Thoughts on Vocations II: Images of the Priesthood

Thoughts on Vocations II: Images of the Priesthood June 16, 2014

In my first post on vocations I suggested a different way to think about the crisis in priestly vocations:  reframe the numbers needed by localizing  to the level of individual parishes.  I do not think that this quantification (one vocation per parish every five years) will solve the problem, but I think that it serves two goals.  First, it makes the problem seem more tractable.   Second, it refocuses attention to the local level in a way which, I hope, makes the problem seem the responsibility of the whole community, priests and laity.

In this post I want to continue the discussion on recruiting young men to the priesthood by considering images of the priesthood.  If we are going to ask young men to become priests, we need to give some thought to how we describe what we are asking them to become.  What does it mean to be priest?  Who are priests?   Many young men have only had close contact with only a small handful of priests.   Thinking of my own sons:  they have known two parish priests and have met a couple of religious order priests (friends of my wife and me).    I suspect that for most young men, media images—some from Catholic media but many more from secular sources—has shaped their conception of priests and the priesthood.   The resulting image is not always a positive:  one need only consider the pedophilia scandal, which has created a very negative image of priests, one which distorts the impressions of even devote Catholics.  (I recall a man I met who would not let his daughter be with his pastor unless he was physically present, even in a group setting with other adults present.)

The problem is further compounded by the very different understanding of priests held by different groups within the Church.  One need look no further than the commboxes of Vox Nova for evidence of this.  Though over-simplifying matters a great deal, one axis on which things polarize is the disjunction between “Vatican II priests” and “John Paul II priests“.  And then, to make matters more interesting, we have Pope Francis bringing his own perspective to the mix,  discussing the “so-called crisis of priestly identity” with simple, direct images that are both evocative and challenging:

This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men.

I want to begin a discussion of what we want our priests to be by looking at a few visual images of priests.    Such visual representations are in themselves not the whole story:  indeed, they reside in a context which gives them multiple meanings and interpretations.  Nevertheless, we live in a society dominated by the visual, and images will be one way in which we encourage young men to explore vocations to the priesthood.  So we need to decide on what they should see and what meaning(s) we want these images to carry.

The following image was widely distributed and in my archdiocese seemed to have semi-official status:  a holy card of St. John Vianney (patron saint of parish priests) that was circulated in 2009-2010 as part of the Year for Priests proclaimed by Benedict XVI.


To be brutally (and perhaps controversially) frank:  I really do not like this image.  It is supposed to convey a sense of the deep spiritual life of the saint, but instead I see an old man in his night gown.   Thinking back to when I was trying to discern whether I had a priestly vocation, I am sure that I would not have seen myself in this picture, and I have a hard time believing that this picture would connect with most young men today.   To forestall objections:  yes, some young men will respond positively to this picture, but I suspect that they will come from the small minority of Catholic families that emphasize traditional practices and imagery.   In other words, they are already shaped by a particular milieu which leads them to interpret the symbolism of this picture (kneeling many in robes, rosary, monstrance) in a particular way.   To confirm this impression, I asked my son Francisco (who has previously had a guest post about images of Jesus).   Though probably not typical of his generation, he does have a fairly keen sense of what motivates his confreres.  He found it “stuffy” and “overly formal” and not anything that speaks to him.

On a more objective level, I believe that this picture reduces the life and vocation on St. John Vianney to his personal holiness.   His holiness is no small thing, but we are all—clergy and laity—called to be holy and to have deeper prayer lives.  It says nothing about his vocation as a priest except for the image of a confessional in the left background, something I actually overlooked until I studied this image closely while writing this post.   What distinguishes St. John Vianney as a priest—his work as a teacher, a preacher, a confessor and spiritual director—is either not present or minimally represented.   As his long ministry shows, the work of a priest, particularly a parish priest, is social:  it involves interacting with people in a variety of settings.  John Vianney himself said that “The priesthood is the love in the heart of Jesus” and Pope Benedict described this love in  interpersonal and communal terms:

The pious excess of his devout biographer should not blind us to the fact that the Curé also knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organized popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed funds for charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.

