Practices of Priesthood

I have been quite fortunate in my twenty-three years of priesthood to have known some superb role models of priestly life and sacerdotal zeal; unsurprisingly, most of them are older than I am, but in fact a few of them are younger. And the lessons I have learned from them in terms of pastoral fruitfulness can, I think, be boiled down to four simple—stunningly simple—principles. Now I say “fruitfulness” rather than “success” not merely out of deference to Blessed Mother Teresa, whose advice was, quite similarly, “worry about being faithful, not successful,” but also because the language of success carries the baggage of a secular business model and I am not entirely persuaded that the Church at all benefits, least of all unwittingly, from shaping its life around the corporate paradigm; a crucifix is not, after all, an image of efficiency, productivity, or success.

What are these four stunningly simple principles of pastoral fruitfulness? In short: Show Up, Smile, Work Hard, and Be Nice to People. Of course these lessons could be offered by almost any personal trainer or late-night infomercial, by Oprah Winfrey or even posted on a blog by some cyber-guru, clerical or otherwise. But of course the context I am concerned with is quite specific, and at once liturgical, pastoral, and sacramental, and so these four principles have a very particular meaning in the life of one who is ordained to the service of the Body of Christ and so configured sacramentally to him who is Head of that Body.

It goes without saying that you have been called to the sacred ministry in the Church in service to the royal priesthood of the baptized. In the economy of grace, there is no gift, grace, or vocation bestowed which is given solely or even primarily for the benefit of the recipient. Remember that. Your ordination to the priesthood is not the terminus of your own spiritual Aeneid. It’s actually not yours at all. Quite the contrary, by it, God opens you up and as it were capacitates you, precisely by configuring you to his Son, for a radical and generous self-donation on behalf of his holy people. The priesthood is given to you, but for them. You are now betrothed to them, and every grace given you is granted, directly or indirectly, for them: for their life, for their souls, for their sanctification. Your own sanctification will come precisely by sanctifying them, and this means that you will always have to battle the temptation to self-referentiality, and resist the urge to place your priestly life (whether in its graces or its struggles) at the center. All of us, ordained or not, have the tendency to make our spiritual life the center of our spiritual life, thus displacing the One who belongs there. Jesus belongs there. He is the center; and our priesthood only makes sense through him and with him and in him. And it’s his Body for which you are laying down your life, and for whom each day you will make his words, your words: “For this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” Remember that we are ordained to act in persona Christi capitis; the capitis, often omitted in theological jargon, is essential to this. The capitis defines the nature of our relationship to the people we serve; and lest we let this share in Christ’s Headship go to our own head, recall what Paul teaches about the husband as “head” of his wife—he’s to love her as Christ loves, which means by dying; it’s not about power; it’s about paschal love, what the New Testament calls agape. This spousal orientation or disposition is, for the diocesan priest, absolutely imperative. It is the foundation and ratio of, among other things, fidelity to the Divine Office and to the pastoral responsibilities entrusted to us. This spousal disposition is the condition of possibility for a pastoral fruitfulness and a sacerdotal vitality which derive from the order of grace.

Number One: Show up.

There are, in the pastoral ministry biz, numerous articles and books on the “ministry of presence.” Of course this means more than occasionally being seen in the vicinity of those we serve. It means engagement, relationship, and commitment. It means, in words we hear again and again during the Easter season, that “we are [to be] witnesses of these things”—“these things” for us means the new life in Christ to which God’s people are called and into which we are to lead them. It means discovering the joys, the needs, and perhaps most poignantly, the sufferings of the people we are called to shepherd. This may sound quite obvious but I am often surprised by the number of clerics who presume that the people of God will be as dazzled and charmed by their priesthood as they are themselves by it, or who arrive on the scene with an entire theological and pastoral agenda to be imposed, usually in the first three weeks, upon God’s often longsuffering people. In this regard many newly minted clerics feel compelled to cram their entire theological agenda into every homily. Please don’t do that; I say this because I myself learned it the hard way. Take time to prepare good homilies, words that will help draw folks more deeply into the Mystery. Never forget that good preachers preach first to themselves (as I am doing tonight!), and this will prevent what might be called a homiletic chasm from developing between you and your people; after all, we are all of us viatores, wayfarers in this age, and we ourselves are by no means exempt from struggle, doubt, and sin. As we build genuine relationships with the people we serve, our preaching will become better and better because we will not be waxing eloquent in abstractions but will be able to speak directly to the people we have come to know: cor ad cor loquitur, to use Blessed John Henry Newman’s motto; your heart will speak to their heart, but only if you have first listened attentively to theirs.

