The Catholic Church is a bone in the throat of our secular culture. Of course we’ve all felt the culture’s contempt for Catholic moral teaching. But the deeper scandal of the Church is her set-apartness.
In baptism, every believer is marked as Christ’s own. This is an exodus, a going-out from the “facts of life” as the world understands them. And this going-out irks our culture, just as it irked the ancient Roman world. The modern secular world is organized around the natural goods of creation, to the exclusion of God. It resents the Church’s supernatural orientation. We’ve all heard the complaint that the Church should do more to meet the needs of the poor or address climate change, and worry less about liturgies and worship and spiritual realities. Fundamentally, that’s a complaint against holiness as the Church’s highest aim.
And yet, the Church’s transcendent orientation fascinates our culture. Holiness offends and frightens people. As an old translation of the New Testament put it, when the angel of the Lord came to them, the shepherds in their fields were “sore afraid.” Holiness also arrests and romances. We flee from God, yet we crave to come into his presence.
When I was ordained, almost forty-two years ago, I had printed on my ordination card these verses from the high-priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17: “As you sent me into the world, I sent them into the world, and for their sake, I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:18–19). The key word in those verses is “consecrate” (Greek hagiazein; Latin sanctificare). The sense is to set apart and make holy, and the theological context in the fourth Gospel is the sacrifice of the cross and the glory of Jesus. Consecrate, make holy, set apart, the sacrifice of the cross: These concepts, these profound mysteries, spoke to me and still do.
Priests are consecrated and set apart—this is fundamental to the priesthood. It means we invariably embody the scandal and the allure of the divine. Ordination consecrates a priest to a life of service. This means performing very tangible tasks, such as maintaining the parish buildings and ensuring that the parish school is well run. But that is not the core of the priestly ministry. Priests serve the People of God—and through them the world—by virtue of the transcendent tasks that are our responsibility.
Priests are commissioned by God to handle divine things. We are custodians of the Church’s sacred liturgy and mysteries of faith. We are not the sources of divine grace. Jesus alone is the source. But like the ancient priesthood of Israel, priests are instruments of that grace, which reaches its fullness in the sacraments of the Church that Jesus Christ instituted. The world’s vision may be impaired by sin, but it’s not blind. Our secular culture can’t help but see us as odd and out-of-date, even scary—but strangely attractive. Even non-believers recognize that our job, as priests, is to stretch the umbilical cord of human nature toward the divine.
This is a perilous thing to do. In Isaiah’s vision, even the angels of God must take up tongs to draw the burning coals from God’s holy altar. This is why priests inspire a kind of fear as well as awe. The fear comes from the fact that our human nature is fallen and fragile—and what if the umbilical cord breaks? The awe comes from recognizing the boldness of the venture. To be God’s instrument and take his most sacred mysteries into our hands is an awesome possibility.
The promise of celibacy is not the essence of the priesthood. It’s a discipline that serves the vocation. But if you talk to any non-Catholic about the priesthood, celibacy will be at the front of his or her mind. When I told my Muslim barber that I was a Catholic priest and bishop, he gave me an impromptu disquisition on the unnaturalness of celibacy for a man. I always find that you are a little at a disadvantage in a barber’s chair, so I kept my answer for another day! Perhaps many Catholics react the same way.
The world’s focus on celibacy is short-sighted, but it reflects a correct spiritual intuition. Celibacy is a powerful sign of being set apart. In many religious traditions, celibacy marks those consecrated to offer sacrifices, receive revelations, and otherwise enter into commerce with the divine. It is obvious that this should be so. Our sexual instinct is so basic to our humanity that its denial marks a break with the ordinary. Our natural religious sense leads us to recognize that God is not nature itself. We cannot enter into the presence of God without in some way leaving the imperatives of nature behind. The enclosing walls of the profane must be punctured if we are to gain access to the sacred. Denying the goods of nature serves the higher end of preparing us for intimacy with God.
But that’s not how the world sees celibacy. In the second chapter of Genesis, Adam is alone. God sees that it is not good, and he sets things right. Adam’s union of flesh with Eve both inaugurates and exemplifies the human project in the world. Sexual union is a kind of natural sacrament, one that both signifies and effects human connectedness and solidarity. For this reason, clerical celibacy inspires a degree of fear, even resentment. In a certain sense, priests are traitors. Celibacy is seen by many as psychologically dangerous. Priests are seen as men cut off from the “fullness of life.”
So the world rejects priestly celibacy. Yet celibacy also evokes curiosity and admiration. People sense the spiritual freedom that celibacy brings. They also impute a spiritual nobility to celibacy. This is true for non-believers as well as believers. The world is fascinated by celibacy, all the more so in the present age when sex, sexual freedom, and sexual identity have become the prism through which so many political, cultural, and moral issues are viewed.
What the world is seeing is our set-apart vocation. This is reinforced by our clerical collars and garb. When I come into a room for a meeting with laypeople, I’m always aware that they may be seeing me as something akin to an alien. I’m a man, of course, flesh and blood—but they don’t regard me as one of them. That’s as true for the most ardently secular political or business leaders as it is for the devoted lay leaders in my diocese. I can preach again and again about the Church’s spiritual fruitfulness and her commitment to human fulfillment. But laypeople know that I’m outside the great temporal project of human life to be fruitful and multiply.
