By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
On the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in June 2009, Pope Benedict declared that this would be the “Year of the Priest.” It was a welcome declaration. We priests have sensed ourselves being lifted up in prayer by all God’s people.
Yet each priest with whom I speak also feels something else. Perhaps it is an inherent modesty, but the priest hopes and trusts implicitly that those who are not priests – those who are lay, who are deacons, who are sisters – might know of our certain sense of “pause,” our shrinking from being singled out.
There is something that we priests learn over the years: that our priesthood is never something isolated from the people whom we serve. There is inborn in the very notion of priesthood a relatedness, a being-for, a being-with, a being-among, a being-in-the-middle-of the entire people of God.
At one point, I feared that perhaps I was being too sensitive on this issue of priests being singled out. But just a few weeks ago, I had occasion to read the official “Letter of Proclamation.” In the letter Pope Benedict seems to share a similar sensitivity when he speaks of the great patron, St. John Vianney. He seems anxious to point out that “John Vianney enlisted lay persons to work at his side.”
The Pope then adds this: “John Vianney’s example naturally leads me to point out that there are sectors of cooperation which need to be opened ever more fully to the lay faithful. Priests and laity together make up the one priestly people, and in virtue of their ministry priests live in the midst of the lay faithful, that they may lead everyone to the unity of charity, ‘loving one another with mutual affection; and outdoing one another in sharing honor'” (Rom. 12:10)
The Pope then recalls the Second Vatican Council’s hearty encouragement to priests “to be sincere in their appreciation and promotion of the dignity of the laity and of the special role they have to play in the Church’s mission. … They should be willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes, and acknowledge their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity. In this way they will be able together with them to discern the signs of the times.”
As the years have gone by, we priests have become sensitive to a problem that has crept into the Church, namely, that of “clericalism.” Clericalism is not easy to define; but we know it when we see it. It manifests itself in a presumption of power, an air of entitlement, a zealousness over titles, a way of speaking that would violate Jesus’ message never to “lord” it over people. As one writer recently noted, “Clericalism is not priesthood, but the ‘death of priesthood.'” (George Wilson, S.J.)
In this “Year of the Priest,” there is a sensibility among this writer and among priests in general – a sensibility of being humbled, of plain gratitude. Interesting, that the priests’ prayers during the Eucharist are so filled with the pronoun “we.” At the beginning of Mass the priest prays: “Let us acknowledge our failures…” And at the presentation of the gifts: “…Through your goodness we have this bread to offer…” And at the Preface: ” We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks…”
It is within such a grace-filled understanding of priesthood that we receive the prayers and love of the whole people of God during this “Year of the Priest.”
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.