The best vocations poster I have seen, without doubt, features a black-and-white photograph of a fallen soldier. His head tilts away, and the large right hand of another soldier, kneeling over him, covers his face. This helmet-clad soldier holds a tiny book in his left hand. Around his neck dangles the one colored item in the photo: a small, thin, purple stole. Beneath the pair is this caption: “The world needs heroes.”
Catholics admire their priests, and rightly so. Those who have answered the call to serve the Lord at His altar are courageous men, and those who have entered the seminary within the last twenty years have exhibited still more courage. Yet we are not accustomed to thinking of priests as heroes. We should.
A man or woman receives hero status when his bravery saves another, or others, from danger. Firefighters are heroes when they rescue innocents from a fire. Police officers are heroes when they apprehend criminals, and so ensure security in the area. Soldiers are heroes when they defeat the enemy who threatens us. Athletes are heroes when they save their teams from defeat. Teachers, counselors, and social workers are heroes when they lead children out of harm and direct them toward a fuller life.
For a priest to be a hero, he must save us from something. Perhaps we do not often see priests as heroes because we have denied the reality from which the priest was ordained to save us – Hell.
Between decades of the Rosary, we pray, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” This is what the Catholic priest, who acts on earth in the person of Christ, does. Hell is the consequence of sin, of deliberately choosing evil over good. Every action of the priest – from the Mass he offers, to the sacraments he confers, to the doctrine he teaches, to the Roman collar he wears – leads us from sin, from Hell, to God.
In the last half-century, Catholics have diminished sin and forgotten Hell. It’s no wonder, then, that most Catholics do not understand that our religion is about salvation. Christ saved us from the danger of sin so we could live with Him forever. He established His Church to continue His work of salvation, with sacraments as the means of His salvation and with priests as their ordained dispensers.
If there is no Hell, or, at least, if we pretend that no one goes to Hell, then why do priests labor so hard? Why even have priests at all? If everyone goes to Heaven, then the priest has no supernatural work to do. In worldly affairs, he may serve a counseling role of some kind, but anyone can do that. The supernatural order defines the priest’s role. Cancelling Hell distorts this order, for, as recent decades have taught, it is a short step from “let’s only talk about Heaven” to “we’ll make Heaven a place on earth.” What intelligent man would want to sacrifice his life to serve materialistic ends?
Only by rebalancing our supernatural view – that sin does real damage, that Hell is real, that sacraments convey real grace, and that we need God’s grace to get to Heaven – will we see an increase in priestly vocations after decades of decline. Men, by nature, are attracted to the hero’s part, and they are willing to make sacrifices to get there. This is why superheroes have proven so popular: they speak to a primordial longing in the male heart to be a savior.
In order to bloom, this innate desire has to be cultivated from without. Men need to see other men making sacrifices, and they need these heroes to invite them personally to join them. They need material and moral support from the communities they serve as reminders that what they do is valued. And they need to know that the dangers that they have offered to fight are still threats.
The same goes for potential priest-heroes. They need to see ordained priests energetically working to save souls from Hell and for Heaven. They need these priests to invite them to pursue a priestly vocation. They need moral and material support from their families, friends, bishops, and seminary directors. And they need to know that every sacrament they confer has eternal significance for the souls in their care, since, without the sacraments, their fellow Catholics are more susceptible to follow Satan’s empty promises to eternal punishment.
In other words, the priest is a hero because what he does every day is a matter of life or death – eternal life or eternal death.
A few Catholics bristle at calling priests heroes out of fear that such talk breeds widespread clericalism, which, by the way it is discussed, seems to be the contemporary world’s only surefire ticket to Hell. Even Pope Francis, who we would expect would be the world’s biggest cheerleader for vocations, seems to think this way. He recently visited an Italian seminary with a message tailored not for inspiring future heroes, but for chastising “clericalism” and “rigidity.”
Could we imagine an army recruiter, instead of talking up service, sacrifice, and patriotism, cautioning potential enlistees against committing war crimes?
To let a potential abuse negate the broader use of the priesthood is to guarantee a deeper decline in future vocations.
If Catholics can again believe that Hell is real and that we can go there without the Mass and sacraments, we will see men come forward wanting to be heroes, not for their own egos, but for the good of the Church. Hell’s noxious shadows can open the path to more vocations.
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s Coming Out of the Closet
Brad Miner’s Source and Summit: Bishop Barron’s “The Mass”