No priest ever forgets his first day in the seminary. After all the discernment, he has left the job behind, the girlfriend behind, his own family and friends behind — all to journey down an unknown path, hoping and praying that he is doing God’s will. My first day was just like this.
We had an excellent president, or rector as we call him, who summoned all the new recruits together for his annual opening conference of the academic year. You might think that he called us together to give us a bit of a pep talk, to tell us that we were bold for making this difficult decision to follow the Lord’s call in a world that was distancing itself more and more from God. You might think that he complimented us and told us to pray hard for the strength to find God’s purpose for our lives (ordination was never a given).
He did none of these things. Instead he said to us: “Gentlemen, if you’re not prepared to make every sacrifice necessary to become holy priests, then get out.”
The message was clear. The Church and world don’t need greater numbers of priests necessarily. What’s needed are holy priests. If we weren’t willing to accept this, we needn’t bother wasting our teachers’ time or our own — or God’s.
Some of the guys assembled that day were put off by this approach, but I wasn’t. Actually, I was very impressed. Here was a man who wasn’t concerned with playing the numbers game. He wasn’t interested in merely producing more vocations or impressing his superiors with his flourishing seminary program. What he cared about was producing holy priests, even at this beginning stage of priestly formation.
He did this because he felt with all of his heart, as he told us so many times, that “the people of God deserve the best.”
That was many years ago, but that phrase has always stuck with me. A good, holy, prayerful Catholic priest can do great and mighty things for God because the Holy Spirit will work through him. The people will truly be able to see God through him, which is what the Lord intended when he established the priesthood.
On the other side of that equation, an unholy, evil priest can make people lose their faith through his words and actions.
Scripture is very clear on this point. In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord says, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of the pasture … but I will take care to punish your evil deeds” (Jeremiah 23:1-6).
This is a direct warning to all priests. If you mislead my people, says the Lord, you’re going to pay. Jesus was moved to pity in the Gospel of Mark because the vast crowd was “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:30-34).
This is a crucial point to remember, because Pope Benedict XVI has declared this the Year for Priests. I suspect he is doing this not so much to celebrate the gift of the priesthood or the great priests we all know in our lives. There is plenty of time for that. Rather, it is the Year for Priests to pray for priests.
Benedict is imploring the people of God to pray for holy priests, men who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to configure themselves to Christ the Good Shepherd. In his homily to open the Year for Priests, the Holy Father said that the faithful should “pray that the Lord inflame the heart of each and every priest … because the greatest suffering in the Church is the sin of its priests.”
Benedict rarely minces words, and he’s not going to start when it comes to something as important as the sanctity of the clergy.
I personally would like to forget the scandals that broke not so long ago. I’d like to forget them because I know in my heart, and in my experience, that the great majority of priests are good, devout, dedicated men — men who want nothing more than to serve God by serving the flock entrusted to them.
I’d like to forget the scandals because I know that the majority of the hideous acts we read about in the papers and heard about on television were committed by a relatively small group of sick, perverted, twisted men who should never have been ordained in the first place.
I’d like to forget the scandals — but I can’t. I can’t forget because I am reminded of them every time a little child rushes up to give me a hug after Mass, or whenever I visit a parish school. An uneasy feeling comes upon me at such times. In the back of my mind, always, is the question: Is someone looking at this scene and thinking something terrible? Are they seeing something that isn’t there?
This is tragic. Most priests love children, present company included. In fact, for me, the biggest stumbling block on the way to ordination was the lingering question as to whether I would be happier with a wife and children.
But there is hope. There is hope because Christ rose from the dead — and promised the same for you and me, if we try to follow his will. Christ rose from the dead, and he is still married to his Catholic Church, 2,000 years and many sins later. We are not always faithful to his teaching, but he is always faithful to us.
There are two sides to the Church, of course: the human side and the divine side. The human side gets us into trouble. But no matter how unfaithful we can be, he is still married to his bride, the Church.
This is the Year for Priests, and the Pope wants us to pray for holy priests — not just for more priests. Like the rector of that seminary so many years ago, God doesn’t play the numbers game. He wants his priests to be holy. Why? Because his people deserve the best.
Father Salvatore DeStefano is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.