Thirty Years a Priest and Most Grateful

Each year I concelebrate with hundreds of other priests in the ordination Mass of new priests. I find such Masses deeply spiritual. I have no role other than to quietly concelebrate, so the readings and the rites move me deeply. As I sit quietly, I ponder the mystery of my own priesthood.

When I was growing up, there was little to indicate that I would become a priest. I wasn’t a particularly spiritual child (at least not after age 7). I didn’t “play Mass.” In fact, I didn’t like church at all. At the end of Mass when the priest said, “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” I responded, “Thanks be to God!” much more vigorously than necessary.

My teenage years were marked by rebellion and pride. While I did join the parish youth choir, it was only so that I could meet girls. My intent wasn’t evil, but it wasn’t particularly spiritual, either. I did end up dating a few of those girls, two of them seriously.

Sometime during college, a strange and uncomfortable notion came over me that I was being called to the priesthood. It was an odd desire—one I could not explain.

By that time, I had become a Church musician, organist, cantor, and choir director, but again, I don’t think I was particularly spiritual.  Music was something I enjoyed, but my involvement was more about leadership and impressing others—especially girls.

Yes, this growing desire to be a priest was inexplicable to me. At the time I was dating a real beauty queen, Denise. She was pretty, kind, and did not bring a heavy agenda to the relationship. Her greatest desire was just to get married and raise children. I was two years away from my college graduation, but already had a job lined up with the Army Corps of Engineers. My life seemed pretty well set. And now this? The priesthood? What a crazy idea!

It wasn’t just a fleeting thought, either; it was a desire that was only getting stronger. It was so mysterious, so strange, so unexpected. In my most honest moments, I knew that my desire for the priesthood was stronger than my wish to get married, but it seemed disloyal to Denise. I wasn’t going to break her heart—no way! Besides, I didn’t respect most of the priests I knew at that time. This was the late 70s-early 80s, the era of beige Catholicism, and the priests I knew seemed worse than irrelevant. I often fought with the pastor about music. He couldn’t think past Carey Landry and the St. Louis Jesuits, while I favored Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, and Victoria.

What on earth (or in Heaven?) was this thinking about being a priest? I just couldn’t make sense of it.

I will spare you all the details, but God eventually won. Denise had a change of heart, or maybe she sensed my growing ambivalence, and our dating ended. The troublesome pastor and I also parted ways (he later left the priesthood, by the way).

Two years later I entered the seminary. And now here I am, today, celebrating my 30th anniversary as a priest.

Sitting in the Basilica earlier this month and seeing ten new priests ordained was a great joy. I heard again those words that speak to the mystery of the call: Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet (Jer 1:4). Yes, God’s call is a great mystery to me. Before I was born, He knew I would become a priest, but I didn’t know until long after my birth.

God has been good to me. For 30 years now I have prayed every day, celebrated the liturgy every day, read and studied God’s Word every day, and confessed every week. Through it all I’m a changed man. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be either. A wonderful change has come over me. I’m more confident and serene. I’ve seen sins put to death and graces come alive. I love God more than ever. I love to pray and to teach. I’ve come to love God’s people so much more.

I’m not the same man who entered the Basilica 30 years ago today—and thanks be to God for that. His Word is true. Attending to His Word and to the preaching, teaching, and celebration of the sacraments has had wondrous effects! I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years will bring, if God grants them. For now, I can only marvel at the mystery of my call and how it has unfolded over all these years.

I’d like to conclude with some words of encouragement that were give to me some years ago during a difficult time in my priesthood.

The holiness and humanness of the priest is the deepest source of his authority. The person of the priest is the “substantial bread” of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Personal development and the personal quest for God make the priest credible in the sight of the faithful (Rev. Robert Schwartz).

Amen. So be it, Lord.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Thirty Years a Priest and Most Grateful

Sins of Priests

In the reading from Wednesday’s daily Mass (Wednesday of the 7th Week of Easter) St. Paul laments,

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away after them (Acts 20:30).

