To be discreet most commonly means to be careful, prudent, or circumspect, especially in terms of speech. The word discreet comes from Latin discretus, meaning separate or distinct. To be discreet is not to be secretive; it is to make a prudent discernment about what to say to whom and when to say it. Personal, private conversations ought to stay that way.
For a priest, discretion is obviously essential. This is true not only because we hear confessions (in which case absolute secrecy is mandatory) but also because many seek our counsel about things that are personal and confidential. We hear a lot of things that we have no business repeating, even to the person who sought our counsel or pastoral advice, without express provision and permission. Both pastoral and professional discretion are necessary.
There is a broader sort of discretion that is also important for priests, because we are public figures and represent not just ourselves, but the Church. This discretion involves being prudent and careful about expressing our personal views on topics such as politics, economics, and legislative policies.
This is particularly difficult today because many moral issues have been politicized. Economics and legislative policies often touch on important moral and spiritual truths. In such cases, to be discreet is to preach and teach the moral principles while avoiding merely partisan or ideological speech.
Another reason it is so difficult is because we live in contentious times and in a noisy, blabbermouth culture. Social media and other platforms such as YouTube and television talk shows encourage a lot of indiscreet and indiscriminate sermonizing and publishing of opinions. In this overall climate of indiscretion, priests can easily fall prey to the tendency to say too much about too many things. We can lose our focus on the Gospel and become too influenced by our opinionated culture.
Oftentimes priests feel baited or pressured to disclose their views. “What you think about that election, Father? What’s your view on all this global warming talk?” I’d like to make a humble request: please don’t bait us; we’re already too talkative as it is! 🙂 When I sense I am being drawn into such a conversation I have learned to say, “Why do you ask me this?”
Yes, discretion is so important for priests. Please help us stay on message and in our own field. Please help us to preach the Gospel. Please help us to learn the value of holy silence, not just in the moment, but in prayer as well, wherein we listen carefully to voice of God.
Cardinal Robert Sarah beautifully sets forth the need for priestly silence, in both prayer and in daily discretion. His words are critically important for all of us, but especially for priests:
The narcissism of excessive speech is a temptation from Satan. It results in a form of detestable exteriorization in which man wallows on the surface of himself, making noise so as not to hear God. It is essential for priests to learn to keep to themselves words and opinions they have not taken the trouble to meditate on, interiorize, and engrave in the depth of their heart. We must preach the word of God and certainly not our petty thoughts!
… Now this preaching implies silence. Otherwise it is a waste of time—petty, sententious chatter. Spiritual exhibitionism, which consists of exteriorizing the treasures of the soul by setting them forth immodestly, is the sign of a tragic human poverty and the manifestation of our superficiality. We [priests] often speak because we think that others expect us to do so. We end up no longer knowing how to be quiet because our interior dike is so cracked that it no longer holds back the floods of our words. Gods own silence, however, should teacher us that is often necessary to be quiet [Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Power of Silence, pp. 194-195].
Pray for priests. Help us, that we may be discreet and speak only after prayerful silence.
Sunday’s Feast of Corpus Christi brought the first Masses of the new priests ordained here in Washington. It was also Father’s Day. The readings for Corpus Christi suggest a kind of threefold office for the priest (related to teaching, governing, and sanctifying). I thought it might be good to present some of the notes from that homily on the blog today. Here, then, are three facets of a faithful Father—of a faithful priest.
I. The Priest Announces the Truth – Throughout the readings today we see Moses, St. Paul, and Jesus announcing fundamental truths for God’s people. Scripture says, For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts (Malachi 2:7). In today’s readings, four truths stand out that the priest should announce.
REMEMBER– Moses says to the people, Do not forget the Lord your God (Deut 8:14). He also adds, Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert (Deut 8:2). Hence, every priest must stand before his people and say to them always (whether explicitly or implicitly), “Never forget the works of God. Do not forget what He has done for you. Remember Him and what He has done for you!”
To remembering means to have so present in my mind and heart what God has done for me that I’m grateful and different. Indeed, gratitude is a form of joy. When we are grateful, an awful lot of poison goes out of our heart. When you’re joyfully grateful, it’s pretty hard to despise your neighbor, or to be stingy and greedy, or to be vengeful and envious. Yes, a lot of poison goes out of our system when we remember what the Lord has done for us; we are grateful, joyful, different. At every Mass, the priest, as a Father, should remind his people never to forget the works of the Lord.
