What Does It Mean to Be a Priest? (Guest: Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.)

Priests are, quite literally, the mediators between us and God. What does it mean to be priest? What are the challenge and the joys? We’ll talk to a priest today about the sacred priesthood, and how the laity can help their priests.

PUBLISHED ON

March 10, 2023

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What Does It Mean to Be a Priest? (Guest: Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.)
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Eric Sammons:

Priests are quite literally our mediators between us and God. What does it mean though to be a priest? What are its challenges and joys? We’re going to talk to a priest today about the sacred priesthood and also how the laity can help their priest.

Hello, I’m Eric Sammons, your host and Editor-in-Chief of Crisis Magazine. Before we get started, I just want to encourage people to smash that like button, to subscribe to the channel. Don’t hit to notify bell though because you have a life outside of the internet. You don’t need me bothering you all the time. Also, you can follow us on social media @CrisisMag. We’re on all the major social media channels.

Okay, let’s go ahead and get started here. We have with us today Father Ezra Sullivan. He’s a native of California, a Dominican Friar of the Province of St. Joseph in the United States. Having served in a parish after ordination to the priesthood, he earned his doctorate in theology and is now Professor of Moral Theology and Psychology at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, the Angelicum. He’s the author of numerous books and articles including Alter Christus: Priestly Holiness on Earth and in Eternity from Sophia Institute Press. I have it right here. Excellent book. It came out, yeah, it just came out last year. That’s what I thought, like back in the fall or something like that.

Welcome to the program, Father.

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Thank you. Thanks for having me, Eric.

Eric Sammons:

So we want to talk about the priesthood, but I feel like we have to start with you telling us at least a nutshell version of your own vocation story. How did you end up being a priest?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, very briefly, I was raised Protestant and my father, my grandfather, great-grandfather back, all the men directly in my male line for five generations were all Protestant ministers. And I entered the Catholic Church happily my first year in college, and a couple of years after that, I started thinking about the priesthood. I thought, “Well, I’m a Catholic man and I should at least think about what this thing is.”

And so eventually, I met the Dominican Friars of the East coast. In a way, our headquarters is in Washington DC and so I entered the House of Studies there and then that was in 2000… Oh my gosh, 2004. And then I was ordained in 2011, and now here I am in Rome.

Eric Sammons:

Very good, very good. So I’ve got to ask, how’d your dad take it?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, I have one older brother and he entered the Catholic Church before I did. And he was reading St. Thomas Aquinas at the time in high school and he entered in a very different way. So he would argue with my father and like a good Protestant, show him why scripture shows that Protestants are wrong and so on. And so my dad was maybe obviously quite upset, whereas a couple of years later when I was thinking about entering the priesthood and the Catholic Church, I just said, “Well, if Christ is truly in the Eucharist, this is the most important thing I can do in my life and I’m not leaving behind Christ. I’m discovering him more deeply.”

And my parents really didn’t argue with that. They disagreed with it, but they realized that my motives were sincere. And so in the subsequent years, they’ve come to support my vocation, actually.

Eric Sammons:

That’s great, that’s great. And my own parents, when I became Catholic, that was the concern is that, are you leaving Christianity at some point? I mean, because both of my parents were from the South in here in the United States, and of course, not really pro-Catholic, that area in a lot of areas, but they weren’t anti-Catholic. But it was the same idea though, once they saw, okay, I’m still following Jesus as best as I understand it. So when they realized I was doing that, then things got a lot less tense. And of course, then when they had Catholic grandchildren, they got more on board with the idea too.

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Right, yep.

Eric Sammons:

So that’s always good.

Okay, so Father, obviously the priesthood is something that is not found in Protestantism, the sacramental priesthood, I should say, in Protestantism, really. But why don’t we just start at the beginning and just ask, I just want to ask, what is the purpose of the priesthood? Why do we have a sacramental priesthood?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

The basic reason that we have the sacramental priesthood is when Christ ascended into Heaven, He promised, “I will not leave you alone. I will be with you until the end of the age.” And in order to make Himself present, He gave priests this power to consecrate the bread and the wine to transform them into His body and blood. And by their actions, they now extend the presence of Christ to all the people of God.