 If we are genuinely invested in the parish or place we serve, it will not take long for the people to recognize that commitment, and their trust in us will grow; after all, they see we are genuinely invested in them. And our capacity to lead them as good shepherds will increase proportionally; they may disagree in fact with a decision we may make, but at the end of the day they will follow us because they have come to trust us. That will not happen quickly and that cannot happen at all when our ministry is pro forma, or simply 9 to 5, or mailed in, or selective, or when, as absentee landlords, we desire the fealty and benefit of those we lead, but from whom we remain remote, aloof, or disengaged.

Number Two: Smile.

At the very end of the fourth century a rather disenchanted deacon from Carthage named Deogratias wrote to Augustine lamenting his own belabored and beleaguered experience of teaching, and wanting from Augustine pointers on how and what to preach. The fruit of this request is the De catechizandis rudibus, a helpful little book not least because it reminds those of us who are entrusted with preaching that it’s not merely about imparting information or even conveying a message; it’s about drawing souls into a living history and that the heart of the faith isn’t an idea, but a Person and a salvific encounter into which we are drawn and participate by sacrament. A millennium before Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that the medium is the message, Augustine was advising Deogratias that his preaching should be animated by hilaritas. What he did not mean was that he should start every homily with a joke, much less that he should trundle about chortling or being back-slappingly giddy, but that he should be animated by a cheerfulness, his manner infused with a kind of levity, akin to that fruit of the Spirit, joy, which communicates a delight in the things of God. Now, this is possible only for those who are dispossessed of themselves, who don’t consider themselves the center of the cosmic drama, and who recognize that it’s about Jesus, and not themselves. Happy priests are priests whose affective life is balanced, whose spiritual life is solid, and who are thus both approachable and capable of leading others to God. The last thing the Holy Roman Church needs is glum, disaffected, or whiney priests. Vocations to the priesthood will blossom in parishes and schools where the people of God encounter priests who are vital, joyful, and whose love for the Lord is communicated as much by their bearing as by their words. Augustine, who has lots to say about lots of stuff, knew that even if one is not the best preacher, the joy with which one lives and moves and preaches and prays will itself communicate the heart of the Gospel: the humble love of God, made flesh, embodied, in the face of human pride.

Number Three: Work Hard.

Leo Aloysius Pursley, Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend from the late 1950s until the mid 70s, was noted for having said, while chomping on a cigar, “Gentlemen, priesthood is the only life I know in which a man can retire at the age of thirty. And some have.” Now, over-commitment is the frequent vice of the newly ordained, and it’s quite understandable; a new priest should be absolutely rife with enthusiasm for the work entrusted to him. But I can also think of priests (I suppose we all can) for whom that first fervor has long waned, and who now, sadly, spend their days studiously avoiding pastoral work, browsing the internet, watching The Price is Right, golfing three or four times a week, and who at the same time have their flock utterly convinced that “Father is so busy.” Such priests will rust out long before they burn out. Don’t be that guy. Hit the ground running. God’s People need you. And they deserve the best from you. Your vitality and energy will also inspire older priests like myself, who am always edified by the zeal of seminarians and of the newly ordained.

One of the great keys to genuine pastoral effectiveness is managing your time well, and learning now how to keep a calendar and to balance multiple and often competing commitments. In a smaller diocese like my own, most of us priests have at least two jobs; I think I work hard. But I can honestly say I’ve never been overworked. It’s not virtue as much as being borderline OCD; I keep my calendar—not my secretaries—and I carefully manage my own time.