REJOICE– Here, too, today’s readings portray the priestly call for his people to rejoice in the Lord. Psalm 147 says, Glorify the Lord O Jerusalem; praise your God oh Zion! (Psalm 147:12), and the beautiful Sequence Hymn says, Laud O Zion your salvation, Laud with hymns of exultation, Christ your king and Shepherd true.
Every priest, as a faithful Father, must summon his people to rejoice in the Lord. The Lord only permits difficulty in order for some greater glory to be ushered in. Every priest should say, as in the words of Scripture, “Do not be sad, do not weep, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” (Neh 8:10) Joy is the natural state of every Christian, and every faithful priest should summon his people to joy by being a man of joy, hope, and confidence himself.
Sadly, joy is not the first thing that many people see upon walking into a typical Catholic congregation. Too often the scene looks more like a funeral than the wedding that the Mass is supposed to be. While it is true that people express joy in different ways, joyous is not the first way most outsiders would describe a typical Catholic congregation.
Every faithful priest should stand before his people and say “Rejoice,” not only with his words but also by his demeanor, hope, and manifest confidence.
RE-CENTER – In the first reading, Moses says to his people, Not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God (Dt 8:3). Here, too, every priest, as a faithful Father, must exhort his people to center their lives on things that really matter. Too many of God’s people focus on lesser things such as sports, politics, money, or how they stack up against other people. But every faithful priest, every faithful Father, must stand before his people and remind them, in the words of Isaiah,
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live (Isaiah 55:1-3).
Yes, Sunday after Sunday, the holy priest must remind the faithful of that which really matters and call them to focus their lives on heavenly, lasting things rather than earthly, passing things.
RECEIVE– In the Gospel today, Jesus warns, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have a life in you (Jn 6:53). Thus every priest will celebrate the Eucharist for his people faithfully and will exhort them never to miss a Sunday. His chief desire is to feed the people entrusted to his care and to warn them that if they neglect to feed on the Holy Eucharist of the Lord, they will have no life in them.
They will be like the children of Israel in the wilderness who would never have made it to the Promised Land if they had not faithfully eaten the manna that God gave them to preserve them in the desert for over forty years. Neither will we make it to the heavenly Promised Land if we do not receive frequently our manna—the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
Every priest, every faithful Father, must stand before his people and say, “Come, eat His Body, which was broken for you, and His Blood, which was shed for you.” Every priest will seek the lost sheep to restore them to the nourishment they desperately need and without which they will die.
II. The Priest Admonishes the Timid and Temperamental – In today’s Gospel, as the Lord Jesus announced the essential truth of the Holy Eucharist He encountered many who were quarrelsome and murmured against Him.
How does He deal with them? Upon hearing their protests, He does not compromise. He does not water down His teaching. Rather, He intensifies it and warns them clearly.
When He tells them that they must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, and they object, He warns them with this well-known Jewish expression: “Amen, amen I say to you!” Then He goes on to say that unless (which is a very strong and exclusive word) “you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will not have a life in you.” He then intensifies His teaching even more by substituting an impolite word for eating: τρώγων (trogon), which means to gnaw on or devour.
So when it comes to an essential truth, Jesus does not water down or “cave in.” Rather, He solemnly reasserts the truth even more forcefully. He does this not to be argumentative, but because He loves them and does not want them to be lost forever.
So, too, for the priest of God today. We live in quarrelsome times in which many murmur and protest: about the Eucharist to be sure, but also about many moral teachings. The priest of God, as a faithful Father for his people, must not water down the truth or compromise. Rather, he must speak the truth even more clearly. He must explain it with love, so as to save his people from the error that can and will destroy them. Yes, like Jesus, every priest must speak the truth clearly and in love.
St. Paul admonished Timothy,Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but will surround themselves with teachers who will tickle their ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires (2 Tim 4:2-3).
All the more reason, then, that the priest of God must stand before his people, not counting the personal cost, and speak the truth to them in love, speak to them the truth without which they will perish.
III. He Advances the Transformation of God’s People – Notice that in this brief passage the Lord Jesus presents the same truth four times:
i. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; ii. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. iii. The one who feeds on me will have life because of me. iv. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.
Obviously, since repetition is the mother of studies, Jesus wants us to lay hold of this truth: if we receive His Body and Blood and follow Him in faith, we will have eternal life!