And so instead of Christ being visible in one place in the Holy Land, now Christ becomes invisible but present to us sacramentally in all the tabernacles of the world through the instrumentality of the priest. So we can think of the priesthood as the extension of Christ through time and space.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. Now, how does that then jive with the idea that’s found in the Bible? And of course, Protestants like to bring this up, the common priesthood of believers. So in one sense, I as a lay person, as a baptized Catholic, am a priest on some level, but that’s not the same as what you’re talking about, right?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Right. So in virtue of baptism, what that enables us to do is to offer up ourselves as a sacrifice to God. And so baptism helps us all to have this participation in Christ’s priesthood in general.

What the ministerial priesthood, the ordained priesthood, allows us to do as priests is I can offer up Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. And so I’m doing it in persona Christi. Christ is using my own humanity as His instruments in order to perpetuate that sacrifice on the cross in a different manner, albeit invisibly, unbloody, on the altar, but it is still Christ operating. And this is something that’s exclusive to those who are ordained.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. Obviously the highest role, so to speak, of the priest is the offering of the mass, the Consecration of the Eucharist, and what that all entails. What else is the role of the priest though in the life of the Church?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, the other sacrament that priests are ordained for is also to absolve within the confessional. And so this is also a power that Christ gave to the Apostles as it says at the end of the Gospel of John, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retained.” So it’s these two sacraments, the Eucharist and confession, that are specific to the priesthood.

But more generally, we can say that when the priest blesses, Christ as blessing; when the priest is praying for the people, then he should be praying with and through Christ. And so in that way, we can say that the priest becomes Christ’s own priestly presence through the world. The Book of Hebrews describes Christ as the one high priest who forever intercedes for us in heaven, and so that becomes our role and our responsibility to also pray for God’s people, and so Christ is praying through us in that manner.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. Now, I want to ask specifically, that’s a pretty high calling, what the priest is asked to do and his role in the Church. I start off, he is, in a sense, the priests are our mediators between us and God. And I know that that could be misunderstood because obviously holy scripture says that there’s one mediator between God and man, that’s Jesus Christ. But as we know, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t give out some of his mediation powers or whatever, however we want to term that, to certain people, and particularly, his priests.

But as a priest and as a regular, I mean, you’re just a regular person like the rest of us and so are all the other priests, how does a priest kind of jive that together, their incredibly high calling with their recognition that they’re just like anybody else?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Yeah. So Saint Josemaría Escrivá has this wonderful image. He says, “When the donkey was carrying Christ to Jerusalem, the proud donkey thought that they were throwing flowers to him, and so we have to remember that Christ uses us as instruments, but we’re just donkeys. And Christ is allowing us to participate in His ministry, and we have to remember our humble state, and the fact that when we sin, we need to go to confession. We have imperfections, we annoy people, and we have all the characteristics, of course, of any other person and we have to remind ourselves that this sacramental role is not because of our holiness.

It’s similar to the way that God chose Israel. He didn’t choose them because they were great or because they were particularly wise or powerful. They were a small nation, He says, through one of the prophets and…

Eric Sammons:

Go ahead.

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

And so likewise, when Christ chooses priests, it’s not because that man has any particular natural ability.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. Now, a priest though, has the exact same goal in a sense as all of us, and that’s to get to Heaven, to be more like Christ. And so how does a priest specifically… Most laypeople don’t really know the inside life of a priest. We don’t see what you guys do when you’re not at mass or at the parish picnic or something like that. So how does a priest go about… Because really this is, I realized, one of the points of your book, Alter Christus, is this idea of the priest needs to be saved too. He needs to grow in holiness. And actually, you have some tough words for the bad priest who enters eternity not prepared, but so what does a priest do in their own life and how is it different from the laity in growing in holiness?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Right. So there are going to be some common means to holiness that everyone has to use, and those are going to be prayer, participation in the sacraments, and penance, and sacrifice. These are going to be for all of us, and for a priest, just takes on a slightly different character.

