The humbling of the priesthood

No one thinks priests can walk on water, but the One who once did stands with them.

By Rev. Donald Cozzens

The smell of beeswax candles and freshly starched surplices lingered in the servers’ sacristy as four sleep-deprived boys assigned to the 6:30 a.m. Mass took comfort from the morning cold.

Moments later, vested in black cassocks and white surplices, we went about our duties studiously. We placed cruets of wine and water and a starched finger towel on the credence table and lighted the altar candles. As instructed, we checked to see that our surplices were on straight in the floor-length mirror. We were ready.

Then with the solemnity of the Swiss Guard, we led the priest to the foot of the altar and the sacred, mystical ritual unfolded. Introibo ad altari Dei ….

More than half a century later, I can say serving Mass shaped my Catholic imagination, gave me a sense of the sacred, and set me on the path that led to ordination.

When the late Bishop Kenneth Untener was asked why he became a priest, he liked to reply: “It wasn’t my idea.” Well, I have an idea why I’m a priest today – not a clear idea, of course. I still shake my head in wonder at the mystery of grace, destiny, and freedom that seem to be the essential ingredients for what Catholics call a vocation. It was my idea to become a priest, and it wasn’t my idea to become a priest. But beeswax, starch, and an amorphous sense of the sacred had their place in my preadolescent longing to be a priest one day.

Looking back to my altar-boy days, the priests I knew weren’t particularly gifted men. There was a certain aura about them; however, a quality hard to name. A handful were clearly bright and talented. One became a bishop; another, a seminary rector. To my young and inexperienced eyes, they were each men of mystery who touched the hem of the divine daily. They offered Mass, forgave sins, baptized, married, and buried. Back then, no senator, judge, or physician quite captured the imagination of Catholics like the parish priest.

When my parents spoke about Doc Scullen, the pastor of Holy Name parish in Cleveland during the Depression and World War II years, it was with a note of affection. It was more than the respect commonly shown to clergy. It seemed they revered the man. They said Doc Scullen knew every parishioner by name and somehow found a way to get help families in trouble.

My parents’ pastor and the parish priests of my youth stirred something inside me. I wanted to be one of them.

Most pre-Vatican II Catholics in steel-town Cleveland belonged to the working class and it seemed to many priests constituted a kind of spiritual nobility. And the bishop, a personage who visited each year for confirmation, seemed to be royalty – a kind of prince. He merited, after all, the un-American title excellency and was treated with unparalleled deference. Didn’t a Catholic fortunate enough to meet a bishop, drop to one knee and kiss his ring? And wasn’t a family honored with a visit from the parish priest always on its best behavior?

What we now decry as clericalism, the nadir of clerical culture, was yet to be named. The status of bishops and priests, their private and often secret world of privilege and exemption, appeared to offend few Catholic sensibilities – to the contrary, it seemed their due.

But it was the priest, not the bishop, who anchored and directed the life of a parish. And for pre-Vatican II Catholics, the parish was the church. It was the parish, not the diocesan headquarters we know as the chancery or Catholic Center, that provided a sense of belonging. Especially for Catholics living in cities, their parishes gave them the social security, if you will, of a village, where geography and common worship forged identity and community. And in this ecclesial village, the pastor was the unquestioned leader and, therefore, a man of considerable power. Priests who clothed their power and status in pastoral kindness won the loyalty – and often the love – of their parishioners. Still, the priest remained a man of power, and to the eyes of believing Catholics, an awesome power.

The religious world of preconciliar Catholics rested on three cornerstones:
• adherence to the doctrines of the church;
• a prayer life fostered by the sacraments and parish devotions; and
• a moral life in harmony with the commandments of God and the church.
In other words, the practicing Catholic’s inner life was sustained by doctrine, devotion, and morality. In shorthand – believe, behave, and be saved.

For most, behaving was the hard part, especially when it came to sex. From this perspective, a Catholic’s interior life was reduced to the condition of his soul – one was in the state of grace or mortal sin. Die in the state of grace, and one was saved; die in the state of mortal sin, and one was lost. The great, singular prize was salvation – to merit eternal life with God and the communion of saints in heaven. For the believer whose understanding of religion was, to a great extent, moral living, the priest was the human broker of salvation. He alone possessed the power to absolve from sin.

The power of absolution was trumped only by the priest’s power to celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass – to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Not only could the priest make one right with God through absolution, the priest made it possible to do more than touch the hem of the divine. He made it possible to receive Holy Communion, being mysteriously and unspeakably close to God.

“My God, what a life! And it is yours, oh priest of Jesus Christ,” said Henri Lacordaire, a priest who reestablished the Dominican order in post-Revolutionary France.