Given this life and ministry, I think it was a mistake to represent the saint with an image that is redolent of “the pious excess of his devout biographer.”

While trying to find other images of the priesthood that I thought were better, I stumbled upon another image that went too far in the other direction.


The format is a movie poster, and the symbolism is drawn from The Matrix.  When I first saw it my reaction was that it was am attempt to recruit hipster priests:  “I joined the clergy before it was cool.”   My son Francisco strongly disagreed.  He said that the cassock looked “cool” (he has only seen one priest wearing a cassock) but overall he felt that the poster was “trying too hard”.  Moreover, and more to the point, he felt that it didn’t present a realistic or appealing image of the priesthood.    I agree:  there comes a point that the priesthood is made so “relevant” that it has no relevance.

How then to navigate between these two extremes?  What are the images that we want to use?  I would suggest that we need a variety of images, all of them linked to provide a narrative:  tell who priests are by showing what they do in their daily lives.   Previously, I blogged about a French priest whose daily life revolved around meeting the needs of people.  Now I want images that capture, in the American context, this sense that a man lives out his vocation as a priest in relationship with other people.  From the Diocese of Richmond I found a very nice summary of the priesthood in these terms.

What does a priest do all day?
What a priest does with his day is so varied and complex that only a sampling can be given here. Prayer, work, exercise and leisure are all necessary for a healthy life. We try to make sure we have a balance of all these – but we don’t always succeed.In the area of work (ministry), many of us have one main occupation, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work, or hospital work, all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands.The unpredictable demands are also interesting and challenging. They center on meeting the needs of people: the sick, old, angry, hurt, hungry, imprisoned, excited, happy. We share with them our understanding, encouragement, and support. We rejoice, cry, and celebrate with them. Such events are both painful and rewarding, fatiguing and empowering.

A central role for priests is to be priests: ministers of the sacraments.  However, I believe that this is also to be understood in terms of relationship and community:  while masses “sine populo” are still allowed, they have become increasingly rare, and since Vatican II there has been a renewed emphasis on the role of the congregation in celebrating the mass.  Moreover, the other sacraments and rites—baptisms, weddings, confessions, annointing, funerals, blessings of all kinds—are, by their very nature, done in relationship with others.    And this, I believe, is what we should present to young men as something to aspire to.    They should be asked:  do you want to live a life in service of others:  to teach, to preach, to comfort, to be with your brothers and sisters  in their joys and sorrows?  The following are a few images quickly snatched from the web, to illustrate this.   They are not ideal, but are chosen to reflect this ideal of relationship.

















I want to close this post with a question and a final image.  What images would you use to to frame the priesthood in order to attract young men to consider if this is their vocation?    While your answers to this question will depend strongly on your understanding of the priesthood, please try to frame your response in terms of images.

As a final thought, here is a picture that I found while browsing for images of the priesthood.  I include it because I find it very moving, and one which I think might stir something in the hearts of young men who dream big.  A young Francis was enamored by stories of knights and chivalry, and for many years interpreted his own vocation in these grand terms.  This image would allow young men to see themselves in equally heroic terms:


This is a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero, taken a few minutes after he was murdered while saying mass.    For me it captures the sacrificial self-giving that lies at the heart of any Christian vocation:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  (John 15:12-14)


Coda:  I asked my son Francisco about this picture of Romero, and while he admires the story, he found it too grim to use as a recruiting tool for vocations to the priesthood.

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  • My first impression of the St. John Vianney image was that he is facing away from the Blessed Sacrament.

  • I LOVE the image of the priest giving absolution to the prisoner. It’s meaningful on so many levels; the idea of Christ seeking out the lost sheep, the corporal work of mercy to visit the imprisoned, the ministry of the sacraments.