So for instance, when I celebrate Holy Mass, I need to do so with the right dispositions as one who is participating in Christ’s own power. So any sins that I would commit in mass, like violating the rubrics, I mean, I would never do that, but if somebody did, or sins of thought or something like that, become more grave and therefore, we have to be more conscious of that while we are performing these actions.

And then also, just ordinarily, every priest is required by canon law to pray the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours. And then if you’re religious like myself, we have additional obligations such as praying the rosary every day, half an hour of meditation a day, and then the obligations of our particular way of life.

So really, a priest is trying to make use of all of the means available to the laity, plus he has extra obligations on him that are meant to keep him holy and undistracted in his work for the Church.

Eric Sammons:

Now, I know you’re religious, but what would you say are the challenges? And I know you’ve talked to other priests, stuff like that. What are probably the greatest challenges a priest has? Particularly, I’m thinking of the Diocesan Priesthood. I feel like, and obviously there’s many challenges in the religious life, but there’s different challenges in the Diocesan Priesthood.

What are those challenges that you’ve seen talking to other priests, particularly for Diocesan Priests, trying to live out this life of holiness that you talk about?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, one is definitely going to be loneliness with the decline in vocations, and I’ve talked with fellows all throughout the United States that vocations have been down in the past seven or eight years, like drastically. And the result is that when once upon a time, priests would’ve lived in a rectory with other fellows and they could have had a kind of common life, not religious, but still living together, now many of them are living alone. Sometimes they have multiple parishes that they’re covering, especially if they’re out outside of a city center, then it’s even more remote and difficult to find priestly friendships. And so that’s certainly a difficulty.

I would say another difficulty though is, at least in the United States, is the danger of, we can call it workaholism or Leo XIII called it “Americanism,” or we can just call it the sort of heresy of action, where action and work become the primary place in the priest’s life and his own interior life, his prayer, the acts of love to God and in having this deep union with God, starts to be displaced by these other activities. And maybe those activities are good. I mean, we’re not even talking about sin, but that in itself can start to lead to a detriment in his own bringing grace to people and then him living in a healthy and stable and satisfied manner.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, I know in my parish, not too long ago, I think it was, they hired somebody as kind of a director of operations because the idea that you need to have somebody running a lot of the day-to-day so the priest could be focused on the things that only a priest can do, and those are the most important things. I think our diocese actually implemented something like that when they reorganized the diocese to do something like that, to make sure every parish had that set up.

I want to kind of pivot a little bit to, because it’s something I I meant to ask before, but the idea of clericalism. So you talk about the priesthood, and we both talk about what a high calling it is, and it is a separate calling than the calling a layperson has, but then there’s also the issue of clericalism, which I think in the past would’ve been looking at the priest as superior somehow and they know everything and the laity know nothing on every subject. But today, it seems more like it’s almost like a power thing. That’s why we have to have women become priests because then they’re real members of the Church or something weird like that.

So how do you combat, how does a priest particularly, combat clericalism and balance it with the idea that, yeah, you actually do have a high calling, but you don’t want to be a clericalist?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Right, right. So I would say it’s always helpful whenever we think about one vice to think about its opposite, and then it kind of gives us the range of where people might be. So if one end is clericalism, whereby priests wrongly elevate themselves or they use the spiritual power they have for some temporal good, so they use it for their own advantage or something like that. The opposite kind of sin would be what I would call egalitarianism. And that would be pretending that we’re all equal, that we all have the same vocation, that we all receive the same kinds of graces.

And I mean, as Americans, it’s really hard to admit that that’s just not the case, that as Saint Paul says, “We’re all members of the body, and yet not every member is the eye, not every member is the hand.” We all have different roles and we should not be ashamed of both proclaiming the gifts that we’ve been given and also rejoicing in the gifts that other people have that we don’t have.

So I think that the danger for clericalism, as defined in the way that I did, is that a priest will no longer be humble. He’ll be acting for his own advantage and looking for temporal goods as a way, like power or prestige or something like that, simply because he’s a priest and it’s totally inappropriate. There are all sorts of scoundrels who deserve nothing but rebuke. And at the same time, as a priest, we ought to recognize the dignity of that position. So I mean, a bishop may be unworthy of himself having any kind of personal recognition, but the fact that he’s a bishop means that he is sharing this apostolic power and authority, and we recognize that.