Sinful, misleading, and even heretical clergy are nothing new, yet this remains a profound sadness. It is a rare week when someone does not contact me from somewhere in the country to say that his or her parish priest is preaching or teaching something that is a half-truth, erroneous, heretical, and/or scandalous. Add to this the silence of many other priests and bishops and we have a flock that is often disheartened and confused. Woe to clergy who mislead, pervert the truth, or spread error and confusion.

I am mindful of a passage from the Book of the Prophet Malachi, where there is set forth a kind of riv (a Hebrew word for a lawsuit, indictment, or controversy) by God. The Lord presents a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient priests of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case shows a body of evidence that is just as true today as it was then. God has plenty to say, and we have much to hear, much to repent.

As we consider the sins of the priests described below, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed to imply that all or even most priests are like this. Sadly, though, sins and shortcomings are far too common among the clergy. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so also must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind, let’s consider the sins of priests in three basic areas.

Shoddy Sacraments

A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised thy name?” By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).

Those are strong words indeed. While the injunction regarding damaged and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem remains: careless celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.

One of the most common complaints from the faithful concerns priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open, sometimes egregious violation of liturgical norms. Although some violations are minor, why not just celebrate the liturgy as it is set forth in the books? In some places in the liturgy there are legitimate options, and not every complaint is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.

A priest cannot be expected to fix every problem in the liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of the faithful with due regard to charity and patience is one of his essential tasks as pastor of souls—and he should begin with himself. The liturgy, both its mechanics and its spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.

Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Proper attire and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one another. Priests should be properly vested, prepare their sermons prayerfully, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence and fussiness are not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.

Decades ago, poor immigrant communities sponsored the construction of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest art and liturgical implements. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach the faithful to follow the example of our recent ancestors by seeking to build and maintain worthy churches, erected for the glory of God rather than just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by the senseless “wreckovation” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God, many people today are growing in their appreciation of older churches and are seeking to preserve them.

If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with just any old thing in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our magnificent churches, but He knows that the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by concluding with this: But all things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40).

Burdens not Blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

“What a weariness this is!” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts … And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).

The priests of that ancient Jewish time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, their children would suffer many curses. While priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father.”

The sins and omissions of priests today surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period during which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, and irreverent. Some have even been guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. In addition, far too many priests and religious have left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some are discouraged and angry; most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented from Church teaching, who do not listen to God or take to heart His teachings and stand in awe of His name.

In this way, the flock is often harmed by poor priestly leadership and example. Recent data show that about eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass regularly. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teachings and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the gospel.

Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar one from Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray for them fervently. Not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.

Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation or speak of their office as a burden. Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern notions that the gospel is too burdensome for the faithful and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful to live it.

Sacerdotal Silence

True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction (Malachi 2:6-9).

Silent pulpits are all too commonplace in the Church today. Some priests prefer to play it safe, fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Others do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent—and by preaching corruption they cause many to stumble.

It is tragic as well that so many priests are permitted to mislead the faithful without being corrected and disciplined for it by their religious superiors.

The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it; he should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in balance with other truths in Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul says this of a presbyter: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

The text of Malachi also warns against incomplete teaching, wherein a priest chooses which truths he will teach or emphasize and which he will not. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.

Sadly, some of these rebukes concerning incomplete teaching must still be made today. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them; give them support even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it isn’t always welcomed. Even the prophets needed support from the seven thousand who had still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.

These are some of the sins of the priests that God sets forth. Let us not forget, however, that the world has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these passages remind us, priests can lose their way. They can forget the glory of the liturgies they celebrate, refer to their office and the gospel as burdensome, and grow too silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  Sins of Priests

Who Was Melchizedek?

Abraham Meets Melchizedek – Basilica di San Marco

Wednesday’s first reading spoke of the mysterious Melchizedek:

This Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything.

His name first means righteous king, and he was also “king of Salem,” that is, king of peace. Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. See how great he is to whom the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils (Heb 7:1-4).

