Advice to a Young Priest

The illusion of one being perpetually young was shattered in my case recently when a publishing firm asked me to write some advice to a young priest from the perspective of an elder. For me, youth was a permanent state. I was the very youngest in my college class and, in my Anglican years, at twenty-six I was the youngest parish rector in the nation. So defensive was I about this, that at my installation I had a friend, who eventually became a United States senator, read for the first lesson: “Let no man despise thy youth… (1 Tim. 4:12).” That was in the days of Beatle haircuts and my self-assurance was not affirmed when one lady remarked upon seeing me in an elaborate cope at Evensong, that I looked like the Infant of Prague.

These years later I find it difficult to recognize that I am of “a certain age” and have been asked to speak from the platform of senior experience to those younger, but that is the case and the reality, and so I can pass along some thoughts about the parish priesthood which, had I known then what I know now, would have made those years easier, but less of an adventure. I copy here a small bit of the advice I passed along to that publisher.

Characteristics of a Well-run Parish
First of all, a good shepherd can say after the Sublime Model of pastors: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me (John 10:14).” It is good to cultivate a gift for remembering names, and I regret that I never had that gift to cultivate to begin with. In defense, remembering faces and voices and the ups and downs of people’s lives is more important. There are those who amaze others with an ability to remember names, as if it were some sort of parlor trick, but they never get behind the name. Wherever the parish is, big or small, it will have various identifiable personality types, and the good pastor will quickly identify them, remembering all the while that however attractive and helpful or dismaying and belligerent, Christ died for each of them, and the pastor will be accountable for each of them on the Day of Judgment. If a parish priest is available in crises, is at sick beds and mourns with those who mourn, he will be absolved of minor disagreements with the flower guild and finance committee. If he forgets their names, what counts is that the faces of those who have departed will pass before him on the first two days of November.

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This is more important than being amiable, and indeed it is the very opposite of false amiability. The “jolly good guy” kind of pastor can be an irritant. Such a caricature of agape recalls the indelible image of the happy clown on the circus midway, who is all confusion underneath. It is prudent not to equate the dignity of sacramental office with the way a man exercises it, and it is wise indeed to be especially careful not to think that Christian joy is the same as the self-conscious jollity and even buffoonery with which some clerics camouflage their discomfort with the Truth of Christ. Ministers of the Gospel are not used car salesmen whose heartiness is a mile wide and an inch deep. A bemused layman told me that a bishop joked with him, but turned away like a startled deer when asked an important question. The Lord himself was betrayed with a cold kiss, and stared back with unfathomable eyes.

While the daily schedule is busy and often derailed by pastoral emergencies, preparing homilies should be a weeklong job, starting out with reflection of the forthcoming Gospel. Prayerful meditation is the paramount form of reparation. The Internet is a resource unique to the present generation that an older parish priest might wish he had when he began his priesthood. The real challenge is “discernment of spirits” because often there is too much information to draw on, and not all of it provides worthy insights. For some decades “story telling” was a fad in homiletics. Surely the Parables are the best stories, but grasping for illustrative images, let alone belabored humor which are not witty at all, should be avoided. The best stories are the lives of the saints and historical events. If a preacher is hard pressed, he need only relate the story of a saint. That never fails. Christ is the Lord of History and the neglect of history in a priest’s formation is one of the serious deficiencies of our time.

Looking back on decades as a parish priest, a chief regret is the amount of time wasted in meetings. The less the churchman knows what he is doing, the more meetings, seminars, conferences, and conventions he will summon or attend. Meetings are the opiate of the bureaucrat. They should be avoided as much as possible. A new generation, happily, has less time for these indulgences than did the members of religious orders in their decline, and chanceries and parish councils.

As years pass, the priest begins to realize, too, how wanderlust can be a seductive kind of escapism. The current pope has said, “Avoid the scandal of being airport bishops.” This applies as well to priests. The Lord calls men to “become” priests because he wants them to “be” priests. The holy Curé d’Ars spent his entire priestly life in one parish. While there is some cogency to term limits for parish priests, there is also much to be said for stability. A priest looking ahead to another parish, like a bishop with his eye on another diocese, is like an alderman aiming at a governorship, and a governor with his eyes on the White House. The man becomes so circumspect in his actions that he fears making waves, and by so doing he starts to drown. Saint John Chrysostom used another maritime metaphor in his disdain for careerists when he said that if a priest trims his sails in the interest of preferment, he will not know how to be a prophet when he gets what he wanted.