    In both the St. John Vianney and the Matrix image, the priest is separated from the community and the Church as a whole. In the last post we mentioned priests who only want to serve one small part of the population and ignore everyone else. These images imply that this may be possible, even desirable.

    Perhaps that’s another reason I like the priest giving absolution in the prison. That picture is a refutation of that idea.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you. I found this image quite by accident. In the other pictures I was trying to make sure the other people involved were clearly visible—difficult, but not impossible. For confession I was a little less sure since this is, intrinsically, a solitary sacrament. However, the image of the prisoner, as you note, speaks volumes.

      • It also reminds me of an article I read about a Caravaggio painting. The article states that it conveys a sense of the miraculous in the midst of the squalor of everyday life. Isn’t that the essence of a sacrament?

  • Stuart

    I think that women should be the primary parish administrators. I think that priests should essentially be employees of the parish with duties limited to consecrating the Eucharist and hearing confession. I think that women should do counseling, give sermons, be lay Eucharistic ministers, lead Bible studies, and largely be the public face of the parish. Certainly, the role of women in the New Testament as house leaders and evangelists shows that women did much of the work back then. I don’t think the priesthood should be a position of power in the Church–I think a priest should be relegated to something of a janitor, an anonymous background figure, with the laity, especially women, doing most of the work.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Okay, that is a pretty radical reinterpretation of the priesthood: one I think it is hard to maintain either on Biblical or historical grounds. Yes, in the early years and through large parts of the patristic period women occupied a number of roles in the Church. But that does not mean that the priest was reduced to an “anonymous background figure” in his community. I would rather not get sidetracked into the merits (or lack thereof) of your vision: I want to concentrate on the problem of encouraging vocations to the priesthood as it is now, or at least can be within the parameters laid down by the Church now.

      • Stuart

        Pope Francis is calling for ideas on how to bring women into the Church and how to increase vocations–my suggestion deals with both. There might be more priests if the duties were better distributed. One of the of the ways to do that is to give women jobs they are both called and allowed to do, one of which is parish administration. Making the priest the employee of the parish administrator would be a way of allowing women to “be church” which doesn’t call into question whether women can be ordained. Women can administrate, give sermons, distribute communion, etc. Maybe priests would like to play a background role in at least some parishes. Maybe there are priests who would like to play a support role which allows women to have the spotlight–Lindsey Buckingham seems tp like to stand behind Stevie Nicks. 🙂

        Think how many women were “anonymous background figures” in the Church. If that’s a good thing to be, then maybe it’s time for priests to see what it feels like to be background anonymous figures–why should that role be limited to women?

        • Julia Smucker

          The problem of excessive limits can go in any direction: one might just as well ask why the role of “anonymous background figure” should be limited to priests, or why all priests should be limited to that role, if that is what you’re proposing. Better to talk about sharing the responsibilities and/or the limelight – but then maybe the limelight shouldn’t be what any of us seeks as Christians.

  • Nanabedôkw’ Môlsem, OFS

    I would see a number of images, one for each of the sacraments, each with a young priest who appears happy ministering to people who seem happy. The image above of the priest with the person in a red garment near a table made me think of prison ministry. In each case the priest should have a face that can be seen, whether smiling or simply not, looking at the ministered-to.

    • I’m not really big on the “everybody’s happy” idea. I’m not saying that priests and the laity can’t smile in the pictures, but if everyone has this big pasted grin on their faces, it comes across as fake, in my opinion. Sometimes people aren’t incredibly happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • I see a series of pictures, not just one. Each of them is the priest administering a sacrament. In each the priest is young, his face can be seen, happy or simply interested, but always in relationship with the person to whom he administers, interested, but never severe. The images you used of the priest and the prisoner, the priest and the baptizing, the face is missing or too severe.