Who was Melchizedek? Abraham paid tithes to him—something that rightly belongs to God—so he must have been pretty important!

From a worldly point of view, Melchizedek was the king of Salem (later called Jerusalem). Not only was he a king, but he was a priest who worshiped “The Most High God” (EL-ELYON). Although some claim that this likely was a Canaanite God, at this point early in revelation the later textual distinctions and names for God were not yet as clear.

From a secular point of view, we see that Melchizedek, even if he was a Canaanite Priest-King, honored Abraham for his conquests. (Because Abram had just defeated ten kings, many other local kings would seek to ingratiate themselves to him.)

The Scriptures say this of the mysterious priest-king:

  • Psalm 110 indicates that when the Messiah comes, he will have a priesthood derived from Melchizedek’s (not from the Levitical priesthood): You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4b).
  • Hebrews 7, as quoted above, sees Melchizedek as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Note that Melchizedek is described as without ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life.

Was Melchizedek in fact a vision of Christ pre-incarnate? He was said to be without earthly father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life. This could only be the Lord! (That would help to explain Abraham’s unusual behavior of paying a tithe to him.) Yet this is probably not the proper conclusion because the text says that he was made to resemble Christ. So, Melchizedek is more of a type or prefigurement of Christ.

The main point is that Hebrews clearly states the basis for the priesthood of Jesus Christ as rooted in the priesthood of Melchizedek. It is also declared in Psalm 110.

The author of Hebrews declares this priesthood to be far superior to the Levitical priesthood. Why? First, Melchizedek was superior to any Levite because he received tithes from Abraham and because he lives forever. To the Jewish world, no one was greater than Abraham, their father in faith, yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, indicating that Melchizedek was even greater.

Second, the Levitical priesthood was inaugurated due to sin. As such, it was a poor replacement for priesthood in the Order of Melchizedek. We read in Scripture of the origin of the Levitical priesthood in the aftermath of the golden calf incident:

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Ex 32:25-31).

Hence, the superior and more ancient priesthood of Melchizedek led to the lesser, limited priesthood of the Levites. Hebrews continues,

The descendants of Levi who receive the office of priesthood have a commandment according to the law to exact tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, although they also have come from the loins of Abraham. But he who was not of their ancestry received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. Unquestionably, a lesser person is blessed by a greater. In the one case, mortal men receive tithes; in the other, a man of whom it is testified that he lives on. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, was tithed through Abraham, for he was still in his father’s loins when Melchizedek met him. If, then, perfection came through the Levitical priesthood, on the basis of which the people received the law, what need would there still have been for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not reckoned according to the order of Aaron? (Heb 7:5-11)

So, the Letter to the Hebrews states that Melchizedek and his priesthood are superior to the Levitical priesthood using this logic:

  • Because a lesser person is blessed by a greater—and Melchizedek blessed Abraham—Melchizedek must be greater than Abraham.
  • The Levites are lesser than Abraham, and Abraham is lesser than Melchizedek. Therefore, the Levites and their priesthood are beneath the priesthood of Melchizedek.
  • Because Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, even the Levites owe tithes to Melchizedek.
  • The Levitical priesthood could not bring perfection; if it could, why would the order of priesthood in Melchizedek have needed to be re-established when the Messiah came?

To anyone who would deny that Jesus could be a priest because He was not of the tribe of Levi, point to the Letter to the Hebrews, which says that Jesus is a priest. He is not a lesser Levitical priest; He is a priest in the higher and original order of Melchizedek. Indeed, Psalm 110 (a Messianic psalm) calls Him Lord and priest:

The LORD said to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
until I make Your enemies
a footstool for Your feet.”

The LORD has sworn
and will not change His mind:
“You are a priest forever
in the order of Melchizedek”
(Psalm 110:1, 4).

This also explains Jesus’ use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, for as Genesis 14:17-19 recounts, this was the offering of Melchizedek:

After Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings allied with him…. Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine—since he was priest of God Most High—and he blessed Abram … (Genesis 14:17-19).