The humbling of the priesthood
Post-Vatican II priests are leaning into cold, humbling winds their pre-Vatican II brothers were spared mostly. Consider the following realities and issues:
• an aging, dwindling priest corps;
• a drastic decline of the number of seminarians;
• the questioning of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests;
• conflicting theologies about who’s suited for the priesthood by gender and sexual orientation; and
• parents dissuading their sons from thinking about a life as a priest.

But nothing has buffeted and humbled the priesthood like the shocking, staggering, sexual betrayal of children and adolescents by a significant number of clergy and the corresponding cover-up of the abuse by many bishops. The fallout from the clergy abuse scandals for priests and bishops – and for the church in general – is difficult to exaggerate. Moreover, unless church leaders are committed to identifying and correcting the systemic and institutional factors at play in the abuse scandals – the secrecy and divisiveness of clericalism, for example – the priesthood will continue to flounder.

From a spiritual perspective, a humbled priesthood is a good thing. One of the great contributions of Vatican II was its emphasis on the church as the pilgrim people of God and that all the baptized, in terms of spiritual dignity, were equal members of the church. Only in a metaphorical sense, then, is the priest a man set apart. He’s ordained to be the pastoral leader of the parish community, but not the only leader. His ministry as preacher, sacramental minister, and servant-leader remains essential to the health and vibrancy of the church.

But the priest isn’t the only one anointed by the Spirit with gifts and talents for the good of the church. Finding his place along side the deacon, the lay ecclesial minister, the vowed religious, and the many untitled ministers in his parish will be an ongoing challenge for the priest of the postconciliar church.

Other challenges face the post-conciliar priest. Engaging and relating to educated, thinking, believing Catholic women is a daunting challenge for large numbers of priests. Many don’t quite know what to do with the articulate, well-read women of their parish, even as they admit a church that doesn’t hear the word of God preached in the voice of women remains skewed and handicapped.

At the same time, priests sense the power differential between laity and clergy has changed. Catholics have come to imagine God differently in the post-Vatican II church. They no longer seem to be afraid of God’s wrath – at least in the sense of spending an eternity in hell for missing Mass on Sunday. Pastors have known for some time now what recent surveys have made clear: More than two-thirds of Catholics don’t celebrate Sunday Mass. For the majority of the faithful who fall into this category, there’s little need for a pastor in the sense that Doc Scullen was pastor to the people of my home parish. Rather, they tend to see their parish priest more as a chaplain – someone on the margins of their lives they can call on for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. It’s not this way in many of our healthy, vibrant parishes, but the mindset holds for a large number of Catholics.

Holding on to the sacred
It began for me with beeswax candles and starched surplices, with stained glass windows, sisters who smelled of Ivory soap, and unruffled priests who appeared to be genuinely happy men. Growing up as an altar boy in the village I knew as Holy Name parish gave me a priceless gift, a sense of the sacred.

Without a fundamental sense of the sacred, a sense of the hidden presence of God, Catholicism loses its savor. That’s why the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are central to the life of faith.

But the presence of the Spirit, the unbidden touch of the sacred, can’t be restricted to the sacramental life of the church. At least from time to time, Catholics discover the presence of God in their homes, their workplaces, shopping malls, sprawling cities, and the silence of the woods. They experience the sacred in our great cathedrals and churches and in hospices and soup kitchens. The college students I teach speak about finding a sense of the sacred on their service trips to Honduras and Guatemala and in their weekly trips into the city to feed the homeless. Still, I suspect a sense of the sacred, a sense of God’s presence, remains more elusive in technology-driven, financially obsessed first-world countries like our own.

Having, by God’s grace, a sense of the holy, priests should, by their presence, foster a sense of the sacred, a sense of mystery. Perhaps as much by the integrity of their lives as their preaching and ministry, priests should prompt people to wonder at the hidden presence of the divine. The best priests I knew as a boy did this. The best priests I know today do this. The ones who mask their humanity behind the persona of the priest, who never seem to be quite real, never do.

The cold, humbling winds continue to blow, and today’s priests lean steadfastly into them. In these days without sun, no one thinks priests can walk on water, but the One who once did stands with them. That should be enough. JCU

Rev. Donald Cozzens, a priest of the diocese of Cleveland, is writer in residence at John Carroll University. His books include the award-winning The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, Faith That Dares to Speak, and Freeing Celibacy.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Reclaiming Catholicism: Treasures Old and New, edited by Thomas H. Groome and Michael J. Daley, Orbis Press, February, 2010. Permission for use in the John Carroll Magazine granted February 1, 2011 by Doris Goodnough of Orbis Press.


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