I remember Saint Francis of Assisi once was asked by one of his brothers and his brother said, “If you knew that a priest was having a secret affair, would you go to communion?” And Saint Francis Assisi answered, he said, “I would not only go to communion to that priest, I would kiss his hands because he is acting in the person of Christ.”

So now to go back to your question though, how do we combat the other kind of clericalism, which is people thinking that everyone should be clerics? And I think the answer to that really has to do with humility. There’s a story in the Book of Numbers, Numbers 16, which describes a revolt of some people against Moses and Aaron. And it says that these people, the sons of Korah, they rose up and they had this assembly and they said, “You’ve gone too far. You think that you’re higher than us. Why should the Lord listen to you?” And Moses’s response was, “Because God gave us this vocation. I didn’t ask for it. God called me to it.”

And this has to be the response of the Church is to say, “God allowed some people to be priests or to be bishops or higher, and this is something that it was within God’s divine providence.” Just like He says some people can be mothers and other people can’t, no matter how much they wish it were the case.

Eric Sammons:

Right. Yeah. Well, of course today, some people think they can, some men think they can be mothers somehow, but that just shows how crazy we’ve gotten, I guess.

So in the book, you talk about a couple of the roles of the priesthood of governing, and also preaching. So I wanted to ask first about governing.

The authority of a priest, I mean, the stereotype at least, I wasn’t alive then, you weren’t alive then, but the stereotype at least of the days in 1950s and before was the parish priest as the dictator, monarch, whatever you want to call it, of the parish. Whereas the more common thing today is where you have a parish council, often you have a lot of employees and staff members who are laypeople running things, even deciding what the liturgy is like, the music is, all that stuff.

What is the proper role for a priest, particularly, let’s say a pastor, in his parish of governing the souls and governing the parish and making decisions?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Yeah. So the primary spiritual role of the priest, Christ tells us, is to be the pastor, which means it’s a role that is… It does involve governance, but it’s also a personal role. And in speaking to bishops once, John Paul II said that they should never allow the duties, the practical duties, of running the diocese to displace their primary duty to preach and to be with the people. And he meant by that, celebrating holy mass for the diocese and hearing confessions and counseling people. And if that’s the case for a bishop, even more so for the parish priest who has fewer administrative duties and should therefore be that much closer to his flock.

So how big the parish is is going to depend a lot on what kind of structure they have. In the United States, we have some of these parish structures that parallel megachurches, and so then there can be a very large bureaucracy. In Europe, sometimes that’s not the case at all. Sometimes the only person that works at the parish is a priest and everybody else is a volunteer or there’s nobody. And then of course, if you’re in Germany, then the priests don’t work and it’s all just a bunch of laypeople.

So I think that how those structures operate are going to be somewhat contingent upon culture, but also somewhat contingent on what people think the parish should do. So if people think that the parish should offer a lot of different programs that are only slightly related to the gospel, such as feeding the poor, having hospital ministry, and maybe having couples ministry, these kinds of things, which are perfectly good, then the more you want to offer those programs, the more laypeople you need involved because the fact is, a priest can’t do it all, and he’s often not an expert in some of those matters. And so he would then be, as it were, the coordinator or the governor over all those things, ensuring that they’re in line with the Church’s faith and that they’re competently run.

Eric Sammons:

Now, this one might be a little more controversial, but how about the way the liturgy is celebrated at a parish? I’ve had this experience on my own, not now, but in the past, and I know others who have complained that the priest is sympathetic to, let’s just say, a better celebration of the mass, but yet he feels like his hands are tied and he can’t really make the changes. And a lot of laypeople just look at that and say, “Well, why not? You’re the pastor. Why can’t you just say, ‘We’re going to do it like this. We’re going to do this music or we’re going to celebrate it like this at the mass’?”

And so what is the pastor’s role and what can he do and what can’t he do?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, I would distinguish between his formal power versus what I would call his moral power.