This priestly “outside-ness” can be a heavy burden. Humans are social animals, after all. But it’s a misguided theology of ministry that encourages priests to think of themselves as “just like everybody else.” Priests are certainly not better than other Christians. In fact, our sins can be egregious, because they’re often spiritualized by our priestly vocations. Nor does our set-apartness justify clerical aloofness. We should always make ourselves available to all who seek God. But being available does not mean being the same.
For instance, in private conversations, a priest should exercise discretion when talking about his interior life. Admissions of personal struggles by the laity can often be helpful in prayer groups and among friends. But the same words spoken by a priest can have the opposite effect. Priests must reckon with the reality of our ordination. It shapes how we are seen and heard. To pretend otherwise always leads us and others astray.
The world needs visible signs of something greater, something beyond its ken. Priests share with our brothers and sisters in Christ a common baptism that makes all of us full members of the Body of Christ. But as St. Paul observes, though we are one body in Christ, there are many members. There is nothing subjectively “superior” about being a priest. But priests are objectively distinct and set apart for a special purpose in God’s economy of salvation. That’s what it means to be ordained to holy orders. Priests do others no favors by denying the special character of their lives as men ordained into holy orders. In fact, that has been one of the most damaging problems for the Church in recent decades.
The set-apart character of the priesthood finds its fullest expression in the Mass. Under ordinary circumstances, the priest leads the congregation in the Liturgy of the Word. In this role, priests are representatives of the Church’s teaching authority, something they share with bishops and deacons. This does not mean that laypeople can’t speak eloquently and intelligently about scripture and doctrine. But as members of holy orders, priests exercise a sacramental role. For this reason, we must guard against too much “creativity” in the pulpit. I’m all for lively, effective preaching, but priests need to keep in mind that they are not just Christians on a faith-journey. Priests speak in a unique and formal way for the Church.
Preaching should follow the great Catholic sacramental principle ex opere operato, which means that the subjective conditions of our souls are not decisive for the efficacy of our sacramental ministry. God works through us, often in spite of our infidelities. Sacramental grace depends upon God’s faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ, and his faithfulness, unlike ours, is utterly trustworthy. The homily is not a sacrament, strictly speaking, but it is a vehicle for God’s grace, which comes in the form of true doctrine vouchsafed by the Church’s unfailing teaching office. Priests must proclaim what the Church believes and has always believed.
I’ve deferred until the end the central reality of the priesthood, which is our service at God’s altar. In the old days, altar rails accentuated the distance between the baptized and the inner sanctuaries of God’s most sacred dwelling place. In many churches, the altar rails have been removed, perhaps for good reasons. But it’s very unwise to neglect all signs of the great distance between God and man. We are directed in the General Introduction to the Roman Missal that, whenever possible, the altar should be somewhat elevated and in some way marked as distinct and holy.
Some think that clear indications of the distance between the congregation and the altar of Christ’s sacrifice contribute to clericalism. The opposite is true. The elevation of the altar and the marking of the sanctuary make the priest more aware of his unworthiness. Important questions more naturally arise. By what right do we separate ourselves from the baptized? How can we imagine ourselves worthy to approach the divine? Every step to the altar and into the sanctuary reminds us that we can venture such boldness only on God’s authority, never our own.
These days, we want to imagine that love means acceptance and affirmation, which involve no movement or change. But God calls the baptized to enter into his household. It’s foolish to imagine that the journey is a short one. Love desires the beloved, yes, and the Word made flesh takes up residence with us. But he’s with us as the good shepherd to guide us along the narrow path of his cross and resurrection, and that path is not near, familiar, or convenient.
Priests share this journey with all the baptized. But when we ascend to the altar, we are in the “forefront” of the People of God. We do not leave the laity behind, any more than our ordination causes us to leave behind our baptism. Instead, we venture something frightful, which is to enter God’s inner sanctuary. The great mystery of the Mass comes from the fact that the priest does more than act on behalf of the baptized. His ordination conforms him sacramentally to Jesus Christ and consecrates him to the service of the Church. He then acts “in persona Christi” who makes him an instrument of his saving work on the cross and of his victory over sin and death in his resurrection.
From time immemorial, priestly castes have stretched the umbilical cord of humanity to enter into commerce with God. But only in Jesus Christ do priests recapitulate God’s kenosis, his self-lowering to come into the mortal frame of our creaturely existence. Priests are often far less than holy as men. But priests are God’s porters, as it were. We, his unworthy servants, carry his holiness to his people.
It often seems that 2017 is a tough time to be a priest. Certainly, the era of “Father-knows-best” is over. But that era normalized clerical life and slotted priests into what became, over time, a very worldly social hierarchy—not a divine one. And while that era has faded, faded because it was accretion and not mystery, the reality of priestly ordination remains.
To be set apart to serve at God’s altar is an extraordinary call. The priesthood remains an offense to the world’s assumptions about what is real and what matters. Priests continue to fascinate and inspire. And in today’s “whatever” culture, there’s very little that moves, threatens, and inspires people.
It’s striking, therefore, that the secular West continues to vibrate to the priesthood, both in rebellion and affirmation. And that is a very good thing.
Philip Tartaglia is archbishop of Glasgow.