So, who was this Melchizedek? He was an historical figure, but also one who prefigured Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Lord. Although not of the tribe of Levi, Jesus has a superior and more ancient priesthood than theirs—a priesthood in the order of Melchizedek.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Melchizedek?

The Sins of Priests

The Book of the Prophet Malachi is set forth as a kind “riv” (a Hebrew word for a lawsuit, indictment, or controversy) by God. The Lord presents a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient Israel of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case shows a body of evidence that is just as true today as it was then. God has plenty to say and we have much to hear, much of which to repent.

As we consider the sins of the priests enumerated below, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed as meaning that all or even most priests are like this. Sadly, though, sins and shortcomings are far too common among the clergy. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so also must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind, let’s consider the sins of the priests (as listed by Malachi) in three basic areas.

Shoddy Sacraments

A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised thy name?” By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).

Those are strong words indeed. While the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem remains: careless celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.

One of the most common complaints from the faithful regards priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open, sometimes egregious violation of liturgical norms. Although some violations are minor, why not just celebrate the Liturgy as it is set forth in the books? There are of course options, and not every complaint of the faithful is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.

A priest cannot be expected to clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of the faithful with due regard to charity and patience is one of his essential tasks as pastor of souls—and he should begin with himself. The liturgy, both its mechanics and its spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.

Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Proper attire and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one another. Priests should be properly vested, prepare their sermons prayerfully, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence is not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.

Decades ago, poor immigrant communities sponsored the construction of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest art and liturgical implement. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach the faithful to follow the example of these recent ancestors of ours by seeking to build and maintain worthy churches, erected for the glory of God and not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by the senseless “wreckovation” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God, many people today are growing in their appreciation of older churches and are seeking to preserve them.

If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with just “any old stuff” in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our tall churches, but He knows that the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by concluding with this: But all things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40).

Burdens not Blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

“What a weariness this is!” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts … And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).

The priests of that ancient Jewish time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, their children would suffer many curses. While priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father”!

In our day, the sins and omissions of priests surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period in which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, and irreverent. Some have even been guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. In addition, far too many priests and religious have left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some are discouraged and angry; most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of His name.

In this way, the flock is often harmed by this poor priestly leadership and example. Eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teaching and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the gospel.

Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar one from Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray for them fervently. Not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.

Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation or speak of their office as a burden. Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern notions that the Gospel is too burdensome for the faithful and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful to live it.

Sacerdotal Silence

True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction (Malachi 2:6-9).

Silent pulpits are all too commonplace in the Church today. Some priests prefer to play it safe, fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Others do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent—and by preaching corruption they cause many to stumble.

It is tragic as well that so many priests are permitted to mislead the faithful without being disciplined for it by their religious superiors.

The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it; he should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in balance with other truths in Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul says this of a presbyter: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

The text of Malachi also warns against incomplete teaching, wherein a priest chooses which truths he will teach or emphasize and which he will not. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.

Sadly, some of these rebukes concerning incomplete teaching must still be made today. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them; give them support even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it isn’t always welcomed. Even the prophets needed support from the 7000 who had still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.

These are some of the sins of the priests that God sets forth. Let us not forget, however, that the world also has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these passages remind us, priests can lose their way. They can forget the glory of the liturgies they celebrate, refer to their office and the gospel as burdensome, and growing too silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

A Valuable New Book Sets Forth the Gift of the Priestly Blessing

Fr. Robert Kilner gives first blessings (J. Lippelmann 2017)

For priests, there is probably no request more common than this one: “Father, will you bless this?” Dozens of times per week we’re requested to bless a new rosary, statue or other religious article, or even a new car or home. We also get more personal requests: “Father, may I have your blessing?” Even in these secular times many of the unchurched and lukewarm still instinctively seek our blessings and prayers when they see us out in public, whether it’s at the airport or in the grocery store.

