Tuesday, September 4, 2018

It Can't Be About Me: A Reflection on Priesthood

One of the greatest errors most people make is in trying to make their lives about themselves. Such a dank existence revolves around trying to fill an insatiable hole with an array of self-serving appetites, self-centered pleasure, and a unquenchable desire for attention. Those around such a person are caught up in trying to please a person who cannot be pleased unless they are endlessly adored and obeyed without dissent.

Clergy of every level are not exempt from such temptations. In fact, by virtue of the office they hold, an unspoken presumption of unwavering obedience seems built in. Priesthood can be a dangerous place for a narcissist.

Priesthood, live correctly, points away from the priest. He values leading in order to serve, not to rule. As a priest, I take my cues from Jesus and the Blessed Mother. Jesus says of Himself that He came to serve, not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for the many. He who is the Incarnate God says such about Himself. How can I as a priest of Jesus Christ say anything more about myself? There is no room for princes here, only servants. The Blessed Mother proclaims herself the servant of the Lord, offering herself to God's will.  She tells the servants at Cana to do what Jesus tells them to do. Should not such a disposition be my own in how I guide a parish?!

To whit: at Mass the focus should not be on me as a priest. Nor should it be on the congregation. We do not come to Mass to worship either the priest or the congregation. We come to worship God. As a priest, I am not called to be a master showman.  If I do so, I am removing the focus from God to me. Make no mistake, this is mortally dangerous.

Why? Because if my words do not point to Christ, I become a hindrance to salvation. At best I am an irritating gong belching pablum. At worst, I am a demonic lacky spreading seeds of confusion and rebellion in the garden of the Lord. If my actions are the theological equivalent of giant neon sign begging the observer to be entertained by my grand showmanship, I am taking your focus away from what can and does save you. It is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross that brings the possibility of salvation.  It is the giving of His Flesh and Blood through the Eucharist that breathes life into you. My job as a priest is to point there by word and action.

I will assure you if a cleric makes it about himself at Mass, an act of supreme arrogance,  he will make it about himself everywhere. He will compromise faith to get the desired self-satisfying lauds of praise for his derring do. He will rebel against authority whilst demanding unswerving obedience to all he says. It is in this dangerous ground that the seeds of scandal will be planted and harvested. As with anyone,  his appetites will be unquenchable and the attempt to quench them, no matter how sinful and scandalous, will be justified every single step of the way.

It is for all these reasons that Jesus pleads for disciples to embrace humility. Humility informs us that only God can fill the sum of all our desires. No amount of money, praise, attention,  sex, pleasure, or numbing agents can fill our need. The humble priest knows that if his words and actions do not point to Christ,  then he is a danger to his flock. He knows only with God's grace can he lead. He fears not anger. He knows doing and saying the right thing might well bring on anger. It did in the life of Jesus.

So many of the problems the Church has suffered over two millennia can be laid at the feet of clerics who made it about themselves. If we are to turn things around, all of us, lay and clergy, must live lives that point away from ourselves and point to Christ.  I say both because it has been from the ranks of the laity that have come the clergy. I am fond of reminding people that I did not emerge from my mother's womb at the age of 31 wearing a Roman Collar.  For the first 30 of those years I was a layperson. Teach humility in the home.  Live humility in the home. Seminaries are not magic shows. They can only form what is given them. Send in a strong man...a humble man...and despite the seminary he goes to, he comes a strong and humble priest. That strong humble priest will serve well, for he won't make the priesthood about himself.