Sympathy for the Priest
HUMBLE, CHRIST-LIKE PRIESTS FIGHT IN A MULTI-MILLENNIA WAR
Not long ago, my wife and I were the objects of slander and harassment by someone we considered a close friend. It was quite the shock, and I consulted my spiritual director, a diocesan priest, for counsel on how to handle this broken relationship. I was — or, at least, professed I was — ready to forgive this person. But I was unsure how to maintain charity toward someone who had intentionally tried to hurt and humiliate us.
“How can I smile and be friendly toward someone I trusted after he betrayed me?” I asked the priest. In his reflective, avuncular demeanor, he let the question hang, perilously, in the air.
“Oh…,” I stuttered. “You probably have to deal with that all the time, don’t you?” He didn’t have to say a thing, and only smiled. That smile was enough to reveal years of putting up with parishioners who had, intentionally or not, injured him. It’s moments like this that renew my sympathy for the priesthood.
The acclaimed French author (and World War I veteran) Georges Bernanos shared that sympathy. In his celebrated novel Diary of a Country Priest (1936), Bernanos offers an intimate portrayal of a young, passionate cleric in northern France who daily suffers annoyances, indignities, and heartbreaks that stem from his calling. His grand plans for his parish — including visiting his parishioners every three months, founding a youth sports club, and teaching catechism to young children — are all, to varying degrees, frustrated. Through Bernanos’s portrayal of the affable clergyman, the attentive reader can gain renewed appreciation for this unparalleled vocation.
Early in the story, a fellow priest, the curé de Torcy, urges our unnamed protagonist to exhibit strength and stoicism in his first assignment after seminary. “Try first to be respected and obeyed,” the curé exhorts. “What the Church needs is discipline. You’ve got to set things straight all the day long.” The young priest, whose unnamed ailment severely limits his diet, weakens his frame, and gives him a persistently pallid complexion, is poorly suited for such a role. He is the object of (erroneous) parish gossip that labels his strange behavior a manifestation of alcoholism. Yet he’s able to put a positive spin on it: “People are no longer so inquisitive. They’ve ‘summed me up,’ what more do they need? They have now quite a normal, reassuring, plausible explanation of my behavior and can turn their thoughts to more serious things.”
Some parishioners condescendingly scold and ridicule the priest for his humble background and the public perception that he is stupid and uneducated. In one of the more comical moments of the book, he acknowledges to a layman that he’s never heard of Paul Claudel, one of the most celebrated French Catholic authors of the 20th century, who was nominated six times for the Nobel Prize in literature. The priest acknowledges, “Every day I become more aware of my own ignorance in the most elementary details of everyday life, which everybody seems to know without having learnt them, by a sort of instinct.” In one debate, the hapless priest awkwardly plays the historian, trying to defend the political role of the Church in the Middle Ages.
In truth, the young country priest is more intelligent (and better educated) than most of his interlocutors. Indeed, some are quite ignorant when it comes to religion. A lawyer who is nationally known and respected offers an example when speaking to the priest from his deathbed:
Yes, yes, father, I quite understand. I used to feel just as you do yourself. I was very pious. Why, when I was a lad of eleven nothing on earth would have persuaded me to go to sleep without having said my three “Hail Marys” — and I even made myself say them all in one breath. Otherwise it might have been unlucky. That’s how I felt about it.
How little exposure to orthodox Christianity must a man have to think that true religious devotion is measured by the legalistic recitation of certain prayers to ward off bad luck? The humble priest suffers such ridiculousness with grace and charity, though even he cannot ignore the reality that he ministers largely in anonymity and ignobility. He journals, “Shall I, who am always deeply conscious of my failings, hesitate to class myself with all the other mediocre priests?… I can’t quite stomach the idea that after being a ‘brilliant’ scholar — too brilliant! — I must now sit on a back bench with the duffers.”
Bernanos, channeled through the priest’s reflections, perceives the true significance of this quiet ministry. The priest writes, “I know that my parish is a reality, that we belong to each other for all eternity; it is not a mere administrative fiction, but a living cell of the everlasting Church.” This perception is not only accurate but dearly needed when our popular culture — through music, movies, and media — tells us that we must be famous or live exciting lives in order to have intrinsic worth (hence the YouTube celebrity craze). The popular 2004 pop song “Breakaway” is emblematic of this. Kelly Clarkson sings of her need to spread her wings, “make a change,” and leave her small town in order to be happy and successful. Yet, truthfully, most of us will live our lives without fame or fortune, and priests are on the frontlines of combatting the lie that obscurity equals worthlessness.
This is what makes the priesthood such a powerful ministry: it accepts the givenness of the world, of any culture, any group of people, any community, and seeks to preach the Gospel and communicate Christ in that place. The Church rarely works through revolution or destabilizing social upheaval. The Dean of Blangermant, another associate of the protagonist, hints at the sacramental ministry’s pursuit of incremental, slow victories. He tells the priest, “You’d like to get the middle classes to provide an immediate and spectacular solution to ethical difficulties which need endless time, prudence and tact to unravel. Was not slavery an even more flagrant breach of God’s laws? And yet the Apostles.”