Yet many misunderstand the concept of “eternal.” The Greek word αἰῶνα (aiona) refers not merely to the length of life but also to its fullness. Therefore, in offering us eternal life, Jesus is not simply saying that we will live forever in the sense of a very long time. Rather, He is saying that we will become more and more fully alive with Him, even in the present, and that one day we will enter into the glory of Heaven forever where we will be so alive that our life here will seem to have been a mere coma. St. Ireneus says that the glory of God is the human person fully alive.
Therefore, every priest must stand before his people and announce to them a fuller life, a richer life, a more wonderful life—not in some distant Heaven, but even now! He cannot be content merely to point to the possibility of such a thing. Rather, he must stand before them as a living witness, as one who has committed himself to prayer, to the sacraments, to the Word of God, and to walking in holy fellowship with the Church. He must show that even now he is experiencing a life made richer and fuller by the grace of the sacraments working in his life. He is not merely to announce to his people the richer and fuller life; he is to stand before them as a witness of it.
Of this, I myself can testify. Now well into my fifties, my body is heading south. My soul, however, is more alive than ever before. I am more joyful and more confident. I love God more. My prayer life is coming alive; my mind and heart are being renewed. I’ve seen sins put to death and new graces come alive.
Yes, every priest must be able to stand before his people as a living witness of how the Lord can transform our lives and bring us into the fullness of eternal life, even now. In this way, he helps to advance his people in the transformation that is the normal, the expected life of God’s people.
Here, then, are some facets of a faithful Father, gleaned from yesterday’s readings at the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.
The first reading from today (Wednesday of the 20th week of the year) is a significant admonition for priests. In this post, permit this priest to wonder how this warning from the Lord might apply to priests and shepherds today.
You who read these wonderings: please pray for priests, because we who have received much will also have much for which to account.
The passage from Ezekiel 34 is in bold, blue italics; my reflections are in bold, black text.
The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, in these words prophesy to them to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured.
We who are priests owe a great deal to our people. They take great care of us. They give us a place to live, food, a salary, health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits. They also pray for us and are supportive of parish activities upon which we depend and from which we benefit. Yes, they are so very good to us!
We must be willing to serve our people with love and devotion. While there are human limits to what we can do, we ought to embrace the truth of offering our lives in sacrificial love and service. In the Old Testament, the priest and the victim (e.g., a lamb) were distinct. But in the New Testament, the priest and the victim are one and the same: Jesus, our High Priest, offered the sacrifice of His very self. We who act in His person must also learn to offer ourselves sacrificially to our people.
Cardinal McCarrick, my archbishop for six years, used to tell us, “If you don’t routinely go to bed tired, something is wrong.” It was his way of telling us to work hard for our people; he often reminded us of the difficult lives they led.
In this passage, the Lord (through Ezekiel) warns His priests not merely to live off the people or to use them, but to live for them, to give them a shepherd’s care by providing loving attention, the protection of prayer, the sacraments, and the truth of God’s Word. The Lord does not say that shepherds have no needs; they do indeed need the wool, milk, and food the sheep can give, just as we priests need the support of our people. But in the end, we receive these gifts not for ourselves or as an end in themselves, but rather so that we can better serve our people.
Woe to priests who live selfishly off the people rather than sacrificially for them. Most priests I know work hard and do live this, but woe to those who fall back from this duty.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured.
Priests surely do at times tend to the physical weaknesses and illness of the people, but more typically we minister those who are spiritually weak and injured by sin (their own or those of others who have hurt them). It is essential for us to reach out lovingly to those who are hurt, or who struggle with sin and weakness due to temptation.
Sacramental confession ought to be generously and conveniently supplied to God’s people. Early in my first pastorate, I realized that the traditional Saturday afternoon confession time was inconvenient for many. I decided to institute a policy of hearing confessions for half an hour before every weekend Mass. I know many other priests do the same. While it is sometimes a burden for me to rush from Sunday school to confessions and then right into the next Mass, God’s people have wounds that need binding and the medicine of the sacraments.
Counseling and spiritual direction are also needed. Thank God I have a staff of good people that effectively manage the business and administrative details of the parish. This enables me to do a lot of counseling and spiritual direction for people each day.
