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You shall be my witnesses: Thoughts on renewing the priesthood

October 7, 2003

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

"The council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light. And already at this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart."

--Blessed John XXIII in his opening comments to the Second Vatican Council
October 11, 1962

I always wanted to be a priest, and I always dreamed of being a missionary. Because of that, there's a passage in Acts that I've reread and reflected on ever since I was a young man:

And you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts, 1:8).

I go back to that verse every September, because every year I do a little inventory of the men studying for the priesthood in our seminaries in Denver. This year we have more than 90 men from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Myanmar, Australia, Italy, Colombia, Chile, Nigeria and half a dozen other countries.

These are really fine young men, and they remind me that the believing community that began in Jerusalem’s Upper Room now preaches Jesus Christ around the world. And that always renews my hope. In the wake of a bitterly difficult 18 months for the Church in the United States, we need to remember that over the centuries, God has always called men and women to renew and extend His Church. Today that same vocation belongs to every Catholic, and in special way, to every priest.

The apostles who preached the Gospel on the first Pentecost had several things in common. Each had been called by Jesus. Each had known Him firsthand. Each had denied, failed and abandoned Him. Each had repented. Each had been forgiven. And each, despite his sins, had received the same commission: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus knew -- in advance -- the sins of every man He chose. And still He chose them, and still He sent them out to convert the world in His name.

Therein lies the mystery of every priestly life. God sanctifies the world with sinful clay. The clergy misconduct scandal of the last year is a tragedy in every sense. I see the human cost of it every time I visit with a victim. It has hurt hundreds of innocent lives. It has humiliated the Gospel. It has embarrassed thousands of good priests. But it is not unique. From the Old Testament to the present day, the story of God’s priests and God’s people has been one of sin, chastisement, repentance, conversion and renewal.

Thus, the problems we face today as priests really aren't so different from the ones we've faced in the past. God calls us to preach the light of Christ despite the shadow of our own sins. This is the nature of our priesthood and of all discipleship. It's God’s school of humility. We're not worthy to be disciples, but God calls us anyway. In bearing our sins with humility, they become the antidote to our pride, and this enables us better to serve God's people. Scripture teaches us that when Israel had worldly success, she failed. So it is too with the Church. What we need to learn from our failures and humiliation, and what we priests and bishops need especially to remember, is our own inadequacy without God.

There may have been a time when a man could look at being a bishop or a priest as a privileged caste; or a comfortable job; or an escape from the world; or a safe harbor for his personal confusions; or an avenue for his ambition. But if it ever really existed, that time is over.

The men God calls today, and the men the Church needs today, are heroes -- and that striving for heroism needs to be part of our daily lives. We need to be priests who love God more than ourselves; who seek God’s glory more than our own; who want to lead by serving others; who have a mercy and humility born of a knowledge of our own sins; who have the courage to preach the truth even in the face of contempt; and who have a hunger for winning souls. We need to be priests who are faithful to the Church and her teachings; who are obedient to our vocation as Christ was obedient to His; and who stand in persona Christi -- imaging the person of Christ to our people.

We also need a healthy realism about the society around us. We live in an environment very different from the opening of Vatican II, or even a decade ago. The world we inhabit is not a friend of the Gospel, no matter how superficially "religious" American culture seems. It has contempt for Jesus Christ, contempt for the Cross, and contempt for the people who carry their own Cross and follow Him. So this year and in the years ahead, the bishops and priests we need to be are men who will turn away from comfort, who will listen for the voice of God, who will follow Jesus Christ into the storm, and in their failures, will turn to Him as Peter did:

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out His hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Mt 14:29-31).

This pure and wholehearted faith to which Jesus called Peter is the kind of faith that changed the world from Jerusalem to all the ends of the earth. And it's really the only kind of faith that can change the world of today.

We priests teach our people with our lives. If we believe, our people will more readily believe. If we are holy, our people will more easily hear their own call to holiness. When sin strikes the shepherd, the sheep scatter (Zech 13:7; Mt 26:31), and we've all seen the confusion and sorrow in too many of our people over the last 18 months. But the opposite is also true. The good shepherd, by his witness and his service, leads his people to life (Jn 10:7-11). In the words of Vatican II, the impact of a priest's life is proof of the "spiritual power, a power whose purpose is to build up," which each of us receives uniquely in the Sacrament of Orders (PO, 6).