So formally speaking, the pastor of the parish, he can get rid of the music, he can have no music whatsoever, he can replace the music leader immediately. All that is within his juridical power. But every pastor knows and is afraid that if he angers too many of his flock, that they’ll leave. And what’s worse than having no people there? It’s really hard to say.

And the fact is, this definitely happens that sometimes a good-intentioned priest comes in and impudently alienates people who’ve been going to that parish for maybe 20 years, and he’s just the new guy. And because of his own proclivities, his own interests, and maybe let’s even say they’re good, nevertheless, it alienates the people and either they stop going to mass, it’s not justifiable, but they do, or they go elsewhere and now his own flock is diminished. It’s a real dilemma, and I don’t want to diminish the difficulties that priests face when confronted with this.

And so that’s where I would distinguish between improving, say music or the way the liturgy is celebrated, versus eliminating abuses. A priest should never be afraid to eliminate abuses, even if that alienates people. But in terms of improving things, that should be done more gradually and prudently and try to make sure you have as many people understanding why the changes are being made and helping people to appreciate the changes when they’re for the good.

So abuses should be eliminated immediately and should be done without any kind of regret, whereas these other kinds of changes, that has to happen in, I would say, a more gradual manner.

Eric Sammons:

Oh yeah, that’s a good distinction because yeah, sometimes you’re going to do some things, you are going to alienate people, but you got to do them anyway. And like you said, liturgical abuse obviously should be eliminated immediately when a pastor gets somewhere.

Now, you also talk about preaching. Now, the stereotype, at least here in America, is that the preaching at Catholic parishes isn’t always the greatest. And both of us came from Protestant backgrounds where the preaching was the centerpiece of the service, and that’s how a pastor got to be a pastor was because he was a good preacher. And I remember that was a big shock to me, to my system when I started going to mass was the homily just seemed so weak to me. Now looking back, some of the times they were, but just in comparison to Protestant preaching, but it is different and a Catholic homily is different than a Protestant sermon.

And so can you talk about what is the priest’s duty in his preaching? What should he be preaching about and how should he be doing it?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Right. So I think one thing of that is worth clarifying for just our listeners is after Vatican Two, a lot of people, especially priests, had the impression that it was their job to preach on all three readings in the mass. And so they felt as if their responsibility was to try to unite the Old Testament, the New Testament reading, and the gospel, and to give a sort of explanation of the meaning of the text, simultaneously uniting those together. And then if there’s any sort of liturgical occasion, addressing that as well.

The fact is that’s too much to do. And I mean, to address these large chunks of scripture in any kind of exegetically sound and sensitive manner is extremely difficult. And so if that was truly the goal, that was a bad goal to place in front of the priests.

But if you look at the documents more carefully, the Church actually actually says that the priest has the right to preach on any elements of the faith within the mass, which means you can preach about anything of the creed, there’s a whole doorway open.

And so what I often suggest when I offer my brother priests or seminarians suggestions on how to preach, I say, “Actually, what you need to do is simplify it. Don’t try to preach on every single word of the gospel,” because what they end up doing is just sort of paraphrasing it. And this is what the Jewish community would call the Targum. They rephrase it and give slight commentary, maybe add an anecdote from time to time. That’s totally inadequate. Instead, they should just choose one topic and then go into that topic very deeply, help people to see the truth of that thing.

So for instance, if the gospel is the sower who went to sow the seeds, and it’s a complicated story because there’s four different kinds of ground and who’s spreading the seeds and so on. Okay, don’t try to explain the whole thing. I mean, you could, and that might be valuable, but you can just focus on one thing. How is the gospel like a seed in your soul? How does the gospel grow? Why does it matter that our soul is ready for the truth and the beauty of the redemption of Christ that He brings to us? You just talk about that one thing, your soul is getting ready for the gospel? Wow, the people get really excited.

So I think actually that priests are sometimes placing a bar too high unnecessarily.

