There's more to it than meets the eye.
National Vocation Awareness Week. As stated on the USCCB website, it is a week dedicated “to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.”
It’s no secret that the best catalyst for vocations is the personal holiness of those who have already embraced the call. Young men are attracted to the priesthood first and foremost by the holiness of the priests they have known — a fact borne out in just about every vocation story.
Which leads me to share a few thoughts on the whole question of priestly holiness.
In the final moment of the rite of priestly ordination, at the presentation of the gifts to the altar, the bishop in turn presents the newly ordained priest with the paten and chalice. The bishop entreats him: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
In other words, once upon a time in our lives we priests made a commitment to pursue genuine holiness of life, and strive — amidst our own struggles and sinfulness — to remain faithful to that commitment through a life of on-going conversion, a life that would ordinarily include daily personal prayer time, frequent confession, Eucharistic and Marian devotion, an annual retreat, and regular spiritual direction — to model our lives on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.
I believe the reality of sexual abuse by a small percentage of Catholic priests in recent decades, and the harm wreaked upon the lives of so many innocent Catholic men and women, has become a constant motivation toward greater personal holiness in the present generations of Catholic priests.
But how would an average Catholic recognize genuine priestly holiness? By what standards could we assess it?
To the external observer, we may or may not fit the often superficial, pietistic criteria of “holiness” at play in the minds of some. To be sure, the genuine holiness of priests is normally not measured by the categories that are available to superficial observation. Add up all the observable elements you want: “Father is such a good preacher,” “Father is so reverent at the altar,” “Father visited my dad in the hospital and got him to got to confession,” “Father is so dedicated to the homeless shelter,” “Father celebrates the Latin mass,” “Father wears the cassock on Sundays” and so on. It does not necessarily follow from such a list that “Father is a holy priest.” These externals may or may not be confirmations of genuine holiness of life because, again, that holiness is really determined by elements that oftentimes elude the common categories by which certain individuals evaluate their priests.
The patent message of both Old and New Testaments is that personal holiness is nothing other than fidelity to Yahweh. Personal holiness means to possess a growing and lived affinity with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in docility to his Word, and to the promptings of his grace. And as the Catechism notes, “charity is the soul of the holiness to which all are called.”
The Catechism further elucidates the nature of holiness among the people of God when it reiterates two central assertions made in the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: there is genuine sanctity to be found already among the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, who are also, in turn, all called — universally — to holiness:
The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect” [LG, 48.3]. In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: “Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state — though each in his own way — are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect [LG, 11.3].
The Catholic who, by God’s grace, strives earnestly to live in that genuine interior freedom we call the "state of grace," that is, a life characterized by the absence of deliberate concessions to mortal sin — this Catholic is, indeed, holy, in a real albeit imperfect (not yet complete) way. We might call such a state a first degree of holiness, even if characterized by struggles, and by plenty of deliberate falls in matters less serious. Such a person might not “seem” holy according to certain pietistic standards, but there is genuine sanctity present in such a person nonetheless, in possession as they are of the necessary foundation on which greater personal sanctity can be built.
The same applies to the priest. So, we really can’t speak of genuine holiness in a priest who habitually and callously exposes himself to moral hazards, rationalizing behavior, allowing his conscience to become clouded, and conceding to what he knows to be gravely disordered behaviors, particularly in matters of chastity, and in behaviors that — given one’s own peculiar temperament and struggles — could quickly become addictive.
That being said, one can also think of many priests who have been down this road, but have repented: who today expiate the errors of their past adhering to a twelve-step program to overcome an addiction; who with genuine humility have perhaps spent time in a recovery facility; men who regularly approach the sacrament of penance; who capitalize on their own experience of weakness to counsel, guide and encourage others in similar struggles.
Again, according to certain pietistic standards, such priests might not “seem” very holy — which is just to evince the superficiality of such standards. The priest who struggles mightily with his own foibles, who perhaps struggles day in and day out with the gnawing incitation of the addictive behavior he has renounced, who repents, who has regular recourse to Penance, who prays as best he can, who bears all of this for love of God and for love of the people of God, who bears all of this with genuine humility — this is a truly holy priest.
Indeed, one can’t insist enough that the biggest indicators of priestly holiness of life boil down to a few things that often escape external observation: Is this man genuinely humble? Does he live with profound interior detachment from himself, from others, from what he has, and from what he does? Does this man pray? Does this priest have a vibrant commitment to seek intimate union with Jesus Christ every day through a personal prayer time (for example, by means of a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament as many good — and holy — priests do each day)?
The priest cannot give what he does not have. A priest who is empty of Jesus interiorly will inevitably end up offering the faithful, not Jesus, but simply himself. His interiority will be filled not with light, inspiration, growing virtue, patience and pastoral vibrancy, but with what Thomas Merton so aptly described as the “warm darkness” of one’s own sensible nature.
Tragically, not a few priests end up there — in the muck of self-absorption, cynical, living in spiritual mediocrity, their personal covenantal relationship with Jesus in tatters. And this constitutes a great suffering for the entire Mystical Body of Christ.
While many priests in this sad condition can and do manage to reach retirement in such a state, I believe that more fall to the wayside. For most, perseverance in the priesthood in such an interior state is hardly tenable.
That’s why another less than obvious indicator of personal holiness in a priest is his endurance and perseverance in active ministry, especially when this has entailed years of all kinds of adversity — internal and external. I am speaking here of long years of frequent, hard, gritty — and often unseen and unnoticed — acts of virtue: endless acts of keeping one’s composure, holding one’s tongue, sustaining positive thoughts, giving the world a pleasant semblance and a smiling face while interiorly traversing untold turmoil, the on-going exercise of patience, giving the benefit of the doubt, forgiving, gritting one’s teeth and just bearing it again and again. This is especially true of my brother priests, (and they are the majority) who have lived and will live out their priesthood in parish ministry.
At this often-overlooked level of the priest’s life, the grace of ordination bears fruit again and again, and the careful observer can discover the vibrant presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Consistency and integrity of priestly life, enduring over years and years — here we have a true indicator of a rather profound degree of personal holiness, of the action of grace and an intense relationship with our Lord.
What I have described here is what I see and sense in so many of my brother priests. Truly, the Church is blessed with a majority of priests (and bishops) who are genuinely striving for holiness of life, striving to model their lives on the mystery of the Lord’s cross. Certainly, we have our shortcomings, and failures and quirks. But last time I checked, so did just about every saint. And by God’s grace, our example, and the shining example of holiness of countless committed Catholics will draw countless others to the irresistible beauty of Jesus, and to the total commitment of priestly, religious and consecrated life.
Rev. Thomas Berg is Professor of Moral Theology and Director of Admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, NY. This article originally appeared on his blog.