I have been quite fortunate in my 23 years of priesthood to have known some superb role models of priestly life, and the lessons I have learned from them can, I think, be boiled down to four stunningly simple principles: Show Up, Smile, Work Hard and Be Nice to People.
These lessons could be offered by almost any personal trainer or late-night infomercial, by Oprah Winfrey or a blog by some cyber-guru, clerical or otherwise. But these four principles have a very particular meaning for those ordained to the priesthood.
But first, remember this: For every Christian, and certainly no less for those called to the priesthood, there is no gift, grace or vocation bestowed that is given solely or even primarily for the benefit of the recipient. Your ordination to the priesthood is not the terminus of your own spiritual Aeneid. It’s actually not yours at all. Quite the contrary. By it, God opens you up and capacitates you for a radical and generous self-donation on behalf of His people. The priesthood is given to you, but for them. Your own sanctification will come precisely by sanctifying them, and this means you will always have to battle the temptation to place your priestly life at the center.
All of us, ordained or not, have the tendency to make our spiritual life the center of our spiritual life, thus displacing the One who belongs there. Jesus belongs there. He is the center; and our priesthood only makes sense through Him, with Him and in Him.
Show up. There are, in the pastoral ministry biz, numerous articles and books on the “ministry of presence.” Of course this means more than occasionally being seen in the vicinity of those we serve. It means engagement, relationship and commitment. It means “we are witnesses of these things” — “these things” being the new life in Christ to which God’s people are called and into which we are to lead them. It means discovering the joys, the needs and, perhaps most poignantly, the sufferings of the people we are called to shepherd.
This may sound obvious, but I am often surprised by the number of clerics who presume that the people of God will be as dazzled and charmed by their priesthood as they are themselves by it, or who arrive on the scene with an entire theological and pastoral agenda to be imposed, usually in the first three weeks, upon God’s often long-suffering people. Many newly minted clerics feel compelled to cram their entire theological agenda into every homily. Please don’t do that; I say this because I myself learned it the hard way. Take time to prepare good homilies, words that will help draw folks more deeply into the Mystery. Never forget that good preachers preach first to themselves, and this will prevent a homiletic chasm from developing between you and your people. After all, we are all of us viatores, wayfarers in this age, and we ourselves are by no means exempt from struggle, doubt and sin.
As we build genuine relationships with the people we serve, our preaching will become better and better because we will not be waxing eloquent in abstractions but will be able to speak directly to the people we have come to know. To use Blessed John Henry Newman’s motto, cor ad cor loquitur, your heart will speak to their heart — but only if you have first listened attentively to theirs.
If we are genuinely invested in the parish or place we serve, it will not take long for the people to recognize that commitment. Their trust in us will grow and our capacity to lead them as good shepherds will increase proportionally. They may disagree with a decision we may make, but at the end of the day they will follow us because they have come to trust us. That will not happen quickly and that cannot happen at all when our ministry is pro forma, or simply 9-to-5, or mailed in, or when, as absentee landlords, we desire the fealty and benefit of those we lead, but from whom we remain remote, aloof or disengaged.
Smile. At the end of the fourth century, Deogratias, a disenchanted deacon from Carthage, wrote to Augustine, lamenting his own beleaguered experience of teaching, and seeking from Augustine pointers on how and what to preach. The fruit of this request is the De catechizandis rudibus, a helpful little book not least because it reminds those of us who are entrusted with preaching that it’s not merely about imparting information or even conveying a message. It’s about drawing souls into a living history — and that the heart of the faith isn’t an idea but a Person and an encounter into which we are drawn and participate by sacrament.
A millennium before Marshall McLuhan proclaimed the medium is the message, Augustine was advising Deogratias that his preaching should be animated by hilaritas. What he did not mean was that he should start every homily with a joke, much less that he should trundle about being giddy, but that he should be animated by a cheerfulness, his manner infused with a kind of levity, akin to that fruit of the Spirit, joy, which communicates a delight in the things of God.
‘There will no doubt be some among God’s people who will tax your energies and your patience. Needy or whiny, angry at one of the teachers in the grade school, hurt that their annulment wasn’t granted, unhappy with the music at the 11 a.m. Mass — the list goes on. . . . I continually have to remind myself that the Lord offered His life for these people, even the ones who may annoy me terribly, and that I am to love them as He loves them.’
