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!

A Pre-Lenten Preparation for Priests and a Request for Prayers from the Faithful

Priests need to prepare for Lent too. The Book of the Prophet Malachi provides a kind of mini-examen for them.

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 must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind let’s consider the sins of the priests (as described 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 good 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 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, many 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; 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 partiality, 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.

Some of these rebukes concerning partiality 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 priests that God sets forth, but let us not forget 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 silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

Defining Ministry or Muddling It? A Reflection on an Article “Assigned” to Me

Not too long ago, one of my readers sent me a collection of sayings or aphorisms on the topic of ministry. The collection is entitled Defining MinistryThe reader, who apparently does not think I follow modern trends very well, scolded me for being out-of-touch and recommended that I review the list. That reader apparently believes that those maxims describe what I should be like but am not.

I took my “assignment” seriously and read each one of the sayings; I’m happy to report that I don’t measure up to most of them! The collection is too large to reproduce here and in addition I have not obtained the author’s permission to publish the material here.

I think we do well to look at a few of them if we want to know how some people view the concept of ministry and the role of pastoring.

I want to emphasize that I have serious problems with every one of the “proverbs” I am about to list. I believe that they water down the kind of leadership and clear teaching that God expects from his ordained ministers. Christ’s Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20) was that His appointed apostles should go forth to the whole world to teach clearly what He had commanded, to make disciples, and to draw those disciples into the sacramental life of the Church unambiguously through baptism. So, in the Great Commission, there are clear truths to be announced and a mission to bring people out of darkness into light. The Lord sent them out to the world because the world needed light, truth, teaching, and a call to access mercy through repentance. In effect, the apostles were given a threefold office: to teach (as the text clearly says), to govern (the text says that they were to teach the commandments of the Lord), and to sanctify (the text says that they are to baptize). Therefore, this was the ministry, the work of the apostles and their successors (the bishops, priests, and deacons). St. Paul, particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, repeatedly instructed Titus and Timothy to teach, govern, and sanctify. Further, he said that they were to appoint other bishops, priests, and deacons to do the same work.

All of this seems rather plain in scriptural texts, but sadly many of these things do not seem to be so plain to some, who are more influenced by cultural trends than the instructions of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

One the problems that all the sayings have is that they are all in the form of antitheses. Each one has the following structure:

“Ministry is not about ‘A’, it is about ‘B’.”

The problem with this structure is that it often leads to a false dichotomy. Perhaps the author does not mean them to be understood absolutely, but a reader cannot be sure given their rather absolute structure. Perhaps if the structure had been, “Ministry is more ‘A’ than ‘B’,” then the message would have been clearer.

With this background in mind, let’s look at some of the adages.

Ministry is not about doing; it is about growing.

Why place growing and doing in opposition to each other? Isn’t growing a form of doing? Doesn’t doing advance growth?

If I (as a priest) were to say that ministry is not about doing, it would suggest that I could sit in my room all day and still call it “ministry” as long it somehow promoted “growth.” This seems silly; if I did that most people would call me lazy.

If this saying is directed toward those to whom I minister, it is also false, because while I surely do want them to grow, Jesus also makes it clear that He has things for us to “do” such as repent, believe the gospel, turn away from sin, deny ourselves, take up our cross, keep the commandments, love our neighbor, evangelize, cast out demons, and heal. He also warns, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7:21). And in the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31ff it is clearly important to Him that we actually do things such as feeding the poor and giving drink to the thirsty.

Growth is nice, but deeds are surely required as well. They should not be opposed to each other.

Ministry is not about pulling people toward something; it is about walking with people while searching.

How strange and unbiblical! The road to Emmaus comes to mind; Jesus walked with them and “pulled” them to recognize the truth that was before them. Having heard their complaints and confusion, He called the foolish and slow to believe (Luke 24:25). He went on to “pull” them toward the truth, instructing them at great length.

“Walking with people while searching” paints a picture of groping, not teaching. Jesus says, And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (Mt 15:14). Clearly the Lord sent His ministers to bring the light and direction of His teaching to those who are searching, not just to search around with them and facilitate their searching. We are to help them find answers. Instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy as is counseling the doubtful.

Sacred ministers such as priest are not “know-it-alls,” but we are supposed to have answers and provide clear direction based on our prayer, our study of Sacred Truth, and our anointing. Our call isn’t merely to be out there “searching.” We’re supposed to be teaching because the Lord has already provided answers in His Word and in Sacred Tradition.