And then the other thing is, well, they don’t prepare. And I think we’ve all heard guys kind of wandering around, not quite sure what to say, hem and haw, and shuffle their notes, and you end up leaving. And I remember there was a layman who, he would be outside of our parish as the priests were there, and all the priests would shake the hands of everybody, and so he would comment on the other guys homily and he would say sometimes, “The sheep weren’t fed today.” And that’s like the worst thing that you could possibly say about preaching.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, absolutely. Now, okay, this is going to be the most important question of them all. How long should a homily be?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, I would say for a daily homily, five to seven minutes, maybe 10 if it’s really good, but certainly not more than that.

But a Sunday homily, in my opinion, should be something like 15 to 20. If it’s good, that won’t be a problem. High quality will give you access to more quantity in this case. And people get bored and they complain about the long homily because the homily was bad and people can’t endure it. So the better it is, then the more it’s actually capable of being elongated.

And that means being very attentive, if you’re a priest, thinking about what story do I want to use? What example of one of the saints? I want to draw metaphors. I want to make this really concrete and beautiful. I want to put in my own experience or emotion into it, illuminate some truth of the faith. If you put all that together in a good package, people want more, not less.

Eric Sammons:

Right. I remember, this actually was when I was living out in the Washington DC area, you might… Did you know Father Francis Martin?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Yeah, yeah. I actually took a class from him.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. So a great… I mean, God bless him, God rest his soul. A great scripture scholar. I mean, just one of the top scripture scholars in the country, if not the world. And I lived right down the street from where he lived in the community where he would celebrate mass each day.

And so he would have a daily mass and his homilies, and normally when I go to daily mass, I admit I want five minutes or less on a homily because I’m just… Usually daily mass, you want to get in, you got to get out because you got the rest of your day and you got work, whatever. But his homilies each day would be about 20, 25 minutes. But they were so good because they really went deep into the scripture that what you started doing, you planned your day around it. You’re like, “Okay, that’s okay that I’m going to be here 45 minutes or so, whatever the case may be for daily mass, because it’s worth it.”

And so it just speaks to your point that I’ve also been at Sunday masses where it’s a 20-minute or more homily, and boy, after five minutes, I’m already wanting to glance at my watch, but I try not to, but I want to. So yeah, I think you’re right as far as what they’re saying is what really matters. It’s going to keep them there.

Okay, so now I want to ask a little bit about the role of the laity. Most of the people who are listening to this are likely to be laypeople. I hope some priests are listening to and are learning a few things, and I recommend they definitely get the book, Alter Christus, but a layperson, what can a lay… This is the big challenge, I think, for laypeople, the relationship with their priests. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s average, sometimes it’s not so good. But in general, what can a layperson do to help their priests be good priests and help their priests get to Heaven?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, first of all, it’s prayer. Absolutely. Pray for your priests. And it’s absolutely essential that when you see a flaw in that priest, an imperfection, or even worse, a sin, that you pray for him and you ask God that God help him in that trial. And we should never think that because the priest has the obligation to pray for the people, that it’s not reciprocal. Actually, the people have a responsibility. Just as we, as biological children, should pray for our parents, so the flock should pray for the shepherd. So absolutely the first thing.

The second thing is to reach out to the priest and encourage him. We’re often the complaint box, and some priests, whatever their day, their first day is after Sunday, often they’ll come and they’ll have lots of emails or phone calls of complaints or just difficulties. We’re always putting out fires. We’re the firemen of the world and we’re running around trying to solve people’s difficult problems.

Often what happens is when a priest helps people, they’re not grateful. They come and they pour out their heart and they need some help, or he prepares somebody for marriage, he baptizes the child and then poof, the family’s gone. “Hey, thanks for the service.” It’s just like getting a burger from McDonald’s. I don’t have a relationship with that person. I just got the burger and I drive away. And that should not be our relationship with the priest of just sort of using them for sacramental goods, spiritual goods, and ignoring them as persons.

Now, a priest can’t be friends with everybody. There are lots of good reasons for that. But if a priest helps you or touches your life in a special way, if he gives you some insight in preaching or he was especially helpful in confession or one of the sacraments, send a little note. It makes a big difference. I’ve seen priests have little thank you notes on their desk, years old, simply because it was written in a very meaningful way.

So one, pray. Two, show acts of gratitude and assistance to the priests.

