George Weigel- On Priesthood


By George Weigel
The following is an address by George Weigel to a diocesan luncheon in Charleston, South Carolina, following that local Church's Chrism Mass on April 15.

For some 16 months now, we have become accustomed to speaking in terms of a Church in crisis. The crisis caused by clergy sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance is, in my judgment as a student of U.S. Catholic history, the greatest crisis in the history of the Church in America. It is that because it touches truths that are the very "constitution" of the Church, as that "constitution" was given to us by Christ himself.

That is why it is very important to remember that, in the thought world of the Bible, the word "crisis" has two meanings. The first is the familiar sense of the word: a "crisis" is a cataclysmic upheaval, a breaking-up of what had seemed fixed and sure. And we have certainly experienced "crisis" in that sense, these past 16 months. But the world of the Bible also thinks of "crisis" as opportunity: a moment ripe with the potential for deeper conversion. If crisis-as-cataclysm is to become crisis-as-opportunity in the Catholic Church in America, then we must recognize that, at the bottom of the bottom line, today's crisis is a crisis of discipleship; a crisis of fidelity. And the only remedy for a crisis of fidelity is ... fidelity.

Every crisis in Catholic history is a crisis caused by an insufficiency of saints, by a deficit in sanctity. Because sanctity is every Christian's baptismal vocation, this dimension of the crisis touches all of us in the community of the baptized. All of us have a responsibility for helping turn crisis-as-cataclysm into crisis-as-opportunity. Exercising that responsibility requires all of us, in whatever Christian state of life we live, to examine our consciences and reflect on whether we are leading thoroughly, intentionally, radically Christian lives of discipleship, staking all on the Lord, reminding ourselves every day that it is his kingdom for whose coming we pray, and his Church in which we serve.

The Gospel scene of Jesus and Peter on the Lake of Galilee can help us here. When Peter keeps his eyes fixed on the Lord, he can do what seems impossible, he can walk on water. When he averts his gaze from Christ and begins looking elsewhere for his security, he sinks. We, too, can do the seemingly impossible if we keep our gaze fixed on Christ. When we look elsewhere, we sink. That is as true of the Church as it is of individual Christians. And that is why sanctity is the answer to today's Catholic crisis.

What is sanctity? Sanctity is living in the truth living in the truth about the human condition revealed by Christ. Living in that truth, we become the kind of people who can live with God forever. That is why the Holy Father, speaking to the cardinals of the United States just a year ago this week, said that today's crisis grew out of a failure to live and teach the fullness of Catholic truth. When we fail to teach the truth and live the truth, when we substitute what we imagine to be our truths for what Christ has revealed as the truth, the way, and the life, we do not live as the saints we are called to be -- the saints we must be, if we are to live forever, happily with God.

That, in turn, means that there can be no reform of the Church without reference to form. And the "form" of the Church is established by Christ, not by us. The Church is Christ's, not ours. We do not create the Church; nor did our Christian ancestors; nor do theologians, pastoral consultants, or even the donors to the diocesan annual fund. The Church was, is, and always will be created by Christ who rather underscored the point when he told his disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you" [John 15:16].

On the day of the Chrism Mass, it has been customary for centuries to reflect on that distinctive part of the Christ-given form of the Church that is the ministerial priesthood. And so permit me a few thoughts on priests and priesthood.

As wave after wave of clerical scandal broke over the Catholic Church in the United States in the early months of 2002, it was frequently said, if not always heard or reported, that there are tens of thousands of good and faithful priests in America men who have kept the promises they solemnly swore on the day of their ordination and are spending out their lives in service to Christ and the Church. That is correct. To note this fact of Catholic life today is not, as some have suggested, an evasion of hard truths that must be faced and dealt with; at least it need not be an evasion.

