It is so easy to criticize priests. This one delivers dull sermons. That one is always asking for money.. The other one sings off-key.
And of course many lay people think they know the perfect cure for whatever ails any particular priest. “Oh, if the Church would just let them get married,” they say, “everything would be fine.”
These folks forget, obviously, that marriage isn’t a cure-all for anyone’s problems, judging from the rate of divorce in our nation. Still, it is quite true that one of the great sacrifices of the priesthood is giving up a wife and a family. But the very fact that so many men continue to be called to the priesthood reveals the deep supernatural stream that runs beneath the vocation.
How else to explain the attraction to a job that pays very little money, requires impossibly long hours and demands that you give up the comforts of marriage?
From the secular perspective, it makes no sense at all. But from the secular perspective, the love of Jesus Christ also makes no sense. And it is this love that sustains priests: not only their longing for Christ, but his tender heartfelt compassion toward them.
Many years ago, Southern writer Flannery O’Connor pointed out how easy it is to criticize priests. In fact, she said, any child could find fault with a sermon on his way home from Sunday Mass. But it was impossible, she said, for that same child to see the bigger picture: to understand the “hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.”
In fact, even the most “bumbling” priest can make a deeper difference in a person’s life than an investor, a surgeon or a professor. A professor can open the door to knowledge, an investor may show the way to huge wealth and a surgeon may cure a disease.
But a priest can gently lead a person in darkness to the light of Christ. He can nudge one who might otherwise end up in hell onto the road to heaven. And given that our earthly lives may equal 80 years at best, while the after-life has no end, it would seem the conclusion is obvious: The work of a priest is the most important in the world.
This was brought home to me recently when my brother-in-law was hospitalized for a very long time at a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma City. Although he is Catholic, my brother-in-law is the type of guy who finds fault with organized religion. You probably know people like him. Somehow, the fact that the local priest isn’t perfect or the local congregation harbors sinners is enough to make these folks bitter, and keep them from going to Mass.
But the great thing about hospital chaplains is they bring Christ to the very bedside of the patient. Now the disgruntled Catholic can no longer complain that the Church demands too much money in the collection basket, because the chaplain asks for no money at all. The disgruntled Catholic can’t rail about Church hierarchy, because this one humble and smiling chaplain sits at the bedside, listening compassionately to the patient.
My brother-in-law received Holy Communion daily when he was hospitalized repeatedly over a series of months, as he battled cancer. The priest who really broke through to him was 82 years old and retired. And my niece described this priest very well: “He lights up the room when he walks in.”
And that, of course, is the essence of being a good priest. A good priest brings the light and love of Christ into every room, into every house and into every heart.
Pope Benedict XVI has launched a “Year of the Priest,” a special time to encourage priests as they strive to improve spiritually. It would be wonderful to attend Mass and offer our Communion for the priests who have touched our lives. They have given up wealth, family and prestige to serve us. They don’t expect awards, accolades, bonuses or benefits. But I have never known a priest who would turn down a prayer.
Lorraine’s latest book is “Death in the Choir,” a mystery set in Decatur, Georgia, and featuring murder and mayhem among choir members at a Catholic church.
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