And then three is some people maybe feel called to develop more of a friendship in a healthy, well-ordered manner, and sometimes that’s a good thing to do as well. So the people that I got to know best at my parish were people who reached out to me. They were very attentive saying, “My name is Tim. Father Ezra, nice to meet you. Tim.” And like, oh, now I know Tim’s family. And then it’s somebody I can remember, whereas a lot of people, they felt it was up to me. We had 2,000 families at my parish. I couldn’t memorize everybody’s name. That was impossible. I tried.

And so I would just say that laypeople should not be afraid. They should kind of go outside of themselves and make some of those efforts and that’ll really help a priest to feel that he’s helping and that he’s loved.

Eric Sammons:

And I think that should be the standard as laypeople, we should always be looking for ways to encourage our priests, to help them out, to do whatever we can to assist them in their vocation as well.

In fact, it’s funny. My pastor, he helped me with something over a year ago and I was talking to him the other day and I just mentioned it to him. I was like, “You know, when I talked to you a year ago about that, I really did appreciate what you said.” He was like, “I don’t remember what I said, but I’m glad.” But he was like, “I’m glad it helped.” But I realized I had never thanked him, but it was a big help for me. I mean, a really big help for me. And I told my wife this and she was kind of like, “Well, you probably should tell Father that too. Let him know that it really was helpful.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a pretty good idea.”

So yeah, I would encourage laypeople to thank their priest as much as possible. But I also want to look at the flip side.

What does a layperson do when a priest really does do something wrong, or I mean, really is causing some type of problem? I mean, maybe they preach heresy in a homily, which unfortunately happens, or something of that nature where there really is a scandal here, there really is a problem here. Obviously, if we’re talking about an abuse situation, then you immediately report it and all that. I’m talking about the situations in which a priest really does fail in their calling, and you’ve prayed for them, you’ve done other things. Is there something else a layperson can or should do in that situation?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, our Lord says in Matthew, He gives kind of a process by which we correct people, and this applies as much to priests as to anybody else. And He says, “First, go to the individual and tell him of a sin. And if he does not listen, then bring along two or three witnesses and speak to him. And if he doesn’t listen to them, then you go to the Church.”

And the idea is that when somebody does something wrong, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt that they can change. And it’s difficult to go to somebody in person and to say, “Hey, I noticed this and this really concerns us.” And sometimes, it’ll be something he didn’t know about, he wasn’t even aware of it, or it could be something that he bristles against and, “I’m not a heretic. This is what I was taught in seminary,” or something. Okay, well, then we’re going to have to escalate the situation.

But the first thing that our Lord says to do in the gospel is to talk to a person individually. And what that does is it helps them to change course. It helps them to understand that this is a serious thing. And of course, if you can do it in person, that’s best. A lot of these ways of correcting really depend on prudential circumstances. What a lot of people like to do now is to send an email and it’s a sort of long email and it’s emotional or it’s manipulative or something like that. That’s often not helpful.

Now, if a person feels that they can’t talk to the priest face-to-face for some reason, well, you bring another person with you and, “Father, can we have a chance to sit down?” You try to say something in a calm and loving and charitable tone in a way that you’re trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they don’t understand how grave this was, or maybe this is something that he had a good intention and misunderstood, or something like that. And then you just feel out, well, how are things going? And then you kind of course-adjust based on that initial test.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. Years ago, a priest that I thought was pretty good said something in a homily, I can’t remember now what it was, something in a homily that definitely sounded pretty heretical to me. And I did. I brought it up to him and he was horrified because he did not… I can’t remember if he misspoke or what happened, but he definitely was like, “No, no, no. That’s not what I meant.” And so he was like, “Thank you for bringing it up.’ But I went to him and I did kind of assume initially because I knew him and I knew he was a good guy and a good priest, and so I figured it was something like that, but I wasn’t sure, so I wanted to bring it up to him. And he was very grateful because obviously he didn’t intend for his words to be taken like they were taken when he spoke.

Because that’s the other thing is as somebody who’s done public speaking before, and you, of course, have to do it as a priest a lot, you do sometimes just say things that are just not what you meant to say and not what you think. You just misspeak. And it’s unfortunate, especially for a priest to do that, because it can have grave consequences if it’s too strong. But they’re human too. They make these mistakes.

