In the Person of Christ the Servant

In the Person of Christ the Servant January 21, 2020

Today, I saw a priest who likes to run his mouth on Twitter with a very strange take. He said: Are you a Catholic man who longs for traditional liturgy, reverence and orthodox theology and spirituality in the church? If you’re not married yet, why not become a priest and help bring about that change?

I’m going to have to take exception to that.

If your passion is for orthodox theology– if the place where your heart rests is studying and talking about theological texts, the beautiful writings of our faith– great. The world needs you. You should go to school and get a theology degree, or study theology texts on your own until you become an expert. You should become a theology teacher. Or, you could become a writer of really good quality theology books that will explain the teachings of our Church simply and elegantly to people who don’t have your theological background. You could even become a popular apologist or a theology blogger if you wanted. You could get a podcast or a TV show. You could have a weekly theology column in a Catholic newspaper, or you could draw funny cartoons that teach theology. The sky’s the limit. Follow your passion. Learn about theology and teach it to others.

If your whole passion is for orthodox theology, if that’s the only thing tugging at your heart, that’s not a good reason to become a priest. Oh, priests need to know their theology and they need to be rigorously orthodox about teaching it to others. They need to know how to communicate that theology in homilies and the like. That’s important. But a priest whose primary focus is theology makes a terrible pastor of actual human souls. They’re the kind of priest who get a Twitter account just so they can own the libs and say nasty things online while making a mockery of the actual mission of the priesthood. We don’t need any more of those. We’ve got tons, and they’re a nuisance.

If your passion is for “traditional” liturgy; if that’s your true joy, if that’s what you love; if your heart cries when you see a liturgy celebrated in a sloppy or irreverent way: great. The world needs people who are passionate for liturgy. You should study hard to make sure you’re an expert at your passion, and you should become a liturgist. Or, you should study sacred music until you know it like the back of your hand. You should study the difference between hymns sung along to an organ and Gregorian chant; you should also make sure you know what the beautiful American music tradition of Sacred Harp hymns is supposed to sound like, so you don’t become one of those tiresome people who ruins “What Wondrous Love is This” on the organ. And then you should become a parish music director, or an organist, or a cantor. Or, you should study architecture and interior design and art history, the history of iconography and of sacred art in particular, and become somebody who designs beautiful and reverent churches. Or, you should study the history of liturgical vestments and everything there is to know about fabric and sewing, and you should become a seamster and make glorious priestly vestments. All of these things would be a beautiful contribution to our Church.

If your heart is for beautiful liturgies and that’s your whole focus, that’s not a good reason to become a priest. Don’t get me wrong: a priest has to know liturgy and he has to care whether it’s being celebrated reverently. He has to have the assertiveness to inform the choir director and anyone else if they’ve done something seriously wrong. That will come up. But a priest who only cares about the aesthetics of liturgy quickly becomes an annoying tyrant. He’ll drive the faithful away from a love of liturgy and he’ll terrorize the choir director and everyone else who’s trying to help. Nothing ruins the beauty of a liturgy more quickly than a priest who thinks it’s his job to put on a show.

Do not seek the priesthood unless your heart’s greatest desire is to become a servant.

That’s what a priest is.

A priest is someone who offers the sacraments in persona Christi capitis— that is, in the person of Christ as the head. Lots of people go around saying “in persona Christi” while leaving that last word off, and it creates great confusion. You might come to think that priests were the only people who ever acts as Christ for another. In fact, every Christian puts on Christ and becomes a member of the Body of Christ, whether we’re priests or not. We all serve each other and are Christ for one another. But priests do this in a highly specific, easy-to-recognize, visible way– you might say that being in the person of Christ as the head makes it plain as the nose on your face what it is to be a Christian. The priesthood is a vocation that is liable to be sought for many bad reasons, instead of because of a desire to be a servant– and when people seek the priesthood for reasons other than to be a servant, they abuse their power in any number of terrible ways. I don’t need to list those ways, not at this point in history. All you have to do is look at the news. We all know what happens to priests who don’t know they’re supposed to be servants.

Longing for an aesthetic experience at Mass, wishing to stick it to the insufficiently orthodox, loving to read and talk about theology, wanting to “be a change” in the Church, wanting a soap box to stand on, wanting to own the libs, wanting to make Mom proud, because you haven’t found a wife, because you’re good at Latin, because you like bossing people around, because you have good leadership skills and want to put them to work, because you used to be a Protestant minister but you’re a convert now and still want to preach sermons: these are all wrong reasons to want to be a priest. You should only seek the priesthood if your greatest desire is to be a servant.

To be in persona Christi capitis, to be in the person of Christ in this particular way, is to become Christ in the very places where He was a servant helping others, rather than a king triumphant and celebrated by others. To celebrate the Mass is to be Christ at the Last Supper, washing His disciples’ feet, interceding to the Father for them, and then giving them His own Body and Blood for their sustenance. It’s also to be Christ crucified, tortured to death and reviled by all as He offers Himself (and with Himself, all of us and all our human experience) to the Father. To hear confessions and give absolution is to be Christ standing with the adulterous woman against all the powerful self-righteous people who wanted her dead to satisfy their broken sense of justice, and saying “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” It’s also to be up on that cross again, despised and misunderstood by all the leaders of the people who knew their theology and had a great passion for orthodoxy, and to tell the penitent thief, “This day, you will be with Me in Paradise.” To anoint the sick is to be Christ healing the sick until He couldn’t even go into a city without being swamped by people who needed his service. It’s to touch lepers and take their stigma onto yourself. And then you find yourself crucified again, lifted up for the people’s healing as the serpent was lifted up in the desert. There’s no avoiding that cross.

The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. One way or another, every Christian who takes their Christianity seriously will become in persona Christi and become a servant who gives his or her life as a ransom for many. If you become a priest, you’re supposed to do so in a particularly public and visible way– all the more a servant, even less someone to be served. If you fail to do this because you sought the priesthood for the wrong reason, for any other reason than to be a servant, you will be a cancer that wreaks havoc on the Body of Christ.

But if you truly have a passion to become a servant in this particular way– wonderful! We need you. You might have a vocation to be a priest.

(image via Pixabay) 





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