One might think, given the frequency of such requests, that we would have studied a good bit about the theology of blessings in seminary and would have been trained to make these brief pastoral moments more meaningful both for ourselves and for those to whom we minister—but such is not the case. I cannot remember a single thing being taught about the theology of blessings. Perhaps blessings were mentioned in passing when listing examples of sacramentals (objects, rituals, blessings, or events that are like sacraments in some sense but are not among the seven sacraments), but there was no elaboration of a theology of blessings.

Hence, many priests have a rather vague theological framework for one of the most frequent requests that we get. If we are not careful, we can treat such requests in a rather perfunctory way, waving our hands and saying a few holy words, barely realizing that we are using a priestly power that is often more appreciated by the faithful than by us. Something important is happening in a blessing and we priests do well to be more aware of what that is in order to avoid a kind of dubious rationalism or a superstitious excess.

A recent book by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, The Priestly Blessing: Rediscovering the Gift, is most helpful in filling this gap in the training of most of us priests. It thoroughly develops a theological and pastoral framework for giving and receiving blessings. In a mere 150 pages, he surveys the biblical and ecclesial history of blessings and sets forth a theological, spiritual, and pastoral explanation of them. He explores the place of blessings in the incarnational aspects of the Catholic Faith, their purpose in sanctifying and restoring who and what was wounded in the fall of creation, and the roots and effects of blessings in the lives of the faithful. He also answers many practical questions such as these: Who can bless? Are hands to be extended, folded, or imposed? Are there some things that should not be blessed?

Msgr. Rossetti also explores the controversy that has emerged in the last fifty years among some theologians about the nature of blessings, how they are best conferred, and whether things should be blessed or only the people who use those things.

This debate among theologians reached the parishes in the late 1980s. The “Book of Blessings,” published in 1989, became controversial because it generally stopped short of using language or gestures that were associated with actually blessing the item. The new ritual book arrived from Rome without much explanation, and most of us who were priests at the time obediently sought to use it.

When someone requested the blessing of an object, we would dutifully open the new ritual and read the prayers. Puzzlement would often result when the prayers ended without a sign of the cross over the item and without traditional words specifically asking God to bless the item. Sometimes the faithful would ask, “Father, did you bless it?” They were instinctively looking for the traditional gesture of the extended hand moved in the sign of the cross with words such as these: “May almighty God bless this [item] in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The new Book of Blessings intentionally removed such things and spoke instead of asking God to bless the people who used this or that object or lived in this or that place. Without any explanation from Rome as to why traditional blessing formulas and gestures were eliminated, most of us priests either began to add the words and gesture back in or just quietly returned the Book of Blessings to the shelf and returned to using informal blessings or prayers from older books.

Msgr. Rossetti sets forth the theological views that underlie both the new and the old ritual books. He is fair in his presentation and explores why some in the past century have sought to adopt a different understanding of blessings. Were they involved in a correction of superstitious understandings? Did they over-correct? Is there a balance to be found in studying both views? And because the use of the older rituals is still permitted, does the debate even matter anymore?

Msgr. Rossetti takes the helpful approach of using the controversy to teach more deeply on the theology of blessings. I know that it has helped me in understanding that those who developed the modern Book of Blessings were not engaging in innovation for its own sake, nor were they being impious. Even for someone like me who strongly prefers the older Roman Ritual for blessings, the vision of the newer ritual is not without merit and can help prevent excesses and superstition. Msgr. Rossetti has provided a helpful contribution to the controversy and, while favoring the traditional gestures and the insight that things as well as people can be and are blessed, articulates the newer insights as well.

This is an excellent resource that should be required reading for all priests and be included in the curriculum of seminary formation. It is also readable and helpful for all of God’s people. It would make a good Christmas gift for any priest or deacon, filling what is likely a significant gap in their studies. Go, my brother priests, sell all you have and buy a copy! (Or, put it on your Christmas wish-list.) This priestly work is too important for us to be vague about it. As the subtitle suggests, rediscover the gift!