The fact of priestly fidelity is every bit as much part of the story of the Catholic Church today as are the facts of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal irresponsibility. The fidelity of so many priests is a great grace. It is also a tremendous resource for the reform of the priesthood that is imperative if today's crisis is to become an opportunity for genuinely Catholic reform. That reform cannot mean turning the Catholic priesthood into an imitation of the various types of ministry found in other Christian communities. The reform of the Catholic priesthood cannot mean making Catholic priests more like Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, or Unitarian clergy. It can only mean a reform in which Catholic priests become more intensely, intentionally and manifestly Catholic.

While clerical sexual misconduct has as many explanations as there are complex human personalities, the fundamental reality of clerical sexual abuse is infidelity. A man who truly believes himself to be what the Catholic Church teaches -- that a priest is a living icon, a re-presentation of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God -- does not behave as a sexual predator. He cannot behave that way. Yes, he sins. Yes, he is an earthen vessel holding a great supernatural treasure. He may give an uninspiring sermon. His choice of music for Sunday Mass may be dreadful. He may be inept in some of his counseling. But he does not use his office to seduce and sexually abuse minors. Nor does he engage in any other form of sexual misconduct.

The Catholic Church has long taught that what a priest is makes possible what he does at the altar, in the confessional, in the pulpit, at the bedside of a dying parishioner. In an ironic, even paradoxical way, the truth of that teaching has been clarified by the scandal of clergy sexual abuse. If a man does not believe that what he is, by virtue of his ordination, makes the eternal priesthood of Christ present in the world, his desires may overwhelm his personality and a life intended to be a radical gift of self can turn into a perverse assertion of self, in which his priestly office becomes a tool of seduction.

Priests are made, not born. Although his discipleship must deepen during the course of his ministry, a man must be a thoroughly converted Christian disciple before he can be a priest. Discipleship is the prerequisite for priesthood. A Christian disciple is someone whose life is formed by the conviction that, in looking on the cross of Christ, one is looking at the central truth of human history: God's love for the world, which was so great that God gave his son for its redemption. Convinced of that, a man ordained a priest becomes another Christ, an "alter Christus," another witness to the truth that God intends for humanity a destiny beyond our imagining: eternal life within the light and love of the Holy Trinity.

That is why Pope John Paul II has insisted throughout his pontificate that the priesthood is about service, not power; the ministerial priesthood fosters the participation and collaboration of all the members of Christ's mystical body in the life and work of the Church. To put it another way, the priest must be convinced that the story the Church tells is not just the Church's story. It is the world's story read in its true amplitude.

A priest must believe that what Catholicism offers the world is not another brand-name product in a supermarket of "spiritualities," but the truth about itself, its origins and its destiny; not a truth that's true "for Christians," or a truth that's true "for Catholics," but the truth. The Catholic priest who is a genuinely converted Christian fully understands that truth in this world emerges from many sources, including other Christian communities, other world religions, and the worlds of science and culture. The genuinely converted Catholic priest also understands that all those other truths tend toward the one Truth, who is the God and Father of Jesus Christ. That is what he bears witness to the world.

By his ordination and his vow of celibacy, the Catholic priest is set apart from the world for the world's sake. In a culture like ours, his life is a sign of contradiction to much of what the world imagines to be true. The priest is not a contrarian, however. His being-different is not an end in itself, an indulgence in idiosyncrasy. The priest is a sign of contradiction so that the world can learn the truth about itself and can be converted. The radical openness to serve others that should be manifest in a happy, holy priest's life is a living lesson to the world that self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing.

The priest's obedience to the truths of faith, and the liberating power that unleashes in him to be a man for others, reminds the world that truth binds and frees at the same time. Lived in integrity, the priest's celibacy is a powerful witness to the truth that there are things worth dying for including dying-to-self for. The priest's renunciation of the good of marital communion and the good of physical paternity is a reminder that those two things are, in fact, good, and should make possible in him a genuine and generous spiritual paternity.