Further, and lamentably, for many of us, when things do become harried, the first place we often look to cut corners is in prayer. Again, don’t be that guy. Our pastoral fruitfulness is tied absolutely to our personal prayer. And by that I mean more than just fulfilling our obligation to the Office, which I would note, we promise to pray, not primarily for ourselves, but for the Church and the world—that is, honoring that promise is about honoring our commitment to our spouse. When a priest says to me, “I struggle praying the Office,” my reply is to ask him what he would tell his parishioner who says that they are struggling to be faithful to their spouse. But our prayer needs to be more than just Office; the psalter should be the foundation, but hardly the pinnacle or sum-total of our personal prayer. As Eugene Boylan, the great Irish Cistercian noted, there really can be no personal prayer without ongoing spiritual reading, which provides the fodder, so to speak, for that prayer. So in managing your time, make spiritual reading and personal prayer an absolute priority (even if it means praying at odd or unusual times due to pastoral exigencies).

Remember that what is distinctive about priestly ministry is the sacraments. Almost anyone can be an administrator; sacred orders aren’t required and it is debatable whether the grace of orders adds anything to that skill set anyway. Often we are asked to teach (whether in schools, adult faith formation, RCIA, CCD, or some other context). But such teaching is not distinctive of priestly ministry, and some may or may not have that gift. Social Justice is indeed part and parcel of the Gospel, but social action and advocacy are not what is distinctive of Holy Orders. No, what makes the priestly vocation distinctive is sacramental ministry. It’s the most important thing we have to offer to God’s People. So build your own life around that ministry. Be faithful in offering the Mass; remember that it is not our private devotion, it does not belong to us, and that we are mere stewards of the Mysteries of God. Be a generous and gentle confessor. Make the sacrament available. If you build it, they will come. In any number of places it is no wonder we have seen a decline in the number of Catholics who make use of the sacrament: a parish of 2000 families which offers Confession for thirty minutes on a Saturday (and, of course, by appointment) is a self-fulfilling prophet of that very decline. Be generous in visiting the sick and offering the sacraments to them. Finally, remember that “programs” in parish life are valuable, but not central—all catechesis, all preaching, all “programming” should lead people to the sacraments, and most especially the Eucharist, the faithful celebration of which, the Church assures us, is singularly the most effective thing that we do.

And as you begin your priestly ministry, beware from the start of the great bane of clerical life: resentment. As you work hard, you will discover others who simply don’t, or who seem to be rewarded for bad behavior, or who, because they are not heavy lifters, are simply not asked to do more. It is a cardinal principle of the clerical life that the harder you work, the more work will be given to you (a clear corollary to an evangelical logion). Further, it is an occupational hazard of celibates to seek affirmation, and there are many times others will be acknowledged or recognized long before you are; and as priests, we can easily personalize it when we seem not to be noticed, and this only kindles resentment. But that resentment is diabolical, and can destroy the priestly heart and the pastoral charity which is its very life beat. Fight against that with all your might, and ask the great Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, to intercede for you each day.

Finally. . .

Number Four: Be Nice to People.

If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that, from the get-go, you will be surrounded, sometimes swamped, by people. Some of them very gracious and polite, others needy of attention, others combative or whiney, many others the silent majority who go about their lives never wanting to “bother Father,” and who are content to come to Mass say, every Saturday evening of their life, and who have never, or hardly ever, actually spoken to a priest; these are the ones who will send you a card and a check at Christmas and leave you wondering “Who are they?”. And we are ordained to serve all of them. Not just the ones we like, or whose company we enjoy, or who flatter us. I am also convinced from my study of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, that one variant reading which was not accurately recorded in the apparatus is Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there will be a problem.” Life in community, as you have no doubt experienced during your years here on Lake Street, if not before, is always a school of charity and patience. This was true in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is no less true today. This is largely because original sin, at work in our members, is always encouraging self-promotion and self-assertion. “Community” in any of its forms cramps and impinges on this unreflective and unrelenting impulse lurking in all the fallen, and we thus see others as objects, obstacles, or competitors. Bishop Robert Barron, who went from Word on Fire in Chicago to Southern California where the prolonged drought threatens to make it Word on Wildfire, describes the triune life of God as one of “non-competitive co-inherence.” And while such language is not likely to stoke in us the fires of a mystical eros, it is nonetheless that very triune life which we are made to share by grace, and into which we are called to lead God’s People by sacrament.