Okay. So I want to finish up here, but I want to talk a little bit about your book, the Alter Christus. What is the intention of why you wrote this book? Because it’s Priestly Holiness on Earth and in Eternity. Who is your audience and who are you trying to help with this and how are you trying to help them?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

Well, I wrote the book initially because I was invited by a Monsignor at the Vatican to give a retreat to Diocesan Priests in Verona, Italy. And so I preached that in Italian and then I revised it in this English edition.

So I would say the primary audience is Diocesan Priests to help my brothers to appreciate their vocation and the challenges that holiness brings, but also to give them really concrete solutions on how to live that life of holiness with God’s grace more effectively.

Secondarily, this book is for all Catholic laity. I’ve actually had far more laypeople give me feedback about the book and saying that they learned about the nature of the priesthood. They learned something about the spiritual life. It helps them to understand even how all of our lives are centered on eternity. And it kind of woke them up to how God might go and judge them. And so really, it’s intended for all the faithful to help to understand this vocation and then also to understand this is what a priest is going through. These are the kinds of challenges that he will try to live in his governance, in his prayer. And then you can reflect on your own challenges in your life and how they’re going to be fitted according to your own state.

So hopefully, I hope it helps everybody to grasp all the essential issues regarding the nature of the priesthood.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. What I liked about it was that it does kind of open the laities. I know it’s priests, obviously, who get a lot out of it, but like you said, I feel like laypeople can get something out of it because it does open your eyes to remind you, these are just men who are trying to fulfill a calling that’s extremely high. I mean, a lot of pressure, frankly, because like I just was saying before, what happens if they actually say something heretical during a homily just because they misspoke and they said the word not when they didn’t mean to or something like that? That can affect souls and they know it.

And so it does help, I think. Reading the book does help remind laypeople, okay, it doesn’t excuse when a priest does something bad or anything like that. We’re not trying to say that, but at the same time, it is trying to say, “Okay, these guys are just guys who are really trying to do these things and it’s a big challenge.” So I appreciate that about the book. So I would agree.

I was wondering when you wrote it, if it was just supposed to be for priests because I felt like I think laypeople can get something out of it, but I’m glad to hear that other laypeople have already realized that they can get something out of this book too, help in their relationship with their own priests that they have.

Okay, so let’s wrap it up there. Is there anywhere people can go, I know you’re over in Rome, to find out? I know you have a number of books you’ve written. Is there any website or anything like that people can find out more about you and your books and things like that?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

I don’t have a personal website in general, but there is an academia.edu website. So if people just search “Academia” and then “Father Ezra,” my academic website will show up. And there are a number of articles I’ve written, some about artificial intelligence, bioethics. I wrote 99 pages about the COVID vaccine and there are a lot of other articles, church history and so on. You can download those for free. You’re quite welcome to. And also, the introduction and contents of all the books I’ve written, as well as a couple of others I helped to edit.

So it’s a storehouse for documents really, but you’re not going to find my autobiography.

Eric Sammons:

Well, that’s great. I mean, I’ve used that site before. I will find the link to it and I will put that in the description of this show so people can find it easily. I think I actually found it when I was looking up you earlier before we went on, so I’ll easily find that and I can link to that and let people know about it because obviously, your articles and your other books, it’s great to be able to know about all that. And boy, soon as we get off, I think I’m going to go find that 99-page article about the COVID vaccine.

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

All right. Fantastic.

Eric Sammons:

That was a good sales pitch for that one.

Well, thank you very much, Father, for being here. I really do appreciate it. Anything else you want to leave us with about the priesthood?

Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.:

I would just say I personally have benefited so much from priests in my life and I’m so grateful that God called me to this vocation. And I’m grateful for all the laypeople who’ve been my friends, who’ve prayed for me and with me, been patient. And so thank God for this wonderful sacrament and I hope that you pray for the priests that you know.

Eric Sammons:

Amen, amen. I can’t agree more. Okay, everybody, until next time, God love you.

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