Now this is possible only for those who are dispossessed of themselves, who don’t consider themselves the center of the cosmic drama and who recognize that it’s about Jesus and not themselves. Happy priests are priests whose life is balanced, whose spiritual life is solid and who are thus both approachable and capable of leading others to God. The last thing the Holy Roman Church needs is glum, disaffected or whiny priests. Vocations to the priesthood will blossom in parishes and schools where the people of God encounter priests who are vital and joyful, and whose love for the Lord is communicated as much by their bearing as by their words.
Augustine, who has lots to say about lots of stuff, knew that even if one is not the best preacher, the joy with which one lives and moves and preaches and prays will itself communicate the heart of the Gospel.
Work Hard. Leo Aloysius Pursley, bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend from the late 1950s until the mid-’70s, was noted for having said, while chomping on a cigar, “Gentlemen, priesthood is the only life I know in which a man can retire at the age of 30. And some have.” Now, overcommitment is the frequent vice of the newly ordained, and it’s quite understandable; a new priest should be absolutely rife with enthusiasm for the work entrusted to him. But we can also think of priests for whom that first fervor has long waned and who now, sadly, spend their days studiously avoiding pastoral work, browsing the Internet, watching The Price Is Right, golfing three or four times a week, and who at the same time have their flock utterly convinced that “Father is so busy.” Such priests will rust out long before they burn out.
Don’t be that guy. Hit the ground running. God’s people need you. And they deserve the best from you. Your vitality and energy will also inspire older priests like myself; I am always edified by the zeal of seminarians and of the newly ordained.
One of the keys to genuine pastoral effectiveness is managing your time well, and learning how to keep a calendar and to balance multiple and often competing commitments. In a smaller diocese like my own, most of us priests have at least two jobs; I think I work hard. But I can honestly say I’ve never been overworked. It’s not virtue as much as being borderline obsessive-compulsive; I keep my own calendar, and I carefully manage my own time.
Further, and lamentably, for many of us, when things do become harried, the first place we often look to cut corners is in prayer. Again, don’t be that guy. Our pastoral fruitfulness is tied absolutely to our personal prayer. And by that I mean more than just fulfilling our obligation to the Divine Office, which, I would note, we promise to pray, not primarily for ourselves but for the Church and the world. But our prayer needs to be more than just the Office; the psalter should be the foundation but hardly the sum total of our personal prayer.
As Eugene Boylan, the great Irish Cistercian, noted, there really can be no personal prayer without ongoing spiritual reading, which provides the fodder, so to speak, for that prayer. So in managing your time, make spiritual reading and personal prayer an absolute priority, even if it means praying at odd or unusual times due to pastoral exigencies.
And remember that what is distinctive about priestly ministry is the sacraments.
Almost anyone can be an administrator; sacred orders aren’t required and it is debatable whether the grace of orders adds anything to that skill set anyway. Often we are asked to teach (whether in schools, adult faith formation, RCIA, CCD or some other context). But such teaching is not distinctive of priestly ministry, and some may or may not have that gift. Social justice is indeed part and parcel of the Gospel, but social action and advocacy are not what is distinctive of holy orders.
What makes the priestly vocation distinctive is sacramental ministry. It’s the most important thing we have to offer to God’s People. So build your own life around that ministry. Be faithful in offering the Mass. Remember that it is not our private devotion, it does not belong to us; we are mere stewards of the Mysteries of God. Be a generous and gentle confessor. Make the sacrament available. If you build it, they will come. In any number of places it is no wonder we have seen a decline in the number of Catholics who make use of the sacrament: A parish of 2,000 families that offers confession for 30 minutes on a Saturday (and, of course, by appointment) is a self-fulfilling prophet of that very decline.
Be generous in visiting the sick and offering the sacraments to them. Finally, remember that “programs” in parish life are valuable, but not central — all catechesis, all preaching, all “programming” should lead people to the sacraments and, most especially, the Eucharist, the faithful celebration of which, the Church assures us, is singularly the most effective thing we do.