God’s people need care, and we who are priests and shepherds ought to do everything we can to be available and effective in healing the spiritual sickness of sin and in helping to bind the wounds of those hurt by the human struggle with sin.
We do this first by seriously tending to our own wounds and submitting our weaknesses and sins to others (our spiritual directors and confessors) for healing. As we gain skill in self-understanding and as we make our own journey, we are better equipped to help others.
We must also do this by preaching charitably but clearly about the reality of sin and the need to repent. Many Catholics are critical of the fact that their pulpits have been “silent” for years on many critical moral topics and that little moral guidance is given to God’s people by the clergy. We must commit to speaking the truth in love about sin, morality, and the need for repentance. Otherwise, we are like a doctor who never mentions disease and who merely shrugs when obviously sick people seek his help in getting better.
Woe to us if we are too busy to bind the wounds of sinners and bring healing love to those who struggle. If we do this, we are like the Pharisees of old who simply wrote off sinners as “the great unwashed.” Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners. Woe to us if we do not reach out to sinners. Some of the Lord’s most severe warnings were reserved for the Pharisees and other religious leaders who scorned sinners but did little or nothing to teach them, to help them, or to bind their wounds.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost.
Many Catholics today have strayed and are lost. Only about a quarter come to Mass at all, and even among those who do attend, there are some have been deceived by the world and have lost their way.
One of the greatest struggles of the modern priest is knowing what to do about the overwhelming number of strayed and lost Catholics. Too many Catholic parishes have an evangelization program that amounts to little more than opening the doors and hoping people come. We have to do better. We must actively seek out the lost and call them home.
Overwhelmed with parish tasks due to dwindling numbers, priests struggle to find the time for active and personal evangelization. Here are some things that can help:
–Wearing clerical attire when away from the parish (shopping, traveling, etc.), concentrating on appearing approachable to those who seek answers and attention.
–Using opportunities such as funerals and weddings (at which many unchurched and lapsed Catholics are in attendance) to call people home and to invite them to a closer walk with God.
–Taking walks in the neighborhood and in local parks, greeting people and engaging them while doing so.
–Asking for help from parishioners in encouraging their fallen away family members to attend instructional programs and to return to Church.
– Asking group leaders to specifically reach out to members of their particular group who may have drifted, encouraging them to return.
– Actively teaching parishioners how to be better evangelizers. In the end, shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep.
Regardless of how we do it, we priests must bring back the strayed and lost.
So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; my sheep were scattered over the whole earth, with no one to look after them or to search for them.
I shudder to think of the immense losses the Church has suffered on the watch of us priests who live today. The flock is surely scattered. And while it is true that huge cultural waves have swept through Western world and brought devastation, we who are leaders of God’s flock cannot escape blame. Vast numbers of our people have been deceived by innumerable errors; too often we have been silent, or at best an uncertain voice. Often our silence has been due to concerns with remaining popular and accepted. At other times it has been simple laziness—not wanting to take the time and expend the effort necessary to study the cultural problems and develop a coherent and courageous response to errors. At still other times, it has been our own sin that has blinded us and caused uncertainty (even cynicism) about the Scriptures and Church teachings.
Whatever the causes, we who are leaders cannot escape significant responsibility for the lost and scattered quality of God’s people today; neither can we blame the previous generation. We just have to get to work and trust that God will bless us.
I will save my sheep, … For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
In this is our sole hope: that despite the weaknesses of priests, parents, educators, and all Church leaders, the Lord God alone can overcome all this and will ultimately bring to perfection the flock who follow Him in faith. We who are priests, who feel so often overwhelmed, do well to remember that the Lord is the ultimate and true shepherd, who can overcome our weakness and supply what is lacking. None of this excuses laxity; it only shows God’s grace and mercy in spite of it.
Disclaimer: Most priests I know are good, hardworking men. But none of us is perfect and the admonitions of this passage challenge all of us in some way.
Please pray for priests. Much has been given to us and thus much is rightly expected from us. Pray, pray, pray!
This video has a song that may not exactly fit for this sort of reflection, but the footage from Fishers of Men shows good priests in action:
A key aspect of the priesthood, set forth by Jesus in the New Covenant, is that priest and victim are one and the same. Prior to this, the priests of the Old Covenant sacrificed animals: lambs, bulls, goats, turtle doves, etc. But in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the priesthood of the New Covenant, the priest offers himself as victim.