  • Magdalena

    The reality is that if you are going to try to attract men by telling them a “service story,” there are many other paths ( and more effective) than priesthood to achieve that goal. Which don’t involve onerous things like obedience to one’s bishop. Social work, psychiatry, nursing, non profit work. It boggles my mind that we still haven’t learned the lesson of the collapse in religious vocations, which was worse than what happened to the priesthood. A man whose MAIN goal is to “make a difference” will choose priesthood about 0% of the time in my experience.

    How to differentiate priesthood from all these other myriad options?

    1. Images of priests celebrating the rites of the Church. Weddings, funerals, confession. This is the big difference – priests provide spiritual leadership.

    2. Images of priests (young priests. Young young young!) doing average every day things. Indicating that priesthood doesn’t obliterate the personality or cut you off from the human experience. It’s not as extreme as monastic life. I know one man recently ordained who was inspired to call the Vocations Director after he read about a priest who said his favorite thing to do was go to concerts by the Disco Biscuits (a jam band). It made it seem like priests were still real people.

    Think John Paul II skiing but 21st century men.

    3. Emphasis on personal holiness – no not John Mary Vianney. Young young young! Young men adoring the Blessed Sacrament or praying the rosary or prostrating themselves. Or with their arms raised in praise.

    • I think the images definitely show the first point. All of these images show priests doing “priestly” things. They say, “Become a priest to administer the sacraments.” The priest is shown offering Mass and listening to confession and preaching. The only “iffy” picture would be baptism, which anyone can do in an emergency, but is mostly done by the ordained.

  • One thing that is implicit in this discussion is the “cult of youth,” so prevalent in America. We all reject the image of St. John Vianney because it is an old man, and I include myself in all of that.

    However, as a poster pointed out in the previous post, many men who are being ordained are being ordained at a later point in their lives. I have met (or attended Mass with) more than one priest who was ordained in their 40’s. If we completely embrace the “cult of youth” in our advertising, are we subtly saying to these older vocations “we don’t want you?”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree that we should avoid the cult of youth: of the pictures I chose, I think most of the priests are in their mid-30’s or older—not exactly youth. However, most second career vocations are ordained in their 30’s, so we should not swing the other way and target a demographic that does not contain a lot of candidates. Perhaps images that show several priests of different ages, working together?

      • That would be my preference, to have a mix of ages and not simply young ones.

      • Melody

        “Perhaps images that show several priests of different ages, working together?” Yes. We don’t need any more ageism than we already have. It should be more about people answering the call wherever God finds them, like the prophet Amos in scripture. And the twelve apostles; we know John was a young man, but Peter, Andrew, and Matthew were of mature years. We don’t really know how old the others were, apparently it wasn’t that important.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Let me just add that the age of John Vianney is not the only thing wrong with the picture. Were he young the picture would still be very problematic for the reasons I outlined. Just consider the standard holy card images of Gerard Majella.

        • Oh, I agree. In a way, the St. John Vianney would be a better card for a cloistered religious. The card says, “Get away from it all and be alone with God.” This is NOT what a parish priest is called to do.

        • dominic1955

          “The card says, “Get away from it all and be alone with God.” This is NOT what a parish priest is called to do.”

          Ever read Dom Chautard’s “The Soul of the Apostolate”?

  • Stuart

    If we use Eastern Rite and Anglican Use priests as examples, the image could be of a man surrounded by his wife and children. Or maybe a man standing at the altar while his wife distributes the Eucharist and his children serve as altar boys and girls.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “If we use Eastern Rite and Anglican Use priests as examples, the image could be of a man surrounded by his wife and children.”

      True, though since this would be a very small minority of Catholics in the US, it may paint a false picture for the majority of men thinking about the priesthood.

      “Or maybe a man standing at the altar while his wife distributes the Eucharist and his children serve as altar boys and girls.”

