A look at 'The Grace to Be a Priest' by Father Romanus Cessario
“Priests beget saints,” Father Romanus Cessario, O.P., writes in his new book, The Grace to Be a Priest. And saints, he explains, “show us the way.” That is, the way of Jesus Christ, the Beatitudinal way. No theological training or religious faith is necessary to know these are desirables in the world today. Saints, and thus, priests who beget them, are urgently needed.
In The Grace to Be a Priest, Fr. Cessario, a Dominican on the faculty of St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Boston who has spent over two decades now in seminary formation, presents the priesthood as the beautiful mystery of God’s grace that it is. “No man, properly speaking,” he writes, “approaches priestly ordination solely on account of his personal initiative, his heroic dedication, or even his deliberative choice.” He quotes St. John Paul II: “At the deepest level, every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery, it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual.”
The “Church and her priests belong to God and one must believe that God will not abandon them,” he writes, noting some of the obvious “troubles” of recent decades – with include both deficiencies in formation and teaching as well as mismanagement and scandal. The Grace to Be a Priest isn’t about recounting those, but exists to be a “help” to “Catholic priests and those who love priests to ponder properly the grace that these consecrated men have received and its implications for their lives.”
While directed to and concentrated on the life of the priest, some of Fr. Cessario’s emphases would be of wise benefit to anyone of every vocation in the Church, particularly his focus on the centrality of grace and “Marian devotion,” which “distinguishes those whom God advances from virtue to virtue, from grace to grace, and from light to light” and the reminder that “God bestows his grace” on us. Also: “Grace realizes our human potential; it does not diminish our freedom.” Thus, submitting to God’s will for us is of primary importance for moving forward in the life of grace, which is that joy that seems so elusive if not downright impossible to so many searchers in the world today. The Grace to Be a Priest is of crucial import, in particular, to the priest — and others, to some extent — who is feeling restless, lonely, desperate, or afraid about his vocational commitments. God called you and provides. Be at peace and trust in Him.
Fr. Cessario emphasizes gratitude, for both the priest and the entire Body of Christ: “Priests should develop the practice of thanking the Lord for their having received the grace to be a priest. The character of Holy Orders that qualifies the souls of priests opens like a rose toward full bloom. The grateful priest shows himself ready to become more of what he already has received by virtue of his priestly ordination.” He adds: “The Christian people should also give thanks to God for the priests who serve them. Aquinas cites Saint Paul as grounds for encouraging such a prayer of thanksgiving: ‘so that thanks may be given by many on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many (2 Cor. 1:11).’”
But Fr. Cessario also warns: “Some priests consider themselves high-end special workers. When the priesthood becomes a profession, albeit one that requires a modicum of dedication or, at least, of good will, then people think exclusively of the Church as the last outpost for a fallen humanity.” One of the key problems with that, is the practical reality we’ve seen at presidential and Supreme Court levels in recent years where “the secular state increasingly disallows religious solutions to social problems.” The priestly identity is not about problem solving.
“The Catholic priest,” he writes, “comes forth as a bridegroom,” to his bride, the Church. “While being a bridegroom does not exclude enabling relief services for those in temporal need, spousal love commits the Catholic priest to serve others so they arrive in heaven.” Further, he cautions priests against focusing on “performance,” when exercising the spiritual power of his consecration is where their hearts must be; any priest honestly reflecting on deathbed Confessions and family members who have experienced such merciful graces can find such moments transformational, including in terms of priorities. The priest gives “himself over to those means that the Church has established as sanctifying means,” Fr. Cessario writes. “The priest comes as another Christ, who ‘humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8).” May it only ever be so.
We need good priests. And in The Grace to Be a Priest, Fr. Cessario issues a few stark warnings and hopeful solutions. “Sluggishness about moral rectitude leaves a man without authentic desire for Eternal Wisdom,” he writes. “People who do not pray lack holy desires. They should try pleading with God.” He explains, too, how “Truth can shape desire.” And how “[p]riests can tutor the desires of their people. The intelligible truths of the faith require presentation … Once presented authentically, these truths draw … Rightly instructed religious desires lead to the Apostles’ Creed and the spiritual goods that this prayer exposes. So the priest who prays faithfully discovers that his prayer shapes his existences, his desires, and his passions.”
In many ways, Fr. Cessario’s The Grace to Be a Priest is a love letter of gratitude to the God who continues to give him the grace to be a priest and a witness to the universal Church and every baptized Catholic and ordained priest of Jesus Christ that the priesthood is to be celebrated and prayed for, because in its full bloom, it is exactly what we need at trying times such as these. We all could well-afford to share in his thanksgiving as both gratitude and a plea for more holy priests who ever grow in holiness, bringing God’s people – and even the whole world – along with them.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute where she directs The Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society, and editor-at-large of National Review magazine.