The Holy Mass is the heart of the Christian life, but to be that, it must proceed from the Sacrament of Confession. With exquisite subtlety the Risen Christ prompted Peter to confess before he sent him out to offer the Eucharist to the heart of the empire. The parish priest should not let a day pass without some time in the confessional, and if no one shows up, that time can be one of prayer, and eventually the people will come. Weekly confession should be the goal for the priest himself. Often the Anti-Christ will tempt the priest to absent the confessional for one reason or another just before a seriously burdened penitent is about to ask to be heard. Humble confessions heard in the sacred tribunal often inspire the priest beyond anything the penitent could understand. Humility is never discouraged by a good examination of conscience, for the Good Physician always has a cure for sickness of soul, be it a defect of the intellect or a weakness of will. Over the decades, I have had the great encouragement of real saints, most of them unacknowledged but a few of them already canonized. Once as a student in Rome I was running out of breath during a 7.5 kilometer race, but I got a second wind when some friends along the street cheered us runners on. I have come to hear the voices of saints like that many times. Sometimes we may be hearing “angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). The Discourager is never Christ but always the Anti-Christ. As he is haunted by God, he lurks in the holiest places in the holiest moments. I used to be rattled when he caused distractions, sometimes lurid ones, at Mass. It is permissible to curse him privately in such moments. Better yet, mock him, for mockery poisons the pride of which he is the prince.

It may not take long for the newly ordained priest to perceive that in some clerical quarters, honesty is not the instinctive culture. This is more than a defect: it is a blasphemy among those consecrated to Christ whose “word is truth” (John 17:17). I allude to this gingerly as a delicate matter, for mentioning it without qualifications risks calumny, but long experience has accustomed me to being told by churchmen of high rank, things that “do not conform to the truth.” That is ecclesiastical jargon for simple lying. Sometimes it is pious dishonesty in the form of falling silent when asked a direct question. A forthright cardinal told me that lying was the normal policy among those on his staff and they simply stared at the floor when challenged. Attached to this dishonesty is the infection of gossip and envy. Brothers in Christ should nurture and promote the various talents of their fellows for the prosperity of the Gospel. Such is not an untutored habit among all of the brethren. Insecurity prefers mediocrity over excellence.

The younger priests should learn first of all that these temptations are backhanded compliments by Satan whose hatred of priests has scorched every century one way or another. In these matters it would be unrealistic to expect more of bishops than one expects of oneself. The young priest sobered by a history older than himself, will remember modern bishops who were serious men: for instance, heroes in the German Church like Michael von Felhauber, Clemens August von Galen, Konrad von Preysing and Josef Frings, while some others were satisfied to adjust to those barbaric times. As remedy for cynicism, it is well to remember what was said by Saint John Fisher upon realizing that he was the only bishop in the Tudor realm willing to speak truth to power and to die for it: “The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.” The parish priest will not let the timidity of some distract him from the stoic grandeur of Ignatius and Polycarp and sturdy bishops through the present years: Pierre-Marie Gerlier in the secret catacombs of Lyons, Bishop Patrick Byrne dying in the snows of Korea, and Nguyen Van Thuan isolated in a Vietnamese prison, for they are the true successors of all but one of the apostles.

Having spent years in Rome, I am immeasurably grateful for the experience, and in no little measure because it sobered me with the realization that the Church’s supernatural character is not understood without the revelation of her human character with both its virtues and flaws. The priest’s love for the Church is rooted in sacrifice and not romanticism, lest her wrinkles and scars, as the years progress, dismay the priest’s bond with the Bride of Christ. I have profited much from the words and wisdom of Ronald Knox whom I think was the finest preacher of the twentieth century, and whose singularly original insights will rescue any priest preparing his homilies in uninspired hours, and so I have come to understand more profoundly his explanation for rarely visiting Rome: “He who travels in the Barque of Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room.”

There is no flattery in God’s choice of a man to act in his name. “But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). The parish priest is sent by the Lord to catch souls. As a priest gets older, he may be tempted in the manner of fishermen to exaggerate the size of his catch, or to regret when the net is empty. On the Last Day he cannot lie to the Righteous Judge who asks, “Children, have you caught anything…?” Our reply may be barren, but we will notice with astonishment that he calls us Children, even though the world has called us Father. Then, like a burst of light, it will dawn that he is the High Priest and we were fathers only because of his elegant condescension and delegation. He makes great beyond counting what was our very poor catch, because if we have saved one soul in all our feeble years, it will be to him as if we had brought the whole world to him.

(Photo credit: Catholic News Agency)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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