      This presumes that his wife and children want to be involved in this way. From my short time in the diaconate formation program, my sense was that the overwhelming number of wives viewed the diaconate as their husband’s vocation, and while they supported it did not feel that they had to be involved. Talking to some deacons, they told me their wives continued to belong to their own parish and did not move with them to the parish he was assigned to. I see no reason, off-hand, to assume that wives (and children) of married priests would feel differently.

    • Jordan

      Stuart [June 19, 2014 12:57 pm]: If we use Eastern Rite and Anglican Use priests as examples, the image could be of a man surrounded by his wife and children. Or maybe a man standing at the altar while his wife distributes the Eucharist and his children serve as altar boys and girls.

      Eastern Christians under Roman jurisdiction reserve the administration of the Eucharist to a bishop or priest only. I do not forsee a change in this tradition. Also altar girls are not normative among Byzantines, but I’ve seen a girl serve at least one Divine Liturgy. Similarly, Anglican-use Catholics usually reserve the administration of communion to the clergy and often prohibit girls and women from serving Mass.

      Having church be a family affair, as you suggest, is not a good dynamic. A church near my house is essentially run by a retired well-known musician and his family. The wife administers communion, the children serve Mass, and from time to time the father performs for the church. Some parishioners feel sidelined by the family and their extensive influence (perhaps occasioned by their extensive donations to the church.) The idea that a priest’s family should be involved in all facets of the church might destabilize and divide a church.

      • That’s an excellent point. Besides, it’s a terrible thing to be a pastor’s kid.

  • I am one who considered being a priest for a long time, finally left the seminary, and only later realized why I would not have been a good priest. The reason is that I am not good at calling forth the talents and service of other people. I think this is very close to the central function of a priest–to encourage and facilitate the People of God in THEIR ministries. That’s a picture that I think is totally lacking in this discussion.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thank you: that is an excellent point! A pastor cannot do it all himself: he needs to encourage the laity to become actively involved, both in running the parish and (equally importantly) bringing the Gospel to the broader world. Casting this in terms of images, what would you suggest showing to make this point?

      • I have no idea as to how this would work in an image but it is an incredibly valuable point.

        • Stuart

          One way to bring out the talents of the laity is to use feminine images of the priesthood. The fact that only men can be ordained does not mean that all pastoral gifts are limited to men. We could use the following as images of the priesthood:

          Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection
          Joanna giving financial support to the disciples
          Priscilla leading her church
          Lydia running her business
          Martha and Mary running their household
          Phoebe reading Paul’s letter to the congregation at Rome
          Junia evangelizing
          The Holy Spirit giving birth to new believers
          And, of course, any image of Mary as she works alongside Jesus

          Using these images will show us how God’s gift of the priesthood is given to the whole community, even when ordination is limited to men.

      • I was afraid you would ask for an image. The best I can come up with is Jesus’ sending (non-ordained) laborers into the harvest and John the Baptist’s “He must increase. I must decrease.” I don’t know how either of these would work as images. The priest is rightly bin the background, the “Body of Christ” in the foreground.

      • jack hartjes

        David I have an image finally. A priest with a dove flying out of his hands and the caption: “releasing the spirit of the community.” What do you think?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I like it! Perhaps surrounded by pictures of the laity in action to make concrete what this means.

    • I think that it is totally lacking in the discussion because it is not a well understood notion in modern American Catholic thinking. Yes, when children are baptized, they are anointed priest, prophet, and king, signifying that we all become priests, prophets, and kings at our baptism. But most people think of this as flowery language and not as a lived reality, at least in my opinion. (I’m fairly certain that if I polled most Catholics in the US and asked them “Are you a priest, prophet, and king?” they would answer “No.” The irony of that is that the Catechism spends a lot of time developing each of these attributes as applied to the laity.)

  • Ronald King

    One image came to mind of the priest who died while helping victims of 9/11 and being carried out by firefighters. I don’t remember his name but his image is what I am stuck with and what I would hope as being the symbol of the sacrifice we are all to strive for

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      This was Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, a very heroic example of priestly service.