A Simple but Clear Warning

In recent months we have once again been forced to confront the sinful evils we have inflicted upon one another. Currently the focus is rightfully on the sins of the clergy. The sexual predations of some clergy have a three-fold effect on the victims and on the Church.

First there is the violation of the Sixth Commandment by all who engage in illicit sexual union. Sin always causes harm; it always sets evil loose. Even illicit sexual union between two fully consenting adults harms human dignity; it dishonors the body and the meaning of human sexuality, and it weakens marriage by usurping one of its privileges.

A second effect of sexual abuse by clergy is that those who perpetrate it gravely violate their vow of celibacy. This adds sacrilege to the list of grave harms and brings the very Sacrament of Holy Orders into disrepute.

Yet a third effect is the terrible violation of trust. Men who are called “Father” turn against their own in a kind of spiritual incest. The horrifying impact of this on the victims is evident in listening to their testimonies. The wounds are deep and lasting. While most of the victims were post-pubescent teens or young adults, the harm is the same. The typical case is a religious superior exploiting someone under his care and authority. The relationship is not one between equals. The victims have suffered behaviors ranging from sexual harassment to outright sexual abuse. In the priestly scandal most of the cases have been ones of homosexual predation, but homosexual or heterosexual, the sin of any sexual predation is grievous and causes tremendous harm.

One of the cultural issues that underlies this scandal, as well as others that have been in the news recently, is a tendency to treat sexual sins lightly. Since the 1960s there has been a steady erosion in the proper understanding of sexuality. While no one lived perfectly before that time, sexual sins were considered serious; blatant disregard for biblical sexual norms was considered by most to be shocking and scandalous. Cohabitation, sex before marriage, the portrayal of sexual acts in movies, and so forth were thought to be serious violations of decency.

At first, many thought it was “no big deal,” even calling it a “liberation.” All the while, though, the horrible effects continued to mount: an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, the skyrocketing of abortion rates, an increase in human trafficking (especially of minors), a steep decline in marriage rates, a steep increase in divorce rates, and an increase in single motherhood/absent fatherhood. And revealed most recently, the additional tolls of sexual harassment, molestation and sexual abuse.

Saying that sex is no big deal doesn’t make it so. It has been said that God always forgives, men sometimes forgive, but nature never forgives. We have sown the wind and we have reaped the whirlwind.

Today’s reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians gives a simple reminder on the seriousness of sexual sins and perversions:

Instead, you inflict injustice and cheat, and this to brothers. Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Note that this passage links these sexual sins to an injustice so serious that, if one dies unrepentant, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Put more plainly, the unrepentant will go to Hell.

Perhaps as we awaken from our long moral slumber we will begin to see that texts like these are not indicative of the “sexual hang-ups” of St. Paul or of an earlier age in general. In a stern warning like this, God is not trying to “take away our fun”; he is trying to protect us and those we might harm by illicit sexual union and summon us to conversion and repentance before it is too late.

It is a simple but clear warning issued in love and out of a desire to protect us, who often make light of sin.

St. Monica and Prayers for Priests

On the Feast of St. Monica, who prayed at length for her son, I’d like to say that my mother prayed for me too! I really needed (and still need) her prayers.

In this time of pain in the Church, when God’s people are rightly disturbed by the sins of the clergy, many of you have assured me and I’m sure other clergy of your prayers for us. St. Monica, especially in this difficult time, is an image of prayers not only for her son but also for priests; for clearly, her son went on to become a priest and bishop.

Satan hates priests and seeks above all to get to us. Jesus remarked laconically and pointedly, quoting from Zechariah (13:7), Strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. This is why Satan hates priests and seeks to topple them.

Like St. Augustine, I have always felt my mother’s prayers very powerfully. I pray that my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, who died in 2005, is now at home with the Lord and has met St. Monica. She always told me that she was praying for me! I often attributed her prayers to her tendency to worry, but I have learned of the power of her prayers and of their necessity. My mother said the Lord had told her that Satan wanted me and all priests and that she had better pray for me. I never doubted that she did and I’m sure she still does.