Regarding Jesus and His priesthood, Scripture says,
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb 10:4-10).
So priest and victim are one and the same. Christ does not offer animals (which cannot take away sin) but offers Himself as the Lamb of God.
This insight is essential for us who share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, whether as ministerial priests or as those who share in the royal priesthood of Christ given to all believers at baptism (see Catechism # 1268). Although the royal and ministerial priesthoods are different in kind (not merely in degree), they have in common the fact that every priest offers sacrifice. The New Testament priest (royal or ministerial) is called to offer himself, not merely an animal, or money, or time, etc.
But what does this mean on a daily basis? How can we bring such a concept in for a landing, so to speak, so that it is not merely an abstract notion?
In the reading this past Sunday in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass there is a passage from First Peter which helps to specify three examples of how we offer a sacrifice to God not merely distinct from us (such as money or time or talent) but also one which is personal. The text says,
Dearly beloved, Christ suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow His steps who did no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. Who when He was reviled, did not revile: when He suffered, He threatened not, but delivered Himself to him that judged Him unjustly: who His own self bore our sins in His body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice; by whose stripes you were healed. For you were as sheep going astray: but you are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls (1 Pet 2:21-25).
Note the reference to Christ’s priesthood, in which He is both priest and victim:
He delivered Himself to him that judged Him unjustly: who His own self bore our sins in His body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice; by whose stripes you were healed.
That there are three ways that describe how Christ offered His very self. They are ways that we are called to imitate as well, for priest and victim are one and the same.
I. Resisting Temptation – The text of 1 Peter above speaks of Jesus as one who did no sin. It is easy to sin, to give in to temptation. It is much harder not to sin, to resist temptation.
Here, then, is our first sacrifice: that we engage in the difficult act of resisting temptation and sin. Sin does offer pleasures, but the bill comes later. The sacrifice is to refuse those pleasures, offered to us by the world, the flesh, and the devil. We sacrifice pleasures or we postpone them until there are sinless ways to gain them.
The royal priesthood of believers is called to offer this personal sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of obedience to which the Old Testament pointed:
Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Sam 15:22).
Better to draw near in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do (Eccl 5:1).
Here is our first priestly sacrifice: the sacrifice of our will, of our obedience to God.
Priest and victim are one and the same.
II. Reverencing the Truth – The text also says of Jesus, neither was deceit found in His mouth. There was in Jesus no duplicity; he did not gainsay the truth. Even His opponents said of Him, Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are (Mat 22:16). Ultimately, Christ would pay the supreme sacrifice for this and be led out to the cross.
We, who would be members of the royal priesthood of believers, must likewise be willing to sacrifice our safety, our popularity, our access to higher places, our very lives in order to speak the truth. It is easy to compromise, to go along with what is popular. It is easy to quote trendy sayings. It is easy to be silent when the truth is scoffed at or ridiculed. It is harder—sacrificial—to speak the truth and to defend what is true.
And indeed we will pay a price for it in most cases. Some people will merely raise an eyebrow or scoff at us; others will ridicule us or label us as haters, bigots, and the like. Still others will seek to exclude us, compel us to change, or even criminalize us.
And herein lie the sacrifices we must be willing to make. Often they will be small sacrifices, but at times they will be costly. The martyrs of all ages are witnesses to the personal cost of speaking and living the truth. Those of the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ must be willing to attest to the truth, even at great cost.
Priest and victim are one and the same.
III.Resisting Retaliation – The text further says of Jesus the High Priest, Who when He was reviled, did not revile: when He suffered, He threatened not, but delivered Himself. The most instinctual human response is to retaliate against those who scoff at or seek to harm us. It is easy to hate; it is hard to love. It is easy to strike back; it is hard and sacrificial to absorb the hit but let the cycle of anger and hatred end with me.
Satan wants to see hatred and vengeance cascade through the human family and history. But Jesus put the cross in his way. It was as if He threw a wrench in the gears of Satan’s hate machine so as to grind it to a halt.
We, too, are asked to sacrifice a significant degree of our honor and become like sand in the gears of the cycle of hate and vengeance. It is a sacrifice to say, “The cycle of retribution ends with me. I will not perpetuate it. I will absorb the blow and not retaliate. I will not flee evil; I will confront it without entering its world or adopting its tactics. I will likely suffer for this, but I will not become what I must resist. I will fight it with the paradoxical weapons of love and the cross.”