By teaching the truths of Catholic faith, by sanctifying his people through the sacraments, and by governing justly that portion of God's people entrusted to his pastoral authority, the Catholic priest enables men and women to become saints to become the kind of people who can live with God forever.

All of this is intended to prepare men and women for eternal life in perfect communion with each other and with God. It is intended to make saints better, to cooperate with God in God's making of saints. That is what a Catholic priest is for. That is why and how the ordained priesthood lifts up and ennobles the priestly people of God. And that is why a Catholic priest must understand himself to be what he is: a living icon of the eternal priesthood of Christ and order his life, in all its facets, according to that awesome truth.

More than six decades ago, Father Karl Rahner, one of the theological architects of the Second Vatican Council, addressed a gathering of priests on the day they renewed their vows to Christ and the Church. Father Rahner's words are as appropriate today as they were then.

Here they are, in a slight paraphrase, as if he, a fellow priest, were addressing you, priests who have today renewed the vows of your ordination day; as if he, through his fellow-priests, were addressing all of us, calling us to support these brothers ordained to the service of the Church:

"Dear Fathers: This renewal of our ordination is God's work in you. ... The Spirit which was poured out on you on the day of your ordination is here with you, in this hour of the renewal of your ordination. He wants to give himself even more intimately to you, wants to fill all the hidden chambers of your hearts, wants to live the whole extent of your life.

"This is the Spirit of the Father and the Son: the Spirit of rebirth and the divine sonship of men; the Spirit who is also Lord of this age; the Spirit who transforms the world into a great sacrifice of praise to the Father, just as you by his power change bread and wine into the body and blood of the one holy victim; this is the Spirit of witness to Christ, the Spirit who convicts the world of sin, justice and judgment; the Spirit of strength and comfort; the Spirit who pours the love of God into your hearts and who is the pledge and first fruits of eternal life; the Spirit who awakens new life out of sin and darkness, and who includes even sin in his mercifulness; the Spirit whose gifts are love, joy, peace, patience, mildness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and chastity; the Spirit of freedom and of courageous confidence; the Spirit who changes everything and leads everything into death, because he is the infinity of life and can never rest in the frozen form of a finite life that is not going to advance any further; the Spirit who, amidst change and decay, remains eternally and restfully the same; the Spirit of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who transforms the helpless words of human preaching into the word and act of God; the Spirit who lets forgiveness on earth become reconciliation in heaven; the Spirit who turns your acts into Christ's sacraments.

"This Spirit is the spirit of your ordination day; this same Spirit is the spirit of the renewal of your vows and your priesthood. If you allow him to come fully into your life, everything that you are, and do and suffer will be consecrated into a priestly life. For this same Spirit saw and loved everything on the day of your ordination; therefore, nothing can withstand the transforming fire of the Spirit's love in your life, if only you give it room, if only you say: Do You, O God, ordain me anew today."

In the mid-'30s, as totalitarian shadows lengthened across Europe, Pope Pius XI memorably said, "Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre." That saying, a favorite of Dorothy Day, might also be our watchword in the months and years ahead, as we work together in the great cause of authentic Catholic reform. Catholic Lite is Catholic mediocrity. Rediscovering and embracing the adventure of orthodoxy, the high adventure of Christian fidelity is the path from crisis to authentically Catholic reform.

We all fail, sometimes grievously. That is no reason to lower the bar of expectation. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and try again. Lowering the bar of spiritual and moral expectation demeans the faith and demeans us. Catholics today are capable of spiritual and moral grandeur, and indeed want to be called to that greatness. That is what Vatican II meant by the "universal call to holiness," and that is what is available to all of us in the Church, whatever missteps the institution of the Church makes.

Sanctity is available. And sanctity is what will transform crisis-as-cataclysm into crisis-as-opportunity. In the universal call to holiness, and in the generous response to it that can be forthcoming, lies the future of genuinely Catholic reform. So, once again: "Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre."


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of  the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. He holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at EPPC. He is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II, published by HarperCollins.



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