But every member of the ordained priesthood also shares with his people the common priesthood of Baptism. As the priest is the person of Christ in the Church, so the Church is the presence of Christ in the world. As the priest sanctifies, teaches and leads the Church, so the Church must do the same for the world. And I think this organic relationship between priesthood and Baptism, between priests and our people, offers a solution to the problems all Catholics now face as a community.

Vatican II reminds us that, "it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, 'the work of our redemption is accomplished'" (SC, 2). The Eucharist is the source and summit of our life as Christians. There is no Church without the Eucharist, and no Eucharist without the priest.

But it's also true that there can be no priests without faithful laypeople who live the Gospel in their daily lives, who open their sons to hear God's call, and who support priests with their prayers and friendship.

The "crisis" in today's Church really can't be isolated in the priesthood or even in the gravity of clergy misconduct. It's not finally a crisis of Orders. It's a crisis of Baptism. I believe that God calls more than enough good men to the harvest. That never changes. If not enough men answer the call, then we need to examine the nature of our family and parish life, purify our formation programs, review our seminaries more rigorously and improve the way we seek vocations. And as priests, we above all need to model what we preach. We're accountable to God, to one another as brothers, and to our people for the priests we help to form.

But we also need to ask our people how honestly they look into their own hearts; how earnestly they live what they say they believe; how well they support the priests they already have; and how zealously they present the Church and priestly life to their own children. If mothers and fathers pray for more priestly vocations from somebody else's family, they already have an answer to their prayer.

Now, does this let us priests off the hook? Not at all. In fact, exactly the opposite. The priest is unavoidably a leader in Catholic life. People will follow where we go, and we lead first by example, just as Jesus did.

Even in the “age of the laity,” the priesthood sets the tone of Catholic life. It’s the nature of the Church because it was the nature of her Founder. Francis de Sales used to say: “Holy priest, devout people. Devout priest, honest people. Honest priest, sinful people." He stopped there, but we don't have to work too hard to imagine what kind of people we get with sinful bishops and priests. Priests are leaders by virtue of our ordination. There's no getting away from that responsibility. And the saint’s logic forces us to ask how much of the confusion and lack of commitment within the Church today leads right back to us bishops and priests as shepherds of our people.

Being a shepherd means we have a duty to lead our people to conversion, to bring them closer to God and away from sin. In his years as a pastor, Jean-Marie Vianney managed to close down every bar and dance hall in his rural parish in Ars. I’m not suggesting we try the same thing. But I do think we should ask: Why was Jean-Marie proclaimed a saint? It's because he was ardent, unswerving and true in bringing his flock to God, no matter who criticized him -- and above all, his people knew that he loved them.

Martin Luther King once said that it isn't enough to love other people. They need to know you love them, and Jean Vianney instinctively understood that. Jean-Marie wasn't applauded by the civic authorities, wasn't supported by his bishop and wasn't even praised by his parishioners. But he had no desire to be "strict," either. He simply wanted to fulfill the mission for which God had called him as a pastor -- to bring people closer to God. And why did he succeed? Because he entirely forgot himself. He became Christ for his people. He was consumed by pastoral charity.

We need to thoroughly understand the fabric of our people’s lives -- without losing our zeal to transform it, and them. Christ read the heart of the woman at the well. He defended the woman taken in adultery. He loved His apostles even while knowing they would abandon him. He engaged Himself personally with the people around Him, including sinners, like the wonderful story of Zacchaeus. But He never excused or overlooked sin, never doubted His Father or His mission, and always demanded purity of heart and action from His followers. We need to do the same.

The central issue of modern American Catholic life is the temptation to accommodate, compromise, get along, and fit in – and then feel good about it. We accept tepidness in the name of pluralism. We put diversity of belief and behavior above truth. We place the individual above the common good. We put “tolerance” above love, justice and real charity. None of this converts anybody. It does the opposite. It provides people with alibis and leeches away their faith.

We have to be the doctors, not the defense attorneys, for our people’s sins. It’s important for us as priests to fully understand the culture of our time – from the economic pressures dividing families, to the power of the mass media, to the appeals of consumer comfort, to the persuasiveness of science and technology – without being captured by it ourselves. We can’t give what we don’t have. If our own faith and zeal and desire for souls are weak, we can’t expect anything different from our people.

We should take a hard look at the confidence that Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses or evangelicals bring to the proclamation of their beliefs. It's not a pleasant comparison. We Catholics have the full truth, and yet these other groups embarrass us by their energy and enthusiasm. If our humble and loving proclamation of Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith offends some people, we can't let that silence us.

