A few words for our newly ordained, and for the rest of us in the hard work we're given to do.
“I am scared and feel deeply inadequate for the task,” wrote my former student, a young man awaiting priestly ordination. I found his worries kind of charming, and reassuring. Having taught at a Protestant seminary with some very talented but very confident graduates, I wished more of them had gone into their ministries with the same hesitation. Pride precedes a fall, as Proverbs tells us (twice), and some had fallen a long way.
I offered my friend what advice I could, as a layman. Looking back, I think the advice applies to all of us when we begin a hard work we’re given to do. Marriage, for example, or parenting, or teaching CCD or RCIA if you’ve never taught adults, or talking to people about the Faith if you don’t like risking confrontation, or being a friend to the friendless if you’re shy. We may all find ourselves being young at something we have to do, no matter how old we are.
Just do what you know, I told my friend. That way, you won’t look silly pretending to be something you’re not. You will look like someone who offers what he has without pretending to have more, and people like that kind of honesty and transparency. Keep working to learn more. People appreciate someone who knows he doesn’t know enough and cares enough to practice. They’ll forgive the man who thinks himself a student and who studies to serve his people, though he has to pass.
A job for supermen
The priesthood is a special calling, though. My anxious young friend had reason to worry. It’s a job for supermen, I told him, and most men aren’t super. Fortunately God in His wisdom gave us priests whose mediatorial role is primarily a by-the-book affair. He has the missal to guide him in celebrating the Mass, for example, and a form for hearing confessions. The Church has a system by which the least adequate of men may learn to serve her as priests, if they are called and if they are obedient.
We are not left, as are our Baptist friends, to depend upon the personal gifts of our ministers. If they have a bad preacher, the central purpose of the service is lost. If we have a bad preacher, that priest still brings us Christ in His Body and Blood. All he has to do is read the black and do the red, as the saying goes. God knew what he was doing when he designed the priesthood.
I told my student to trust the people who’d picked him and just put on the uniform and do the job. He has a job description and a manual. The routine is set and the tools are ready. The old guys are around to help. He should get better with practice, of course, but he would start out good enough.
He worried too much that his parishioners would think him young and ignorant, I continued. Some will, because people are people. But most just want their priest to be a good priest.
From the layman’s point of view, having a young priest is a bit like riding with a new driver who’s agreed to take you some place no one else would. You don’t mind his driving slowly and looking both ways several times at every stop sign. You don’t object when he stays in the right lane on the highway even when he’s behind an even slower moving car. You’re grateful that he does.
A simple job
The basic job is a simple and straightforward one. The driver has to drive the car along a set route, following the laws of the road, taking obvious precautions. He’s not being asked to race a powerful F-1 racing car through the tight narrow streets of a medieval city in a Grand Prix race. He’s being asked to run you over to the next town.
And (to extend the analogy) you may find the new driver’s conversation interesting, especially if he has an enthusiasm for the places through which he’s driving you, or even an enthusiasm for driving by itself. He might offer you pleasures the better driver would not, partly because he is new to driving people around.
The average parishioner wants priests who love God and love them and love what they’re doing, and they’ll forgive a lot of someone who does all this. He may be young and green, and as awkward as a basset puppy, and go through life with that deer-in-the-headlights look, but they’ll accept him if he does what he’s supposed to as well as he can, and does it for them.