We make this sacrifice because in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, priest and victim are one and the same.
Here, then, is a brief summary (with examples) of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, in which priest and victim are one and the same. Again, the royal priesthood of all the baptized, while different in kind (not merely in degree) from the ministerial priesthood, shares this truth with it: priest and victim are one and the same.
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 sets forth a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient Israel of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case that God presents 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 of.
I am going to examine the Book of the Prophet Malachi in two successive posts. Today’s post is about the sins of the priests. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the sins of the people.
As we look to the sins of the priests enumerated here, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed to mean that all or even most priests are like this. But, sadly, the sins and shortcomings of the clergy are far too common. 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.
I. Shoddy Sacraments
6 “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?’ 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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. 12 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. And while the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem too often remains: the shoddy 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 and often egregious violation of liturgical norms. And while it is true that some violations are smaller matters in themselves, 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.
Not every priest can clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of God’s people with due regard to charity and patience is an essential task for the pastor of souls. And the priest should begin with himself. The liturgy, both in terms of its mechanics and its deeper 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. Beauty and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one other. Priests should be properly vested, prayerfully prepare their sermons, 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 were responsible for building of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest liturgical implements and art. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach today’s 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 not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by senseless “wreckovations” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God that many today are growing in appreciation for the 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 how we are made. And the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.
Priests above all 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 saying, But all things should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).
II. Burdens not blessings? Behold your Barrenness!
13 ‘What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts…. 21 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2 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. 3 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. 4 So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. 5 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, the children would surely suffer many curses. And while priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father”!
And here in our times is the warning of God that the sins and omissions of the 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, irreverent, and even guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. Far too many priests and religious have also left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.
All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some have been left 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 and, as the text says, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of God’s name.
As such, the flock is often cursed 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 text from Zechariah,Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of the priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray especially for them. For indeed 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 and soft notions that the Gospel is too “burdensome” for the faithful to live, and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful.
This leads to the third sin of the priests that is mentioned by Malachi.
III. Sacerdotal Silence
6 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. 7 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. 8 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, 9 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 common in the Church today. Some priests prefer to “play it safe,” fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Other priests do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others, as the text says, have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent. As such, the text further says, they cause many to stumble by preaching corruption.
It is tragic as well that so many are permitted to mislead the faithful and are not 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 and should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in the balance of others truths in the Scripture and in Tradition. St. Paul says of a presbyter (a priest), 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 picks and chooses what truths he will teach or emphasize. 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.
Malachi rebukes the priests of his day for their partial preaching and, sadly, some of these rebukes must still be made. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them and 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 doesn’t always bring cheers. But even the prophets need support from the 7000 who have still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf1 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 that the world also has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these texts remind us, too easily priests can lose their way; forgetting the glory of the liturgies they celebrate; referring to their office and the gospel as burdensome; and growing too silent out of either fear or laziness.
Pray for priests!
In tomorrow’s post, I will discuss the sins of the faithful, as listed in the Book of Malachi.
This Past Sunday I celebrated my 50th Birthday and of all the gifts I received, I must say I got the best from the Lord who delivered it in a “strange package.”
It began the day before as I arose and realized with some dread that I had surely over-committed myself. As I looked at my calendar I saw that I had scheduled four Masses and luncheon meeting. “How could I be so crazy!” I told myself as I prayed in the groggy early morning. The Lord remained quiet but I sensed he was smiling just a bit.
The first Mass was at 8:00am and was the most straight forward. It was a very pleasant Mass with the Sisters in the Convent. I offered it for the repose of my Mother. When she was alive I always bought her flowers on my birthday, since I figured she did all the work, and I just showed up. If anyone deserved a gift she did. Now that she has departed this life, my gift to her is Mass for her happy repose. A nice but brief breakfast followed with the sisters. They are always so kind to me. And so here was the first of the six sacraments I would celebrate that day: Holy Eucharist.
The second Mass was at 10:00 am, a solemn high Latin Nuptial Mass for a wonderful young couple from Africa, both of them studying medicine here in the States. God be praised, it was a beautiful Mass, with all the ceremony and splendor that the Traditional Latin Mass offers. But it was a workout, coming in at an hour and a half. And here was the second of six sacraments I would celebrate that day, Holy Matrimony along with Holy Eucharist, again.