We urgently need to form our people better – which means, first of all, forming ourselves in a correct understanding of the Church, her authority and her mission, and the real differences and complementarities among the priestly, religious and lay vocations.

If we as priests criticize the Church, her teachings and her leaders, so will our people – and nothing will get done in the task of converting the world. The Church cannot engage the world except through the faith and zeal of her own laypeople. We priests are the cultivators of that faith and the motivators of that zeal. If laypeople fail in their vocation, it proves that we fail in ours.

The Church does need reform. She always needs reform. She needs scholars and liturgists and committed laypersons to help guide her, and pastors who know how to lead with humility, courage and love. But what she needs more than anything else is holiness -- holy priests who form holy people, who love Jesus Christ and His Church more than they love their own lives. The renewal of the priesthood and the Church at large is not finally an issue of structures. It is an issue of faith.

What people really believe, they act on. And when they don't act, they don't really believe. For all of us as American Catholics -- especially priests, but lay people and religious as well -- this issue of faith is the heart of the matter. Real faith changes us. It hammers us into a new and different shape. We too often confuse faith with theology or ethics or pious practice or compassionate feelings, all of which are important -- vitally important. But real faith forces us to face the really unsettling command given to each of us in the First Letter of Peter: "[A]s he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct" (1:15).

Holiness means being in the world but not of it. It means being different from and other than the ways of our time and place, and conformed to the ways of God, as Isaiah says:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is 55:8,9).

To the degree Catholics have longed to join the mainstream of American life, to become like everyone else, to accommodate and grow comfortable and assimilate, rather than be "other than" and holy, we've abandoned who we really are. And priests face this temptation just as much as laypersons. Like the Jews in the days of Jeremiah, I think American Catholics have forgotten the covenant. We've "burned incense to other gods, and worshipped the works of [our] own hands" (Jer 1:16). We've ignored the final command Christ gave to all of us when He said, "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19). He was speaking to each of us, right here and right now. We need to remember, every hour of every day, that Catholics are a missionary people led and served by a missionary priesthood.

So I think this, then, is the lesson in the bitterness of the last 18 months for all of us. We need to return to Christ's call to "Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” We need a Church rooted in holiness. We need parishes on fire with faith. And we will get them only when we ourselves change; when we center our lives in God; when we seek to become holy ourselves.

Throughout his long ministry, Pope John Paul II has urged priests again and again to take up the task of a "new evangelization" of the world. That work belongs to every Catholic, but especially to those of us who are priests. Vatican II says that, " . . . since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first task of priests as coworkers of bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all" (PO, 4). Our job as priests is converting the world.

Seeking an armistice with the spirit of the world, both outside us and within us, is an illusion. I know that the Church in the Province of Denver faces an absolutely new and absolutely real kind of mission territory every day now, with all sorts of intractable pastoral challenges. We're a region of rapidly growing cities, wealth, sophisticated media and excellent universities. We're also a region of farms and ranches, huge distances, migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, the homeless and the poor.

We're blessed with a thriving Hispanic population who are naturally drawn to the Catholic faith, but we're also hobbled by a lack of personnel and resources to serve these thousands of good people as they need.

We live in a nation of great material success and scientific self-assurance, but where the inner life is withering away, where private spiritualities replace communities of real faith, and where loneliness is now the daily routine of millions of people. Every priest knows this just from the confessions we hear in a year.

This is mission territory -- whether we recognize it yet or not; whether we do our ministry in Joliet or Miami or Denver -- and we need a new Pentecost. We need to be priests who are men of prayer, men of courage, men for others, men anchored in the sacramental life of the Church. We need to be priests who will spark not a new clericalism, but a new friendship, new equality, new cooperation and new fire from every vocation and form of discipleship in the Church.

We need to be priests who can answer generously and honestly yes when Jesus asks us, "Simon, son of John, do you love me? " (Jn 21:15).

I think God is calling us to be those priests right now. He's calling us to be what He saw in our hearts when He first spoke our names. And so the prayer we need to keep on our lips, as we look back on the last 18 months and look ahead to the hopes and difficulties that lie ahead, is "thank you" -- thank you God for delivering me from myself; thank you God for calling me to your service, thank you God for demanding from me a life of holiness, thank you God for giving me the brothers to support me on the way.

And you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts, 1:8).

I can't imagine any richer life with any better men in the world, and it's a privilege for me that you've welcomed me to share it with you today.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved