“Merely as a necessary duty and to prevent me from falling into a mare’s nest, [Father O’Connor] told me certain facts he knew about perverted practices which I certainly shall not set down or discuss here… In my own youth I had imagined for myself any amount of iniquity; and it was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses far deeper than I. I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors…”
“When we returned to the house, we found it was full of visitors, and fell into special conversation with two hearty and healthy Cambridge undergraduates, who had been walking or cycling across the moors in the spirit of the stern and vigorous English holiday. They were no narrow athletes, however, but interested in various sports and in a breezy way in various arts; and they began to discuss music and landscape with my friend Father O’Connor. I never knew a man who could turn with more ease than he from one topic to another, or who had more unexpected stores of information, often purely technical information, upon all. The talk soon deepened into a discussion on matters philosophical and moral; and when the priest had left the room, the two young men broke out into generous expressions of admiration, saying truly that he was a remarkable man, and seemed to know a great deal about Palestrina or Baroque architecture, or whatever was the point at the moment. Then there fell a curious reflective silence, at the end of which one of the undergraduates suddenly burst out,
‘All the same, I don’t believe his sort of life is the right one. It’s all very well to like religious music and so on, when you’re all shut up in a cloister and don’t know anything about the real evil in the world. But I don’t believe that’s the right ideal. I believe in a fellow coming out into the world, and facing the evil that’s in it, and knowing something about the dangers and all that. It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.’
To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh in the drawing-room. For I knew perfectly well that, as regards all the solid Satanism which the priest knew and warred against with all his life, these two Cambridge gentlemen (luckily for them) knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator.”
– G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography (pp 322-323)
There is something special about priests. While the general impression of the priestly vocation can range from deep admiration to uncomprehending disdain, no one can argue that the role is unparalleled, unique, or quite simply, special. First, rather than describing the path to ordination as a choice or a career, it is broadly considered a “calling”. The seminarian finds himself intensely embedded with others prayerfully and intellectually discerning the path down which God is drawing him. It is a path rife with temptation and sacrifice, a sense of community and loneliness. The aspiring priest can find God’s loving embrace at times double as a forging crucible. The culmination of the aspiring priest’s acceptance into the ranks of shepherd finds him humbly prostrate on the ground before his God, his fellows, and his flock. His abject humility portrays his dying to sin and the flesh while invoking the Saints to intercede for his priestly vocation.
The life of the priest proves to be no easier. A strong-backed shepherd with an ever-growing burden, a harvester in a never-ending field, he serves as confessor, teacher, servant, and administrator to his flock. The most difficult theological questions, the most pressing emotional needs, the most dire financial considerations all find their way to Father’s feet. And his community of peers is as sparse as his days away from work. His family and his friends who lovingly say they understand, never truly can or do. The priest confides in his fellow priests, but, as all are stretched thin, finds his greatest confidante is the God he serves.
But lest one be misled, priests seem far from unhappy. Though they crave rest after incessant sundry decisions and punishing Christmas or Easter schedules, there is a striking glow about a priest saying a Mass, greeting parishioners, or facilitating one of innumerable parish functions. And over ninety percent, in a recent poll of 2500 priests, reported that they were happy and fulfilled in their calling. Furthermore, as Chesterton illustrates (through his 52 mystery stories on the puckish and wily brilliance of Father Brown), it is vexing to think that men who have made great personal sacrifices through rigorous spiritual and intellectual discernment in the name of what they consider the Greatest Calling (and I agree), would be considered naive simpletons. Far from it. If you were to simply take a priest at his word, and his job as legitimate (both of which I heartily do), this is a man spiritually charged with being a loving, thoughtful, steady, and determined foot soldier for Christ on earth. This means, that in a world ravaged by sin, the priest is charged to name sin, rebuff it, correct his flock in it, and provide God’s absolution of it with the enduring love and patience of Christ. If you truly believe in the power of sin, you recognize it as vicious and unforgiving. It is destructive and unrelenting. It revels in disorder, discord, and dissimulation. The devil’s choice weapons of pride, wrath, greed, sloth, envy, lust and gluttony attack each of us incessantly. The wolf isolates and picks off individuals from the flock. And while we stagger and bend under the assault of sin, the wounded Hand that lifts us up is Christ’s through his shepherds on earth. These shepherds (Peter being the first) – forged in a spiritual crucible, strengthened by the grueling demands of each day, and quite savvy about what Evil is and how to answer it – these priests acutely understand their Christ and their Calling. And they understand the great labors ahead of them. Make no mistake about it…
There is something special about priests. Indeed.