A luncheon followed with parish leaders at noon. Here too, a wonderful occasion. I have so many wonderful leaders. God be praised. They surprised me with a birthday cake and three different versions of Happy Birthday.
By now I felt a nap coming on, but no time for that….I have miles to go before I sleep.
The third Mass was at 2pm. It was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation for woman who had been delayed for over two years while “canonical issues” were resolved. At long last she had her green light, and there was no way I was going to make her wait until next Easter. With her family in the Chapel we celebrated big time with Mass wherein she received her Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist AND had her marriage validated! Wow, God is good. She’d had a long wait, and was so patient. It was so satisfying to finally see her through. And here were the third and fourth of the six sacraments I would celebrate that day: Baptism and Confirmation, along with Holy Matrimony and Holy Eucharistic, again, and again.
It’s 4:00pm now. Time to go hear confessions in Church. And here was the fifth sacrament I would celebrate that day: Confession.
At 4:30pm Mass # 4 and Holy Eucharist again, Mass number four!
6:00 pm – Time to chill. “Lord you really made me work this weekend. That’s a strange thing to do to me on my birthday weekend!” There’s that silent smile of the Lord again. What’s he up to? Sure enough: the phone rings. Hospital call! And not even nearby. I am mindful of the words of Mother Teresa who said that the Lord told her he’d never give her more than she could take. She only wished that the Lord didn’t trust her so much! Off to anoint the critically ill. And thus the sixth sacrament I celebrated: Anointing of the Sick
Well, there you have it. My gift in a “strange package,” a sacramental six-pack, every sacrament I can possibly celebrate. It was a bone-crusher of a day but God is so good. I don’t suppose a priest could have any better gift that to be reminded so powerfully of his purpose on the eve of his 50th birthday.
But God knows me well enough to realize that he had to send a prophet to decode it all for me, just to make sure I got it. It came on Sunday afternoon, the evening of my birthday. Two of the Sisters came from the Convent presented me with a cake and sang happy birthday.
Innocently they asked me how my birthday weekend had gone. “Do you have a few minutes Sisters?” I said. And I told them the whole story.
One of them looked at me and said, “Do you see what God was saying to you on your 50th birthday? He was saying, ‘This is why I created you.'”
Yes, that is what he was saying alright. And it was the best gift I could have received.
I am preparing some notes for a Retreat for Priests that I will be preaching this summer. And one of the Key texts I will be using is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor, exhorting others who have pastoral roles in the Church. Lets take a look at this text and apply its wisdom to Bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.
Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem summons the presbyters (priests) of the early Church at Ephesus. Paul has ministered there for three years, and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular. He preached it all. To these early priests Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at excerpts from this final exhortation. First the text them some commentary:
From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me…., and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus…..But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem……“But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God….. (Acts 20:1-38 selected)
Here then is the prescription for every Bishop, every priest and deacon, every catechist, parent and Catholic: that we should preach the whole counsel (the entire plan of God). It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us or makes sense to us or fits in our worldview. There are some who love the Lord’s sermons on love, but cannot abide his teachings on death, judgment, heaven and hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony, but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point to His compassion, but neglect his call to repentance. Some love the way he dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day, but become suddenly deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our neighbor, enemy and spouse. Some love to focus inwardly and debate over doctrine, but the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19) is neglected.
In the Church today, as a whole, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: Life issues here, social justice over there; strong moral preaching over here, compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”
And yet somewhere we must be able to say with St. Paul that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it must also be true for parents and all who attain to any leadership in the Church. All of the issues above are important and must have their proper place in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, clergy and lay. While we may have gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. It is true, we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, but within doctrine’s protective walls, it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.
And if we do this we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God, (not just your favorite passages and politically correct and “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t just offend the elite and powerful. Even his own disciples puzzled over his teachings on divorce saying “If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry!” (Matt 19). Regarding the Eucharist, many left him and would no longer walk in his company (John 6). In speaking of his divine origins many took up stones to stone him, but he passed through their midst (Jn 8). In addition he spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving your enemy and preferring nothing to him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we must learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.
As a priest I have sadly had to bid farewell to congregations, and this farewell speech of Paul is a critical passage whereby I examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult stuff? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God, or just the safe stuff?
How about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are clergy when you move on…..if you are a parent when your child leaves for college…..if you are a Catechist when the children are ready to be confirmed or have reached college age…..If you teach in RCIA and the time comes for sacraments……Can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death, (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul is able to say he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them for he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. How about us?