I remember once, a week before my ordination in 1989, I was up on the roof of our family home cleaning out the gutters. My mother came out and told me to “Come down from the roof at once!” and that she would hire someone to clean them. She later explained that her concern was that I, so near to my ordination, was now a special target of the Evil One and that I might have fallen from that roof by his evil machinations.

I have come to see both her wisdom and my need for her prayers. I have also come to value the prayers of so many of my parishioners, who have told me that they pray for me. Yes, I need a mantle of protection—and so do all other priests. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

So today on this Feast of St. Monica, my thoughts stretch to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for your prayers and for your wisdom. One day you called me down from the “roof” of my pride and told me to keep my feet on solid ground. Yes, you knew, and you prayed. You warned me and then prayed some more. You knew that precious gifts, like the priesthood, also come with burdens and temptations that require sober and vigilant prayer.

Thank you, dear readers and beloved parishioners, for your prayers as well. They have sustained me. Better men than I are suffering and better men than I have fallen under the burden of office. It is only your prayers that have kept me. Yes, pray, pray, pray for priests! Join your prayers to those of St. Monica, my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, others in the great beyond, and many others still here on this earth. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

The photo at the top? Yes, that’s yours truly in a needy moment; my mother is holding me up in prayer and care. She still does this from her current location—closer to the Lord, I pray. Her prayers still hold me, as mine hold her. Requiescat in Pace.

In Troubled Times, a Priest Must Pray and Conform His Heart to God

In times like these, when Church reform is so urgent, priests must refocus and re-center their lives more clearly than ever. Through prayer and study every priest must guard his heart and, in so doing be more empowered to help God’s people do the same.

Two images come to mind, one of prayer and the other of study, but both summon the priest to guard his heart and center his mind on God and what God teaches.

The first image is from the Book of Leviticus:

The fire on the altar shall be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add wood to the fire, arrange the burnt offering on it, and burn the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. The fire must be kept burning on the altar continually; it must not go out, it must not go out! (Leviticus 6:12-13)

The fire referred to here is the one on the altar before the ancient Temple or Tent of Meeting, but for our purposes it is an image of prayer. The prayer of the priest for himself and his people is a fire that must never go out. Prayer, as a conversation with God, must not end. Every morning the priest is to add wood to this fire of prayer; he is to offer a sacrifice of praise and beg God on behalf of His people.

As priests, we are directed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called the “breviary,” or the “office.” We are also called to spend time before God in quiet prayer and attentiveness, so that hearing what He says we can then offer His teaching to the faithful.

The text here is emphatic: this fire (of prayer) must not go out; it must never be extinguished. A priest who stops praying is dangerous to himself and others.

Encourage your priests to pray. Say to him, “Father, I am counting on your prayers for me.” Be specific in your gentle reminder to him: “Father, when you pray the office, please remember me.” “Father, in your Holy Hour and visits to the Blessed Sacrament, please remember my family.” In so doing you remind him of his obligation to pray and that you are presuming he is doing so.

Priests must pray. This is a fire that must never be extinguished!

The second image is one of prayerful study and careful teaching.

In his treatise, The Book of the Pastoral Rule, Pope Saint Gregory the Great applies details from the Old Testament priesthood to the priests of the New Covenant. In one reflection, he remarks on the details of the breastplate of the high priest and what they signify.

In effect, Pope Gregory instructs the priest to guard his heart, keeping it safe from the poison of false doctrine and from misplaced affections, wherein he fears man more than God and desires the approval of man more than speaking the truth. In one section he writes,

Thus, it was assigned by the divine Voice that on the breast of Aaron, the vestment of judgment should be closely bound by bands (Exodus 28:15, 28). This was so that the heart of the priest would not possess fluctuating thoughts, but be bound by reason alone. Nor should he consider indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts (Pastoral Rule Part II.2).

