Thoughts on the Feast of the Sacred Heart
and the Closing of the Year for Priests
“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.”
Czeslaw Milosz, “Love”
As the Year for Priests ends, of all the texts and thoughts pondered and prayed over during the year, the poem above, for me at least, says the most about the priesthood: its optimism, its issues, and its future.
It may not be as exuberant (and uncomfortably self-indulgent) as the quote from St. John Vianney with which Pope Benedict XVI opened the year.
"Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption here on earth... What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of His goods... Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest and they will end by worshiping the beasts there…”
I honestly don’t see myself using these words to describe my chosen path, yet the fact that the Cure d’Ars, known for his humble and self-effacing ways, could come up with such words, demands a closer look at his intentions. Surely he is not talking about himself, and not merely about his being a priest, but of the priesthood's place in God’s plan of salvation.
"O, how great is the priest! ...If he realized what he is, he would die." Touché.
I know very well too our vices, our bouts with entitlement and mediocrity, the need to be assured of relevance, the patent conservatism which some perfected to an art form of backwardness. There is much to learn therefore when we define love as looking at oneself “the way one looks at distant things”.
The martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero says it so when he too exuberantly claims that there is a sense of liberation in realizing we are but bit players in God’s grand scheme of things; workers not master builders; ministers not messiahs. As he famously puts it: “We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Priesthood then is the humble acceptance of a gift, undeserved, arbitrary, divinely preordained. And with acceptance comes grace; then grace builds upon nature; and nature seeks nothing but perfection. Thus, it naturally follows that whoever loves and looks at himself with humility will then "want to use himself and things so that they stand in the glow of ripeness".
To be a priest means to accept a sacrament of service. To love as a priest means to devote oneself entirely to the task of building God’s Kingdom by serving undividedly its icon and foretaste here on earth: the Church. That is why he is also called a churchman, a cleric. And when the Church is properly understood as the People of God, a priest is also called a pastor, a shepherd after the heart of the Good Shepherd, in persona Christi capitis ecclesiae.
Priesthood is about embodying the very ideals of Christianity and being Church – definitely more than just doing good or not doing anybody harm. It is about walking the extra mile (Damien of Molokai), turning the other cheek (Maximilian Kolbe), seeking greater glory for God (Ignatius of Loyola), and humor in holiness (Philip Neri). This has to be the Christian ideal, otherwise what is the point of the Paschal Mystery? Every Christian is called to follow this ideal, but more so the priest because, with the People of God, he is both sheep and shepherd, pilgrim and guide, witness and teacher.
Pope Benedict XVI quotes Pope Paul VI: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
When a priest loses sight of this ideal of humble ministry and passionate creative service, of being churchman and pastor, scandal happens. A scandal may come in different forms, but simply put it is an event that makes people lose faith.
Finally, though it matters that he understands enough of the mysteries of God, Church, and even his very being, it matters more that he serves as faithfully as the heart of Jesus. Once again from Vianney: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”. If the fear of the Lord is the operative beginning of wisdom, faithfulness is the sure path to the fullness of revelation.
To sum it up, all a priest needs to aspire to is to be God’s heart today.