On being a priest

Arthur Middleton describes the challenges of being a priest in today's climate, reminding us that a priest is not a mere manager or leader but must share in the sufferings of his people and provide an inspiring example

 

It is not easy being a priest today in the present climate, where, even in the Church of England, the secular culture rather than the Gospel determines so much. William Gladstone in the nineteenth century said that the task of the priest had become much more difficult than it had ever been. The situation has worsened, in a country where God is excluded from many lives and not allowed to influence scores of others, and where a rising generation do not know God because of a general decay of religion.

Also, there is a kind of thinking in the Church that wants to reduce the priest to a functionary, a managing director, where administration rather than doctrine and worship determine the form of the Church. The evil of the Church is the doing of Church work in a spirit of business, something to be got through. These things make a priests life more difficult today.

Instant in prayer

To avoid this, a priest must be instant in prayer, otherwise he will lose that touch of the supernatural without which he has no right to be a priest at all. A man is what he prays, for a man who prays is a theologian and a theologian is a man who prays. Such prayer must inform a priests thinking, making him what he is, forming him into the man who conquers because he has conquered himself. Only when a priest conquers himself will 'men hang upon the words of the priest and seek knowledge and instruction from him, because he is the messenger of the Lord' [Malachi 2.7].

Like Julian of Norwich our hope must rest on something outside ourselves. She said, 'The remedy is that Our Lord is with us, keeping us and leading us into the fullness of joy; for our Lord intends this to be an endless joy, that he who will be our bliss when we are there (heaven) will be our protector while we are here, our way and our heaven in true love and trust.'

The divine presence

This consciousness of a divine presence dominated Bishop Butlers life. In his last charge to the Durham clergy he urged that they yield themselves up to the full influence of the divine presence and endeavour to raise up in the hearts of their people such a sense of God that reverence, love, gratitude, hope, trust and obedience will become an habitual way of living.

Here the priest is no mere manager, no mere leader, nor the professional taker of services. All the great classical books on priesthood describe the priest as a healer of men which is much more difficult than being a leader. This is what is meant by the 'cure of souls', and the medicine of souls is more subtle than that of bodies. The Coming of God in Christ is the medicine of the soul, undoing the Fall and bringing us to the Tree of Life.

The office of a priest is to administer this medicine in the Word and Sacraments, the means wherein this medicine is given. The Church's note must be a supernatural note.

The Saviour of the world was not made or moulded by the world; and the world knew, and still knows in him a presence that must be either obeyed or destroyed. He looked down on the world he had come to save with pity, not blame. He always viewed it from God's side, and in God's interest. He always stood for God against the people he would save.

Teacher and guide

The priest comes in this same spirit of reconciliation, not as an obscurantist, but wearing the intelligible vestments of living faith, divine but positive, ministering in Word and Sacrament that which is the world's hope and salvation, the divine energy in which he lives in Christ with the Father in the Holy Spirit, identified but not accommodated to the world Christ seeks to save.

His vision will be Trinitarian, his theology a theology to be preached and therefore with a practical purpose, nothing less than to participate in this divine life Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit, for this is saving life that makes us godlike.

The priest is entrusted with the spiritual guidance of his people, becoming responsible for them and making his mark on them, according to the pattern of his own spiritual life. He is their teacher and guide, for the building up of the Body of Christ. He must enable people to see what happened to them when they were born again through water and the Spirit. We are to introduce our people into the life of the Church which is saving life, that they may grasp its meaning, its contents and purpose, to taste and see how good the Lord is. First, taste then see, that is, understand. This is edification in the knowledge of the love of God, growth into the divine likeness. A priest is the God-bearer or Christ-bearer, as St Ignatius said, a living Eucharist of the divine presence, bringing a sympathetic ear and a compassionate heart in which people find God's consolation, understanding and love. He brings more than professional help and skills. He brings the loving kindness, goodness and friendship of God that will bind up the broken-hearted and bring release to those captives in the variety of today's prisons.

Sharing the struggle

But it is never a comfortable lifestyle and there are more priorities than the 'day off', because it brings spiritual warfare and suffering for the priest as he identifies with those who suffer and shares the frustrations, anger and incomprehensibility of that suffering. The priest shares in these struggles of his suffering people, the uncertainties it brings, the sense of divine abandonment it induces and the loneliness it causes.

Many people experience Gethsemane moments but eventually are able to say 'Not mine, but thine', even when consciousness of that divine presence feels as if has been wiped out. They have the transfigured marks of their Gethsemane on them. Such people know the depths of the human heart when it rejoices, admires or loves, the heart in its agonies of suffering, failure and emptiness. Here in them you will glimpse a clearer vision of death and resurrection than in a theological textbook.

As priests uphold their people in prayer, so their people are to uphold their priests with prayer and love, for a priest cannot work without his people. It is only as a priest understands in his own life the secret of 'Not mine, but thine' that he will lead his people through those Gethsemane moments into the joy of Resurrection and Transfiguration.

Holiness

People wonder what made some of our great priests such effective evangelists in the most atrocious slum parishes. It was not in-service training on a diocesan course on evangelism surrounded by umpteen advisers who had never done the job. It was the touch of the divine in that union of human lives with God in the way of holiness, fundamental to the life of the Church and in the life of every priest and pastor. This is what gives to priestly ministry its supreme and special value.

People saw in these great priests, not career men with a ladder under their cassock, but men with the towel of self-sacrifice, devotion and dedication that issues from men whose hearts God has touched. These priests did not despair in their fight with secularism. Instead they measured things differently from the rest of people, so much so that they turned the common way of looking at things upside down.

Bishop Paget of Oxford wrote to his clergy, 'personal holiness, determining, refining, characterizing everything that a man says or does, will tell alike on those he may not know even by name, and on those who see him in the constant intimacy of his home' [The Hallowing of Work].

A powerful eloquence

The temptation is to look back and say 'What on earth have I achieved?' and then thinking 'Not much'. This is the wrong question. George Herbert once asked that question of himself and concluded that he was ineffective, with no fruit to show for his sacrifice. He expressed his dejection and the conflict which raged within him in these words: 

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wild at every word, Methought I heard one calling, 'Child', And I replied, 'My Lord! [The Collar]

Only God knows

Only God knows how effective we have been. Only God knows the hearts and lives a priest has touched through his ministry in Word and Sacrament. What inspired most of us to become priests was not so much the eloquence of our parish priest but a more powerful eloquence, his virtuous life as a priest.

With that George Herbert agrees; he set out to live well because the virtuous life of a priest is the most powerful eloquence to persuade all that see it to reverence and love, and at least to desire to live like him. 'And this I will do', said Herbert, 'because I know we live in an age that hath more need of good examples than precepts.'

Think not in terms of successes and failures; I think they call that self-assessment today. No! Think like Herbert in terms of faithfulness, the faithfulness in which you live as a priest, for that will be your greatest eloquence.

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