Note the use of the word “bands.” At the root of the meaning of the word “religion” is the same concept. The Latin root of the word religion speaks of being bound closely to or embraced by God (re (again) + ligare (to bind)). Thus, the virtue of religion binds one’s heart, mind, and soul to God. We are held tightly by Him in an embrace of love and truth.

The bands of the high priest’s breastplate warn him not to waiver, wander, or be carried off from the love and truth of God. We are not to be enamored of the world or its lies; neither should we embrace or cling to them. The priest is to cling to God and be held close by Him, not wandering off in all different directions. Being held close by God, the priest’s own beating heart begins to synchronize with the heart of God. Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). Gradually the priest’s heart will become much like God’s, loving the things and people of God with proper and ordered affection and wanting only what God wants.

Further, being held fast by God will also preserve the priest from what Gregory calls indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts. Indiscreet matters are those into which we ought not to delve or pry. The priest should properly seek to know only those things he needs to know. He should also remember that there are many things he cannot fully know, many of the deep mysteries of God about which he must humbly admit he knows little.

As for “unnecessary thoughts,” this surely refers to the thousands of trifling things that often occupy the minds of many people throughout the day: sports, celebrities, or the minutia of popular culture. We can think too much of frivolous things and not enough about glorious, edifying, and lasting ones.

Pope St. Gregory continues,

… It was strictly added that the names of the twelve patriarchs should also be depicted (Exodus 28:29). For to carry always the inscribed fathers on the breast is to meditate on the life of the ancients without interruption … to consider unceasingly the footsteps of the Saints.

Yes, every priest should be deeply rooted in the wisdom of the saints and in the ancient and lasting truth revealed by God in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. To be a true Christian is to be deeply rooted in these things, always going back to that which is ancient and proposing it ever anew. The truths of God are non nova sed nove (not new things but understood newly).

St. Gregory continues,

 [The breastplate] is fittingly called a “vestment of judgment” because the spiritual director should always discern between good and evil. … Concerning this it is written: “But you shall put on the breastplate of judgment, the doctrine and truth, which will be on Aaron’s breast … and [the priest shall] not add an element of human reasoning as he dispenses his judgments on behalf of God. … Otherwise, personal affections might get in the way of zealous correction …

Here Pope Gregory warns against the human tendency to compromise the truth or to engage in rationalization. We can add to the Word of God or subtract from it, but either way we render harm to the purity it should always have in our heart, in our mind, and on our lips.

Too many priests, preachers, and teachers get carried away with trendy notions or theological speculations that can begin to substitute for the true word of God. All the priest’s judgments about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, should be deeply rooted in the wisdom and the truth of God. They should not be tainted by dubious opinions, trends, fashions, unbalanced notions, or even his own sinful inclinations and his desire to rationalize them.

The priest must also be aware of personal affections and preferences. Too often in human affairs, who said something becomes more important than what he said. St. Paul says, Test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22).

Pope St. Gregory concludes,

If one fearfully considers the One who presides over all things, then he will not direct his subjects without fear.

Fear is a very deep human problem. Too many priests, parents, teachers, and others in the Church fear human beings rather than God. God would have us simplify things in our life by fearing Him alone and then not having to fear thousands of others.

Yes, too many priests and other leaders cower before congregations and preach so vaguely and blandly that almost no one can remember what was said; their obfuscations disguise the Word of God more than they reveal it.

The first question every preacher and teacher should ask himself is this: What would God think of what I have said today? Unfortunately, too many of us who preach are more concerned with the opinions of men. The fear that a preacher should have is not whether his congregation is pleased, but rather whether God, who will judge him one day, is pleased. If he fears God, then he will direct his people with holy fear not out of a fear of man. He will have a proper and holy reverence for God, to whom we must one day be accountable for our office. May neither our silence nor our rash speech condemn us!

Pray for priests and encourage them to stay faithful to prayer and to the divine fonts of truth. May every priest pray and guard his heart and mind!