O Priest of Jesus Christ

Brendan Bartlett was a U. S. Border Patrol Guard in Arizona when he realized there was nothing he could do for the people he dealt with – other than to become a priest. He was ordained Saturday for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (along with six other men from the diocese), and said his thanksgiving Mass yesterday.

This all started several years ago and it took a couple of different seminaries before he settled at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Capping the whole process, just a few months back, he was chosen to be an altar server at Pope Francis’s Easter Mass in St. Peter’s. (See photo below.)

At 37, he’s just a little above the average age of priests being ordained during this 2013 graduation period according to the study of those roughly 500 men by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate – an organization that the American bishops each year ask to track vocations.

The bishops are right to seek out data in order to make sure that they are doing all the right things to recruit and train the men who will be our pastors and confessors, teachers and counselors, for years to come. And some of whom will succeed those very bishops and someday assume responsibility for the Catholic Church in the United States.

But statistics alone, however useful, can’t really grasp the fine-grained reality of a vocation. My family has known Fr. Bartlett’s for thirty years. He and my children played together and he’s godfather to one of my grandchildren. There were strong influences close in. His father, Dennis, spent some time as a Jesuit scholastic; there was a lifelong family friendship with our TCT colleague Fr. James V. Schall, and a maternal uncle, Curtis Bryant, S.J., who died of cancer ten years ago.

Still, anyone who knew the family might almost have said (but not really – you’d have to know her) what his mother Denise said when he called with the news he was entering the seminary, “Brendan, I couldn’t be more surprised unless you told me you were gay.”

Catholics often talk about the mysterious ways of grace, but it was the funeral of his Jesuit uncle that got Brendan thinking. And by those unknown pathways that only God Himself knows, grace moves us and makes us into people even our family and friends – and we ourselves – may be surprised to discover we are.

The ordination in Arlingtons St. Thomas More Cathedral was as beautiful as any liturgy I’ve ever seen. But to attend his thanksgiving Mass and receive Communion from Fr. Bartlett for the first time was to be in the presence of something infinitely greater than a human story.

       Then Deacon Bartlett assists Pope Francis at Easter Mass 2013

The Church has suffered from a shortage of priests in recent decades and has no immediate answers as to why. We talk about the deep changes in the culture of Europe and the United States, a decline in commitment to religion and respect for institutions, including that side of the Church that is institutional. All probably relevant factors. Sometimes we try to cheer ourselves up that vocations are increasing in the developing world. But that doesn’t solve the trouble close to home.

Priests, once the most educated men in ethnic parishes, used to enjoy great prestige. My unscientific assessment is that most of them who get through the improved screening and seminary training now know a lot more than the laypeople who think they’ve gotten superior educations. And many younger priests today have spent time in the world at tasks – like defending the borders – that give them no little insight into the highs and lows of human life.

In several respects, the bigger question might even be why anyone would become a priest today? Walk down a city street in a Roman collar – I hear this from my brother, a monisgnor – and occasionally someone will come up to you who hasn’t been inside a church in twenty years and needs spiritual counseling, then and there, on the sidewalk. That’s quite something. But, of course, given how the world cannot stand the presence of something greater than itself, you might just as easily be sworn at or spit on.

Fr. Jerome Fasano preached at the Mass yesterday and gave the most profound reflections on priesthood I’ve ever heard. He warned Brendan always to give people what they need – not what they think they want. A priest, naturally, gets great satisfaction working with people and healing the world’s brokenness, but it has to be done in the true priestly way, in persona Christi. Jesus brought peace, and also a sword. And paid the price for living and speaking the Truth.

Fr. Fasano told of receiving a blessing shortly before he was ordained himself – from the great Fulton J. Sheen. As he tried to get up, Sheen pushed him back down, wagged his finger at him, and said, “If you want to be a good priest, remember to make a holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament every day.” (Unfortunately, the good padre doesn’t have a written copy of this extraordinary homily, so I can’t post it for you, but I’m working on him).

So suffice on this special occasion, which is being reproduced around the country and the world over the next weeks, to ask God for many more such selfless men and to recall the words of Lacordaire, with which yesterday’s sermon ended:

To live in the midst of the world
without wishing its pleasures;
To be a member of each family,
yet belonging to none;
To share all suffering;
to penetrate all secrets;
To heal all wounds;
to go from men to God
and offer Him their prayers;
To return from God to men
to bring pardon and hope;
To have a heart of fire for Charity,
and a heart of bronze for Chastity
To teach and to pardon,
console and bless always.
My God, what a life;
and it is yours,
O priest of Jesus Christ.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.