And we are supposed to be pulling people toward something—actually, toward Someone. Jesus says that this is exactly what the Father is doing through His Church: No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God” (Jn 6:44-45).

Ministry is not about providing answers; it is about provoking more and more fresh questions.

Again we have the false dichotomy. Why are answers and “more questions” opposed to each other? The fact is, answers provoke more questions; questions seldom provoke questions. A person has a question and then waits for an answer; nothing happens until an answer is forthcoming. This answer usually provokes more questions that seek clarification. There is no dichotomy between providing answers and provoking more questions. In fact, there is a strong correlation between them.

So answers are of great importance both in preaching and in the ministry of the Gospel. Clearly the Lord sent us out with teaching, with answers to the questions that are in people’s hearts.

It is true that one teaching technique involves not answering all questions or solving every problem too quickly. This is an especially good method to use with children, who should often be encouraged to struggle with questions and problems so as to learn how to solve problems and to learn how to learn.

But if this is what the maxim is getting at, why not just say that? Instead, we are presented with a false dichotomy that says that giving answers is a bad thing, or at least that it is worse thing than sending people away to come up with more questions (the answers to which they will presumably not get from us).

Ministry is not about promoting doctrine; it is about announcing Jesus.

Again, why put these in opposition? Jesus sent them out to teach doctrine: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Talk about promoting doctrine! Jesus says that they are not just to teach it; they are to summon disciples to obedience. He warns, For whoever is ashamed of me and of my teachings in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). Thus Jesus connects Himself to His teachings, His doctrine, and His words; He is the Word, the Logos, made flesh. He says that to reject His teaching, His doctrine, is to reject Him and to face judgement for that.

St. Paul exhorted Titus, But as for you, speak the things that are consistent with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). St. Paul links doctrine to Christ, as he should, because they are connected. He writes, What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 1:13). Ministry is promoting doctrine, and in promoting Christ’s teachings we are helping to announce Jesus.

There are dozens of other sayings in the list, and it’s pretty much all downhill from these few. The final one in the collection takes the cake:

Ministry is not about whether one believes in God; it is about following the Christ.

Here is a word to the wise: if you ever happen upon a “minister” who does not believe in God, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit! Further, if you ever happen upon a “ministry” that says it is not important for you to believe in God, make another hasty exit.

There is nothing—nothing—more important than faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Jesus warns, If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (Jn 8:24).

The entire work of the Scriptures is to bring us to faith in Jesus, who is Christ and Lord. St. John writes, There were many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:31).

Nothing could be more flawed and confused than this final “proverb.” There is simply no ministry at all apart from faith in Christ Jesus as Lord. Nothing else matters without faith. What does it even mean to follow the Christ if one does not believe in God?

So, a message to the person who mailed me this list of sayings (over 35 in number): I did read them and have pondered whether my ministry conforms to them. I must say that it does not. I plead guilty to not assimilating these notions of “ministry.” Frankly, I am so far removed from them that I cannot even begin to conceive of how I would apply them to my life.

I just have this crazy idea that my work as a priest is to teach, govern, and sanctify God’s people; and to be taught by, governed by, and sanctified by the Church through the pastors of my own soul. I have this strange notion that there is a truth to be found and to be taught with clarity, patience, and conviction. Living the question is a cute concept, but without any answers at all, questions are cruel and taunting.

I also have this odd idea that Jesus did have a doctrine and that He identified with it, saying, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He warned that we should follow Him, for no one would come to the Father except through Him.

Something tells me that ministry is about providing answers and setting forth doctrine. Because teaching and insisting was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and “pulling” people to Father through faith was His deepest desire for us, I am convinced that my ministry should be no less.

Here is a depiction of Christ, the Teacher. In this video, He is teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum:

Priests, Parents, and Leaders: Take Heart!

Today I would like to present excerpts from the stirring sermon “On Pastors,” delivered by St. Augustine to the priests and people of Hippo. Although it is directed to priests, I hope that parents and leaders in general might also take courage from it.

In times like these we must all be reminded of the need to preach the Word of God even if we are reviled and our very proclamation of love is labeled “hate speech.” This is not new; St. Augustine calls us to be resolute and to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. Augustine’s words are shown in bold, while my commentary is in plain text.

[The Lord says:] The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves. … The sheep moreover are insolent. … And in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers [From a sermon on pastors by St. Augustine, Bishop (Sermon 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542)].

