spirituality
In the early Theotokos (“Godbearer”) prayer known as Sub tuum praesidium, Mary is addressed as a uniquely holy one and uniquely blessed one. This is fitting since the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God holds a position unrivaled among the disciples of Christ — from the first days of the Church until the present age. Unsurprisingly, Mary occupies a unique position in priestly spirituality as well.
One of my formation directors once advised me to pray constantly to Mary: Tell her you want to be a good priest and serve her Son, and she will always help you. Given the nuances of priestly spiritual direction and spiritual life, this is about as old school as you can get. But it is true at a visceral level, and for many reasons. Three are notable:
Mary is the first disciple of Jesus. Her “Yes!” at the Annunciation, despite the uncertainty of the future, presages the same affirmation of Christ, which every priest must embrace. What followed after that agreement was tumultuous. All priests do well to remember that.
Mary is both mother and comforter. Numerous battlefield accounts speak about wounded and dying soldiers crying out for their mothers. Motherhood is a luminous and warm image for a huge portion of humanity. Mary personifies that and gives an approachable face to the love of God. The unconditional love of mothers is a mirror of our belief in God’s unconditional love. Mary gives voice to the encouragement all mothers have for their children.
The imitation of Mary calls us to a reflected life. Mary, surrounded by puzzling moments with her Son, “kept all these things in her heart.” Her faith journey was accelerated by an inner life of reflection and consideration. Priestly spirituality rises and falls on this dynamic, as in the end it is the inner life of the spirit which makes the outer life of ministry possible.
This segues into the search to be a loving priest. Love, like the Matryoshka nesting dolls of Russia, has spiraling depth. It covers a Montana-sized spectrum of meanings. Moreover, it is omnipresent in a healthy spiritual life. Our prayer seeks God, and by seeking God we usually find what we are looking to find. If we see with God’s eyes and try to have God’s perspective, the world we behold transforms before us. People and their troubles create their own lectio divina.
The more we love, the more we seek to serve. Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in a more structured voice than our own modern voice, observed this: “Love is a gift of the Holy Ghost by which those who have already attained the first step of truth through humility under the Son’s training may advance to the second through sympathy for neighbor under the Holy Ghost’s teaching.”
The more we serve, the more we learn to love. Mother Teresa of Calcutta summed this up well: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
There is a rising ocean of people who live in isolation, fear, anger, despair, alienation and hopelessness, just to name a few of the conditions of the social dislocation in western society. So many are alone, and not by choice.
If the Gospel has power for many, it begins with the realization that they are loved. Our ministry demonstrates that in measurable ways — or at least it should. The community of the Church, the inclusiveness of the Gospel and the love of Christ are powerful balms, but the Church’s ministry needs to give voice to these things. Seeing those whom we serve means loving them as well.
The modern priest, whatever that term means, works in a charged world, a topic beyond the scope of what we are discussing here, but Jesus’ desire that we love our enemies gets fresh context with every news headline. Pope Francis noted that he wanted priests who were shepherds who had the smell of the sheep about them. If every priest is an alter Christus, then the love which is part of Christ’s gaze must be his too.
This hybrid existence in the world was the point of Francis Libermann’s notion of practical union with God. The world of the spirit, and the world of the world, have to coexist in a loving, gentle way. Priestly pastoral ministry is intimately a part of this.
More directly, celibate life teaches the dramatic value of friendship, companionship and community. Ministerial priesthood not only serves the community of believers, it needs the community of believers. Congregations serve as the lodestone of priestly ministry: They remind us constantly of why we were ordained. They call priests to committed service and uphold and support them in their work. This should not be confused with popularity, but it is analogous to meaning and direction.
If learning to love is learning to see, then it is a natural progression to desire to heal, to alleviate. Imagine what it can mean to lift the burden of worry off someone’s shoulders. Consider what the experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation means for someone who has long been bowed down by the weight of their past.
My favorite saint may not be a saint at all — Simon of Cyrene. Here is a man who lifted Christ’s burden off his back. Who can say that they have ever done as much? To become a forgiving priest is to actively yearn to be, like St. Simon, someone who seeks to remove the crushing freight of life from those whom they serve.
At some level, this is what all ministry purport to do. And, frankly, sometimes it is heartbreakingly impossible to do. But the priestly minister still can accompany his people in some form. Other elements in Catholic life support this. It is part of the genius of Catholic ministry that we have always been believers in a second chance. In an increasingly vitriolic society, where redemption and forgiveness seem canceled, a Gospel of Second Chances deserves a fresh reading.
Pope John Paul II’s elevation of divine mercy is just this sort of articulation. But it is emblematic of maturing ministers to see their work as making fact of Jesus’ pledge, that his is a yoke which is easy and a burden which is light. We learn that so many people struggle with a raft of adversities, not least of which can be a loss of hope. There seems to be no way back and no way out. If only we could call a cosmological timeout and know how to start again.
The national campaign “The Light Is on for You” for returning Catholics is a beautiful expression of this. It places the Sacrament of Reconciliation, among other pastoral resources, in a prominent place. More to the point, however, these are painful times for the Church and the sacramental priesthood. The clergy scandals of the past decades and the agony of confronting a bitter legacy of race relations place us in need of forgiveness. Sometimes it is hard to know which way to go, but the grace to begin again is, and should be, the wellspring of fresh beginnings.
Prayer to Be Free
There is a sense of immanence, which comes from great age and great service. A 90-plus-year-old confrere in my university residence would spend hours in the chapel each day. In the quiet minutes preceding morning or evening prayer, you could hear him sigh deeply. He exuded expectation. I asked him once why he sighed (which has some excellent emotional and pulmonary values to recommend it), and he replied, “I’m ready to go, and I’m waiting for God to take me.”
More than the sense of completion over a life of ministry, or hopefulness over a progression into the future, is the recognition that in our senior lives there is a life lived. We can reach a point where our ability to influence the world around us directly is a setting sun, and the burdens long borne have been taken up by others or maybe no one.
The prayer to be free is not about abandoning ministry or service, or even life, but about watching the ties which bind us to this plane diminish and disappear. That reality can be accepted and preparation begun for the progression, or it can be a fierce battle where all those ties can be contested. The freedom of the mature minister is the grace to walk away without judgment on those who follow or desire endless cheers for what was achieved.
When we submitted to our priestly vocation, we assented “Yes!” to whatever it was that was asked of us. Explicit in that assent is enough humility to accept that one day — hopefully sooner than later — we release our plans and actively cooperate with God’s will. Many wise priests would remind us that it is not our will, but God’s will, which should be done. The freedom we pray for is that by the end we can see that, and then walk toward the brightness we have hoped for since grace first rang the bell of faith in our lives.
FATHER JOHN SAWICKI, CSSp, is an assistant professor in political science at Duquesne University, and director of the Center for International Relations at Duquesne
On Priestly Retirement
There is a ministerial spirituality to retirement from ministry. How can we ever move on to heaven if we cannot say goodbye to these mortal bands? The end of ministry can be much like the diminishment of person and purpose. If we believe we are moving towards a point reserved for us by God, then we need the courage to cut loose and set out into the deep. After all, who is it who brings us to our physical end after all?
Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, makes this point precisely when he prays: “When I feel that I am losing myself in the hands of great unknown forces, in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand it is you who is parting the strands of my life.”
When we embrace the completion of our lives and our ministry or strive for the grace to do so, we move from the tethers of this world to the freedom to embrace the next stage of God’s plan.
As Thomas Merton writes, “A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”