And as you begin your priestly ministry, beware of the great bane of clerical life: resentment. As you work hard, you will discover others who simply don’t or who seem to be rewarded for bad behavior or who, because they are not heavy-lifters, are not asked to do more. It is a cardinal principle of the clerical life that the harder you work, the more work will be given to you.
Further, it is an occupational hazard of celibates to seek affirmation, and there are many times others will be acknowledged or recognized long before you are. As priests, we can easily personalize it when we seem not to be noticed, and this only kindles resentment. But that resentment is diabolical, and it can destroy the priestly heart and the pastoral charity that is its very life beat. Fight against that with all your might.
Be Nice to People. If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that, from the get-go, you will be surrounded, sometimes swamped, by people. Some of them gracious and polite, others needy of attention, others combative or whiny. Many others are the silent majority who go about their lives never wanting to “bother Father” and are content to come to Mass, say, every Saturday evening of their life, and have hardly ever actually spoken to a priest; these are the ones who will send you a card and a check at Christmas and leave you wondering “Who are they?”
We are ordained to serve all of them. Not just the ones we like, or whose company we enjoy, or who flatter us. I am also convinced from my study of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that one variant reading which was not accurately recorded in the apparatus is Matthew 18.20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there will be a problem.” Life in community, as you have no doubt experienced during your years in seminary, if not before, is always a school of charity and patience. This was true in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is no less true today. This is largely because original sin, at work in our members, is always encouraging self-promotion and self-assertion. “Community” in any of its forms cramps and impinges on this unreflective and unrelenting impulse lurking in all the fallen, and we thus see others as objects, obstacles or competitors.
In this regard, learn peoples’ names. It means the world to folks if you shake their hand leaving Mass and can say, “Have a great week, Sharon” or “Jack, best to you and your family.” Even better if you come to know them: “Bill, how’s your wife doing after her surgery?” Or “Sarah, congratulations on the soccer championship!” It’s also worth reading the local paper carefully. When you see a parishioner — young or old — honored or noted, drop them a note in the mail. The 10 or so minutes it takes to dash off a couple quick handwritten notes is worth the effort. It communicates love and commitment.
There will no doubt be some among God’s people who will tax your energies and your patience. Needy or whiny, angry at one of the teachers in the grade school, hurt that their annulment wasn’t granted, unhappy with the music at the 11 a.m. Mass — the list goes on. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, I am speaking first to myself. I continually have to remind myself that the Lord offered His life for these people, even the ones who may annoy me terribly, and that I am to love them as He loves them, and with the love with which He loves them. And there’s the secret, perhaps the secret of the Kingdom. Even my love isn’t my own. It’s first His, given to me, and not just for me, but through me, for them.
I am not a canon lawyer. Two of my best priest-friends are canonists, and I often joke with them that I consider canon law to be a modern innovation introduced by Gratian in the middle of the 12th century. But in some ways, the last canon in the current Code encapsulates the ultimate aim of our vocation as priests: The supreme law of the Church is the salus animarum, the salvation of souls. Our role in this has traditionally been called the cura animarum: the care of souls. Now it’s often not glitzy or exciting, but it is, or can be, deeply graced, as the frail young priest discovers in Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, and much of what we do is to plant seeds that, in the economy of Divine Providence, others will reap. Like that French priest, we are to discover that, in the face of our own weakness, tout est grâce, everything is grace.
The four principles I have enumerated are in one sense not only simple but also rather mundane and quite natural. But remember that it is precisely nature, our humanity, which serves as the palette through which divine grace acts. As in the Mystery of the Incarnation, the human nature assumed by the Divine becomes the vehicle, the instrument through which and in which we can gaze upon the very Face of God, so, too, our genuine humanity can and should become a vehicle, making us instruments in the saving grace of Christ. This is the treasure we carry about in clay, a grace undeserved but which we are asked to live with fidelity, joy and love.
Adapted from a talk Monsignor Michael Heintz, then pastor of St. Matthew Cathedral parish in South Bend and concurrent director of the Master of Divinity program at Notre Dame, gave last spring at St. John’s Seminary in Boston for Deacons’ Night, addressing those soon to be ordained as priests. He is now an assistant professor at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.