Whatever the specifics of St. Augustine’s era, today’s clergy and parents have the difficult task of presiding over a flock or family that on one side is pursued by the raging wolf of hostile and scoffing secularism, and on the other is being robbed of strength and clarity by dissension from within, even up to the highest levels in the Church. While a hostile world is to be expected, internal dissension is most lamentable and even more painful. This is especially the case today.

In contentious times such as ours, as the poison of the world infects the flock, some of God’s own people begin to take up the voice and demeanor of the wolf. In certain times and places, someone who strives to disclose the errors of the world will often be resisted and scorned, referred to as intolerant or hateful. A priest may be called out-of-touch or be discounted as “too political.” Some may even walk out as he preaches about controversial issues that are referred to as political, but are in fact moral: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and so forth. Others may write letters to the bishop criticizing him. While the scoffing of the world is expected, the insolence of the flock is very discouraging.

Thus St. Augustine says here, “We ask your prayers.” Some priests can fall prey to hostility in sinful ways. Some may give way to anger, which can infect evangelical joy. They will engage in mere argumentation and resort to indiscriminate sermonizing. They go from being the Church militant to the Church belligerent.

More common, and usually deadlier, is when a priest reacts by withdrawing from the battlefield altogether, no longer preaching on any topic considered controversial. He does not seek to correct the straying sheep because it might make them angry; he is not willing to bear the emotional burden of this resistance or to brave the stormy waters of controversy to call to them.

Silent pulpits are all too common today. A priest who is silent from the pulpit may tell himself that he is protecting his people’s feelings by not upsetting anyone. In reality, though, he comes to resemble the false shepherds denounced by Jesus, the ones who do not really care for their sheep but rather run when the wolf approaches.

The effect on the flock (and the world) is devastating because Catholics, who are called to be light in the darkness, have come to resemble the darkness. Catholics have become indistinguishable from the general populace in terms of our views on the most critical moral issues of our times. Even Catholics who have not caved in to all aspects of the cultural revolution are often ill-prepared to make a defense for the hope and truth that is in them.

Augustine calls some of the sheep “insolent.” The Latin root of the word lends it the meaning of being unaccustomed to something. Thus one who is insolent scoffs at what he does not understand. The straying sheep are often insolent as a result of poor catechesis.

Ignorance of the faith in the pews, along with pressure from a culture that loudly and effectively proclaims its own views, presents an enormous challenge to pastors. Without persistence and fortitude, many of our clergy can become resigned to mediocrity and inaction.

Augustine continues on to set forth a model of a shepherd’s heart for his sheep (especially the straying ones) that all clergy should emulate.

The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray,” he says, “I wish to be lost.”

If, with the help of others, a good priest seeks out the lost, the confused, and the broken, still many will say that they are not ours or that we should leave them alone. Others will say, “If you don’t approve of what I do and you think of me as lost and a sinner, why do you want me?” But it is precisely because they are lost that we seek them.

Our disapproval of sin (regardless of how others choose to interpret it) is no different than a doctor’s disapproval of toxic behavior that can lead to cancer; he will caution us to avoid such behavior and to come to him for healing if the cancer has already set in.

Sadly, many today base their fundamental identity on sinful behaviors; they interpret our searching for them as an offense rather than as an act of loving concern.

St. Augustine captures their attitude well: “But I wish to stray, I wish to be lost.” He then he presents an answer that summons us to perseverance:

So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says, “Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.” … I dare to say, “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: “The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.” Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.

This is a powerful reminder to every priest and every Christian. Do not lose your zeal for souls. Do not give up. Preach until the day you die, whether your words are welcomed or not.

Even if you should lose your zeal, never forget that the Lord has not lost His. We will all report to Him one day to render an account of our lives. Priests, above all, must be stirred to zeal. If our own love for God and for souls should flag, at least let a holy fear of the day of judgment move us!

Love is the better motive, but failing that, may we be moved by the fear of the Lord and of the day we shall be called to account for our ministry. Further, we must not fear the anger of men more than the indignation of God should we fail Him in the goal for which He ordained us.

Steeled and motivated by this, Augustine concludes with a stirring summons to resolve:

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost.

Amen. Stir in us, O Lord, a zeal for souls. Give us your own love and strength. May we desire souls with your very desire for them. Priests, parents, and leaders: Take heart and be courageous lovers of souls!

