When the priest is ordained he is told: “imitate what you handle.” The reference, of course, is to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus Christ is THE Priest. Priests simply participate in his priesthood. What would we get if we consider the priesthood starting with Jesus Christ and dropping the cultural baggage?
In a culture obsessed with leisure you will notice that Jesus never took time off to go fishing or meet with the guys over some wine. This was because Jesus is Priest. It was not a job like the men at the Temple had. He simply is priest as the total description of his existence. The ongoing inner sacrifice of the spirit and the external sacrifice of the Mass and of one’s own life happen continually and not on a schedule.
This is the priesthood the way that it shines out of Christ rather than being a job like filling teeth or selling shares. The sacrificial way of life does not shine through a meal of lobster and twenty-year-old brandy. It does shine through being with people and talking about Jesus Christ and sharing a simple meal with them. This is a horse of a different color – an informal life WITH people much like Pope Francis is living.
In a culture that is made up of what can only be called low-information people, the priest today has to be with people almost all of his day helping them to struggle with Catholicism, not so that people get their doctorates but so that they can learn to read their lives through the lens of Christ. Packaged catechetics for one hour a week, which ceases once the individual is confirmed, cannot serve such people.
Priests will have to passionately want to share Catholicism and not just do sacramental ministry. Training has to change because candidates cannot necessarily do this merely by going to lectures. Seminaries have tried to copy Enlightenment-style universities that are not very effective in what they do anyway. These universities are agnostic and not a good model.
The other side of being in a low-information culture is that people generally are not logical. The Zimmerman trial was a classic illustration – many with definite opinions on the “guilt” of Zimmerman do not know the exculpatory forensic evidence that was presented. The case instead became a vehicle for their prejudices. This is sick in general culture, but imagine what it does when people try to approach being Catholic in the same way.
The Last Supper by Joan de Joanes (c. 1562)
For them Catholicism is some collection of isolated ideas padded out with what they get from the pagan culture. So the priest has got to be able to spend hours with them to show that he is Christ, loves people and can take the abuse that often comes from helping them to think as a Catholic should. This does not come without lots of practice. A seminary does not offer this. It requires total immersion in being Christlike to even begin to see what it feels like and what it means.
Today’s priest has inherited a real problem. He is the heir to over a hundred years of priestly culture that has reified the priesthood, making it like being doctor who leaves work and the rest of the day is “his.” Further, the rest of the day is for “neutral” non-Christian activities. Living, as we do, in a Protestant culture means that clergy will be likely to unconsciously cast their own priesthood in terms of a protestant minister – hired by the community and so concerned not to upset them by teaching anything they won’t already accept.
Some priests do realize that they have to live the life of Christ as closely as possible. I am not speaking about them. The issue comes up when you have one priest who knows this and twenty others who are of the 9-to-5 variety. Where is the chance for collegial growth as priests in Christ?
There’s more. In a unisex culture, the priest is still supposed to be a male leading a parish that is spiritually receptive, that is spiritually feminine. He has to know and live out what true maleness is from Christ, the epitome of being male in this world. Then he can learn from Christ how to lead a Christian community. Of course, this depends on whether we believe in the Incarnation. Was Jesus truly a man? Or do we take the culture with its inevitable cloak of sin and the corresponding distortion of gender as the source of meaning?
Lastly, we live in a distraction-based culture. Every one of us is susceptible to the next shiny thing that comes along – a TV show, a new phone, a movie star’s wardrobe malfunction. You name it. Yet the priest still has to be Christ who is more attractive and more constant than any created thing.
This constancy, which translates into constant Christlike presence, is good for the priest and the people. Constancy in prayer and availability is Christlike. It is a great time to be a priest!