      The image of him being carried from the North Tower on 9/11 ranks with that of Archbishop Romero in its power. Thank you reminding me of this saintly man.

      • Ronald King

        Thanks for the link David. More than heroes, these men are healers and women like Elizabeth Ann Seton who actually live to express God’s love for all of creation.

  • dominic1955

    I think we have to keep in mind what a “symbol” is. Of the pictures presented, most are not symbols, they are pictures of people doing something.

    The only one that is a symbol is the St. John Vianney card. The problem with it (other than the artists’ perception and depth off-ness) is not so much the image itself but rather the lack of receptivity of people these days to symbolism! Seeing him in his French collared cassock, and surplice, and stole, in front of both the confessional and Blessed Sacrament with a rosary prompts his whole story to those who kinda know it.

    Quick! someone tell me which sainted Pope is traditionally portrayed with a dove, ofter near his ear….

    Once you know how to understand it, I find more traditional symbolic art to be extremely deep. It prompts the rest of the story that hopefully you know. That’s its point.

    We will never find an image of the priest that appeals to a vapid generation. Instead of chasing images that hopefully appeal, we need to start teaching our kids the faith, saints’ stories, etc. They should know what a cassock is, what a monstrance is, what a confessional is, some basic Latin, local customs and how they tie in with universal ones, all that sort of thing if we want to have even a chance of passing it all on.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Perhaps not symbols, but each picture is indeed a sign and therefore open to semiotic analysis.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Dominic, thinking more about your post, I want to disagree: people are still receptive to symbolism: that is inherent in being language users. But the situation is that the old symbol sets do not generate the desired response. I know the meaning of the symbols in the picture of St. John Vianney, yet the picture fails to move me. To people like my son, the symbols have no resonance, even when explained. So the question becomes, what symbols and signs (in the broader sense of semiotics) do resonate, and how can these be harnessed to increase vocations to the priesthood? Your point about education is a valid one, but I am sure we are going to disagree about content. 🙂 I hope to address this in a subsequent post.

      • dominic1955

        But some symbols really are timeless. For instance. the pelican makes for a good symbol of Christ even today. So does the lamb. What could we use out of today’s world that would have such an enduring influence?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          The lamb of course: it is scriptural. But the Pelican? I have no idea what you are referring to, which suggests that this is less than a timeless symbol.

          Also, symbols need not have enduring influence to be effective. The question at hand is how to attract young men TODAY, in the US, to the priesthood. Finding symbols that having meaning for them, or which they can be taught to understand and appreciate given their existing symbol sets, is the question.

        • dominic1955

          That, or you are showing a level of ignorance that is surprising for an educated and interested Catholic and it says nothing about the timelessness of the symbol.

          My mother told me what it was when I pointed to an odd bird in the stained glass window of our home church (built circa 1957).

          Have you ever looked at the art in multiple churches built more than 50 years ago? Sang the Adore te devote for Benediction/Adoration? Seen the state flag of Louisiana? Then you do have some idea of what I’m referring to.

          How to get young men to the priesthood today involves showing it in a light that makes it attractive. Make Catholicism serious about itself again. Its awfully hard to try to get people to give up their lives for the 100 fold if it looks like all the priesthood is is a glorified counseling/event facilitator gig.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            Call me ignorant then. I can discuss in detail the symbolism of medieval art and have some passing acquaintance with paleo-christian art, but no, I have never before encountered the pelican. I guess I learn something new every day.

            “all the priesthood is is a glorified counseling/event facilitator gig.”

            I agree and I don’t think anything I have written about the priesthood conveys this.

  • dominic1955

    Then you know of the Christological goldfinch, right? Its medieval too. The goldfinch (and European robin too) never caught on as much, but you see (the goldfinch especially) in Madonna and Child paintings.

    You never presented the priesthood this way, I’m saying certain literature from the 80s and 90s pretty much did, as does the example of priests formed in that time frame.

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