When Honor Eclipses Truth

Every year at about this time we read St. Augustine’s sermon “On Pastors” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. As you know, priests are required to read the Divine Office daily; St. Augustine’s sermon extends over the better part of two weeks. It amounts to a stern warning for priests who too easily live off the sheep instead of shepherding them rightly.

There are tender moments in the sermon as well. At one point, commenting on a passage from Ezekiel rebuking bad shepherds (You have consumed the milk of the sheep and clothed yourself in their wool (Ez 34:3)), Augustine turns to the lay people present and says,

Clothing can well be taken to mean honor, since it covers nakedness. For every man without exception is weak. And who is any man placed over you except someone just like yourself? Your pastor is in the flesh; he eats, sleeps, and awakens; he was born and is going to die. In himself he is, when you think of it, simply a man. But it is true that you make him something more by giving him honor; it is as if you were covering what is weak.

Consider the nature of clothing that the Apostle Paul received from God’s good people. He said, “You have received me like an angel of God ….” Indeed, great honor was shown to him.

St. Augustine then turns back to the priests with an admonition.

But did [Paul] then spare sinners because of that honor, perhaps out of fear that it would be refused and that he would receive less praise when he gave blame? Had he done so, he would be among those shepherds who feed themselves and not the sheep. He would then say to himself: “What has this to do with me? Let everyone do what he will; my sustenance is safe, and my honor too. I have enough milk and wool, so let each one do as he likes.” … In recalling how they treated him, the Apostle does not want to appear forgetful of the honor they did him. Therefore, he gives testimony that they received him like an angel of God … Yet he still comes to the sheep that is ill, to the one that is diseased, to cut the wound and not to spare the diseased part. He says: “Have I then become your enemy by preaching the truth?” He took from the milk of the sheep, as I mentioned a short time ago, and he was clothed with their wool, but he did not neglect his sheep. He did not seek what was his but what was Christ’s.

Pray for priests. We live in times when many priests have been trained or led to think that the goal of our ministry is to affirm people and make them feel welcome. There is a place for affirmation and welcoming, but the goal of our ministry is the salvation of souls. At times, this requires that we say and do difficult things, things that anger people and cause us to be ridiculed and denounced by many in the surrounding culture. As St. Augustine says, though, the treatment of wounds requires not just the oil that soothes, but also the wine that stings as it debrides and decontaminates.

What would one think of a doctor who spent most of his time making sure that his waiting room was pleasant and the examination rooms cheerful, but expended little effort studying disease and doing what was necessary to bring his patients back to good health? Proper medical care often requires strong medicines and painful surgeries. Further, doctors must often share difficult information with patients and/or give strong admonitions that lifestyle changes must be made. Pleasant examination rooms and a good bedside manner are all well and good, but providing medical care is the primary objective. A doctor who does not speak the truth to his patients because he wants to keep them happy is guilty of malpractice; he has maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.

It is no less the case with priests who avoid conflict or difficulty in order to preserve their honor. They have allowed a lesser thing to eclipse a greater thing. Pleasantries and affirmation too easily overshadow the truth, which is what sets us free even if it is sometimes strong medicine.

As St. Augustine mercifully reminds, priests are human. No one likes conflict; all other things being equal, avoiding unnecessary conflict is a good thing. Avoiding conflict at the expense of the truth, though, is a false peace, a temporary peace. The darkness, baseness, and ferocity of our times testifies against the idea of “going along to get along.” A false peace cannot endure. Our silence and the false tolerance of relativism is, in the end, tyranny.

The concern about silent pulpits on the key moral issues of our day is too widespread to be discredited as a minority view. Despite our human weakness, we who are priests must summon the courage to speak and teach more clearly and consistently than is currently evident. True shepherds can do no less.

I am reminded of a text by St. Basil, which I believe serves as a fitting postscript to my own poorer reflections on this topic:

Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement. And now the very vindication of orthodoxy is looked upon in some quarters as an opportunity for mutual attack; and men conceal their private ill-will and pretend that their hostility is all for the sake of the truth. All the while unbelievers laugh; men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain; souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the Word imitate the truth.

The better ones of the laity shun the churches as schools of impiety and lift their hands in the deserts with sighs and tears to their Lord in heaven. The faith of the Fathers we have received; that faith we know is stamped with the marks of the Apostles; to that faith we assent, as well as to all that in the past was canonically and lawfully promulgated (Saint Basil in Ep. 92, 2).