By Matthew S. Robinson, MA, MS Diocesan Director of the Office of Clergy Support
“St. Bernard tells us that everything has come to us through Mary; and we may also say that everything has come to us through the priest; yes, all happiness, all graces, all Heavenly gifts. If we had not the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we should not have Our Lord. Who placed Him there, in that Tabernacle? It was the priest. Who was it who received your soul, on its entrance into life? The priest. Who nourishes it, to give it strength to make its pilgrimage? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, by washing that soul, for the last time, in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest — always the priest. And if that soul comes to the point of death, who will raise it up, who will restore it to calmness and peace? Again, the priest. You cannot recall one single blessing from God without finding, side-by-side with this recollection, the image of the priest.”
That powerful quotation comes to us from none other than the Cure of Ars, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. It highlights a fundamental notion about the priesthood, that, again in the words of St. John Vianney, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” As Catholics, we experience the love of the heart of Jesus in a most real and concrete way every time we receive a Sacrament from the hands of a priest, preeminently that of the Eucharist. Each one of us, clergy and lay alike, can probably recall one of those key life moments, discussed by St. John Vianney, when the priest, acting as Christ at that moment, gave us access to the merits of the cross by way of the Sacraments.
Understanding these theological concepts about the nature of the priesthood, the Eucharist, and the Sacraments can be the impetus for intense Spiritual gratitude because in these theological concepts is displayed a deep truth about the love of God. At this moment, we can call to mind certain Scriptural passages where God promises each one of us that He is truly with us. We know that in John’s Gospel, our Lord promises, “I will not leave you orphans” (14:18). In a similar way, Christ promises at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20).
But where and how does God keep these promises? We might say, in an extraordinarily concrete way, that God has kept these promises in the Sacraments that come to each one of us through the sacred hands of the priesthood. Calling these truths to mind, our hearts can only respond with gratitude, since, by instituting the priesthood and the Sacraments, God has shown us just how good He truly is, and that we have a Heavenly Father who keeps His promises.
“But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels,” St. Paul reminds us (2 Cor 4:7), which is to say, that the treasure of our faith (i.e., the Sacraments), in God’s plan of Salvation, is brought about in this time in Salvation history through a fallen and redeemed humanity. In this context, we are reminded that the glory of the priesthood is carried out by men who are human beings, and this is a great mystery of our faith.
In my experience being and working in the Church and in my role as the Director of Clergy Support for our diocese, it seems that forgetting the humanity of our priests is one of the most common errors that we make. We rightly see and love the glory of the priesthood, but can, at times, forget the mysterious truth that it is held in “earthen vessels,” that is, in human beings. Such an internal attitude can lead us, sometimes unknowingly, into certain types of criticism or negativity towards our priests who are our fathers in the order of grace. Forgetting that they are real human beings with their own thoughts, feelings, joys, and challenges, we can sometimes fall into a sort of overly critical, unrealistic, and unholy attitude towards our priests. I believe that the Church is of the mindset that one of the bases for supporting our priests is simply remembering that they are human beings like each one of us.
Here are a few practical ways that we can support our priests as human beings:
1. Offer to help your priests by supporting them in their ministry and volunteering in the parish.
2. Avoid gossiping or complaining about priests.
3. Show priests our appreciation by offering to help, cooking them meals on busy days, saying “thank you,” writing them a note of gratitude, or complimenting them.
4. Look out for their well-being and offer words of encouragement if they seem stressed.
5. Make it a priority to celebrate them on their special days, such as ordination day, birthday, or Father’s Day.
6. Establish a relationship with your priest and let him know that you are in his corner.
7. Invite priests over for dinner.
8. Do what you can to encourage vocations to the priesthood.
Of course, we know that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle as well (cf. Eph 6:12), so another thing that we can do for our priests is to offer spiritual support. Currently, we host a monthly day of prayer and fasting for our priests. We also invite you to consider joining us for a special Novena for our priests taking place April 4-12, the nine days leading up to our diocesan Chrism Mass on April 12, when our priests renew their vows. We encourage you to go to www.fallriverclergysupport.org and sign up for emails to get involved in these and other spiritual practices.
Above all, let us commit ourselves to love and honor the beloved priests of our diocese. May we take the same approach as St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “I am determined to reverence, love, and honor these men [priests]. I refuse to consider their sins because I can see the Son of God in them. I do this because in this world I cannot see the most high Son of God with my own eyes except for His most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others.”