The whole counsel of God; not just the safe stuff, the popular stuff, not just the stuff that agrees with my politics and those of my friends. The whole counsel, even the difficult stuff, the ridiculed things. The Whole Counsel of God.
This video contains the warning to the watchmen (us) in Ezekiel 3. Watch it if you dare.
At the Bottom of this post is an encouraging excerpt taken from a video, The Catholic Priest Today, produced by the Cresta Group. In it we are reminded once again of the resiliency of the Church, and that the Holy Spirit can make a way out of no way.
From a worldly perspective one would expect vocations to the priesthood to take a real hit in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. Yet in many, if not most dioceses, vocations are up, or at least steady. One of the seminarians in the film clip says, “I want to get close to our Lord, I want to pray, I want to help other people get close to Christ and I’m not going to let the scandal that’s been perpetrated by an another generation worry me, I’m part of the solution, I’m not a part of the problem.” Well, said.
Here in Washington our vocations are strong. Many fine men are coming to us to discern a vocation to the priesthood. We are opening a pre-theologate house of formation, since our numbers are strong and we expect them to continue to be so, even to grow. God the Holy Spirit is up to something good. Some of our men come to us straight from college, others have had a career path of some years.
I have remarked before how pleased I am with the caliber of the seminarians I meet. They love the Church, have a strong and manly devotion to our Lord and our Lady, and deeply desire to preach the Gospel with courage and without compromise. They are committed to and well immersed in the teachings of the Church and seem keenly aware of the cultural obstacles that must be addressed. Many of them too, have experienced first hand the necessity of speaking the faith with clarity to a world that increasingly finds belief in God untenable.
I have also seen a wonderful turnaround in our seminaries. I have shared before how problematic things were when I was studying back in the early 1980s. But here too, great reform has been effected, stemming largely from the Vatican Visitations conducted some years ago. But reform has also come, quite frankly, from the students themselves and from the ranks of newer teachers who have entered the system. There is an increasing thirst and insistence on solid, authentic Catholic teaching, and sound liturgical practice.
Yes, God is raising up, a whole new generation of priests. He is purifying, and invigorating a whole new generation of priests. I am mindful of the 132nd Psalm which says of Israel and the Church:
I will clothe her priests with salvation and her faithful shall ring out their joy. There David’s stock will flower; I will prepare a lamp for my anointed. I will cover his enemies with shame but on him my crown shall shine. (Psalm 132:15-17)
Truly our enemy, Satan, has sought to rejoice over a destruction of the priesthood. But it would seem God has other plans!
All this said, continue to pray. Remember that Satan hates priests in a particular way. For if the shepherd is struck, the sheep are more easily scattered. Priests, indeed the whole priesthood, is under consistent attack by Satan. Surround your priests with prayer. Ask the Lord to put a hedge of protection around them.
When I was first ordained, my mother looked at me with concern and said, “Satan wants you, to destroy you. But I am praying for you. And when you feel tempted, remember, I am praying for you.” She most concerned about the effect that the young ladies would have over me. I recall feeling a little embarrassed by what she said, and I replied, “Aw mom, don’t worry about me, I’m not even all that handsome.” But I could tell she was serious and she said again, “Remember.” And praise God, I have always felt the protection of those prayers and been faithfully celibate. And though I am far from sinless in other areas, I have never felt any crisis related to my vocation. Even now that she is gone on to God, I know those prayers continue and I feel their effects.
I know and experience too the prayers of my parishioners. Every morning some of faithful women in the parish do a morning conference call and pray together. And they tell me that they pray for me every morning. Yes, I am the result of prayer. And I ask of God that I too will always be part of the solution, not the problem in the priesthood.
So even as we give thanks to the Lord for the way he is raising up new and faithful vocations to the priesthood and religious life, remember to pray. Satan cannot be happy, he’s taken his best shot at the priesthood and here we still are. But pray! He’s surely not done, and every priest you know is under special attack. So pray, and to quote my mother, “Remember!”
Photo Above: Me in my seminary days, being designated acolyte. My mother is in the (blurry) background looking on, next to my father.
This video clip is taken from The Catholic Priest Today, sponsored by the Midwest Theological Forum, and produced by the Cresta Group. For more Visit Here.