There is great truth to this: As many theologians and historians have argued, the Apostles did not explicitly condemn slavery or aggressively seek to end it, which might have caused disastrous social upheaval in an empire in which a large percentage of the population was in varying degrees of servitude. Rather, through St. Paul’s preaching of freedom (e.g., Gal. 5) and his exhortation to treat slaves with dignity and charity (e.g., his letter to Philemon), the seeds were sown for the Church to slowly, prudently overturn this ancient, dehumanizing institution.
Priests, rather than being political revolutionaries, are to be physicians of the soul, doctors in the treatment of sin. The country priest explains:
But they [doctors] study it [disease] in the individual patient in the hope of curing him. And that is just what we priests are also attempting. So that really we aren’t very impressed by sneers and smiles and jokes about sin…. A priest can’t shrink from sores any more than a doctor. He must be able to look at pus and wounds and gangrene. All the wounds of the soul give out pus.
Our clergy combat this deadly disease by their offering of the sacraments, their preaching, their prayer, and their self-sacrifice on behalf of their communities, no matter how obscure. They do this, often, without always having the right words or turns of phrase, another failure we frequently hold against them. The priest explains, “Others perhaps might then be able to find the right words to appease and persuade. I don’t know such words. True pain coming out of a man belongs primarily to God, it seems to me. I try and take it humbly to my heart, just as it is.”
Priests must keep Heaven eternally front and center, even when, like Bernanos’s clergyman, they sometimes struggle with prayer. At one point, the cleric writes, “I have known such sheer physical revolt against prayer — and it was so real that I felt no remorse.” They must retain a certain aloofness from the cares of the world. To one antagonistic parishioner, the priest asserts, “You can neither harm me nor do me any good.” And they must be willing to prioritize the spiritual well-being of their flock. To one parishioner, the priest defiantly declares:
You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are as two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries — spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions — yes, companions for all eternity.
These are words that can save souls, but they might also permanently damage a relationship, and even risk a priest’s career. Indeed, the country priest receives an anonymous letter that reads, “A well-wisher advises you to apply for a change of parish. And the sooner the better. When at last you open your eyes to what everyone else can see so plain, you’ll sweat blood! Sorry for you but we say again: ‘Get out!’”
Some well-wish! Indeed, the priest’s concern for the salvation of his community consistently meets resistance. “A priest’s like a lawyer — ’e’s there if you be needin’ ’im. ’E don’t need to go meddlin’ with folk,” an elderly sacristan warns him.
Through it all, the country priest maintains his faith and even deepens in love of God and neighbor. “Of course Our Lord takes His share of all our troubles, even the paltriest, and scorns nothing,” he writes. And though it is miraculous that any man perseveres through this challenge, we should expect nothing less from those called to act in persona Christi. Priests put up with the inconveniences, the derision, and the betrayals precisely because this is what Christ endured during His public ministry and, ultimately, in His Passion. Theirs is the public cruciform life, performed so that those under their care might be inspired, in their own turn, to do likewise.
In their 1968 hit single “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Rolling Stones enjoin their listeners to exhibit pity for the Father of Lies. Though I’ve heard the song a hundred times, I’m still not entirely sure why. Is it because “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints,” and thus we’re no better than Lucifer? Or is it because you don’t show sympathy, the Devil will “lay your soul to waste”? Whatever Mick Jagger’s intentions (and perhaps he didn’t have any besides causing controversy), the narcissistic, narcotic-induced crooning that for some reason Rolling Stone magazine awarded the 32nd best rock song of all time does provide an interesting foil.
The priesthood, like Satan, has been active in most places where evil occurs. The communist revolution in Russia, the carnage of World War II, the assassination of political leaders — priests have been present for all of it. They’ve been mocked, imprisoned, tortured, and martyred across the globe. When the masses are silent in the face of injustice and evil, it is often clergymen who hold their ground to preach the truth and stay faithful to Christ. Satan spreads ignorance, hatred, and violence; priests fight for truth, love, and peace.
Of course, anyone paying attention to the recent travails of the Catholic Church knows that priests have also been responsible for some serious betrayals. Some of our clergymen have been guilty of the type of theft, deceit, and sexual scandal found among the dirtiest of politicians. Some, like Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington D.C., or Michael J. Bransfield, former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, effectively were corrupt politicians. I have no interest in absolving such jackals, whether they hold the highest offices in the Church or serve in some rural backwater like Bernanos’s country priest. Nevertheless, in my ten years as a Catholic revert, I’ve known my fair share of honest, humble, Christ-like priests, the kind you’d want at your deathbed or next to you in a foxhole. As those serving on the frontlines of a multi-millennia war against evil, defiantly waving the banner of Christ, they deserve our support, prayers, and, yes, sympathy.
“The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts.”— St. John Vianney
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