In this regard, learn peoples’ names. It means the world to folks if you shake their hand leaving Mass and can say “Have a great week, Sharon,” or “Jack, best to you and your family.” Even better if you come to know them: “Bill, how’s your wife doing after her surgery?” Or “Sarah, congratulations on the soccer championship!” It’s also worth reading the local paper carefully. When you see a parishioner—young or old—honored or noted, cut it out and drop them a note in the mail. The ten or so minutes a day it takes to dash off a couple quick handwritten notes is worth the effort. It communicates love and commitment.

There will no doubt be some among God’s people who will tax your energies and your patience. Needy or whiney, angry at one of the teachers in the grade school, hurt that their annulment wasn’t granted, unhappy with the music at the 11am Mass; the list goes on. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, I am speaking first to myself. I continually have to remind myself that the Lord offered his life for these people, even the ones who may annoy me terribly, and that I am to love them as he loves them, and with the love with which he loves them. And there’s the secret, perhaps the secret of the Kingdom. Even my love isn’t my own. It’s first his; given to me, and not just for me, but through me, for them.

I am not a canon lawyer. Two of my best priest-friends are canonists, and I often joke with them that, given my own academic field, I consider Canon Law to be a modern innovation introduced by Gratian in the middle of the twelfth century. But in some ways, the last Canon in the current Code encapsulates the telos of our vocation as priests: the supreme law of the Church is the salus animarum. Our role in this has traditionally been called the cura animarum: the care of souls. Now, it’s often not glitzy or exciting, but it is, or can be, deeply graced, as the frail young priest of Ambricourt discovers in Bernanos’ novel; and much of what we do is to plant seeds that, in the economy of Divine Providence, others will reap. Like that Curé, we are to discover that, in the face of our own weakness, tout est grâce, everything is grace.

I continually have to remind myself that the Lord offered his life for these people, even the ones who may annoy me terribly, and that I am to love them as he loves them, and with the love with which he loves them. And there’s the secret, perhaps the secret of the Kingdom. Even my love isn’t my own. It’s first his; given to me, and not just for me, but through me, for them.

The four principles I have enumerated are in one sense not only simple, but rather mundane and quite natural. But remember that it is precisely nature, our humanity, which serves as the palette on which, in which, and through which divine grace acts. As in the mystery of the Incarnation, the human nature assumed by the divine Logos becomes the vehicle, the instrument through which and in which we can gaze upon the very face of God, so too our genuine humanity can and should become a vehicle, making us instruments in the saving grace of Christ the Head, who communicates his life to his Body through us, his unworthy instruments. To use Paul’s language, this is the treasure we carry about in clay, a grace undeserved but which we are asked to live with fidelity, joy, and love.

I want to conclude not with my own words, but with those of Benedict XVI’s favorite theologian, Romano Guardini. In speaking about the disciples being sent out on mission, he underlines how our pastoral effectiveness is linked precisely to our participation in Divine Vulnerability:

Faith then requires not only the simple will to God’s truth, but also a certain responsiveness to precisely this ‘weakness’ of God. In truth’s very defenselessness must lie an unspeakable mystery of love. By that act of self-renunciation, known as the Incarnation, God’s Son shed his glory to enter the world ‘in the form of a slave.’
Aren’t the instructions given to the Twelve before departing on their missions (to take nothing for the voyage, neither breadbag nor money nor begging-sack; no second coat, no second pair of sandals, to teach without reward and to heal without pay) given to preserve that divine helplessness? Isn’t this the real reason why money and power endanger the divine tidings, which remain so much stronger in weakness? The word made known by force does not bring Christ. Influence based on money and power does not bring God, for such means make void the means by which God himself entered the world. Here we glimpse a new facet in the life of the apostle. He must accept and constantly renew in himself the basic secret of his mission: the vulnerable Christ he bears within him in his sacred word is only endangered when power, property, or strategy of any sort contribute to the reception of his tidings. (The Lord, 145)

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a reflection for an evening of formation at St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Boston in April 2016.

Featured Photo: Christiane Birr; CC BY-SA 2.0.


Msgr. Michael Heintz

Msgr. Michael Heintz, PhD, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is Academic Dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology.

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