A priest or a seminarian, can slowly but surely be steered away from his call if he stops pondering the mystery of God’s love for him and starts to become, as one of my professors used to quip in seminary, ‘a sacramental Pez dispenser.’ (If you don’t know what Pez are, they are little sugar tablets that come in decorated dispensers, and you should try them.)
I hope I’m not scandalizing anyone by saying that celebrating Mass can become routine, and dispensing the sacraments can become routine. A priest can start to doubt his call and start to feel like he is a machine who exists to give out the sacraments while living a life that does not honor the reality of his whole person. Profound liturgies can become a dull routine if a priest does not understand, or does not prayerfully enter into the reality that his priesthood is a call to a mysterious and profound relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity.
Priesthood is not a job, but if we are not formed to believe this and more deeply understand this, it can feel like a job. Priesthood is a change in a man’s being, at the level of his soul, and it is an invitation to become a vessel of God’s love for humanity in a specific way. It is also an invitation into a different type of relationship with God himself. The Lord desires His priests to speak God’s wisdom to a world that has forgotten it. He desires his priests to enter so deeply into the mystery of his love for them and for the world that they cannot help but proclaim it at Mass, and they delight in the dispensation of grace that comes from dispensing the sacraments.
The seminaries that are forming our men are seeking to highlight how to be a priest, not just how to act as a priest. One of the fruits of modern priestly formation that I’ve experienced is a dedication to silent prayer. I just returned from a five-day silent retreat. It was the first time I went on retreat since I became a pastor, and I quickly realized how tempted I would be to break silence in order to ‘check on things.’ But because I was taught in the seminary that my priesthood is not about what I do, but rather is about who I am, I knew that I needed all that time in silence so that Jesus and I could talk. We needed to talk about my triumphs and my shortcomings. We needed to talk about my fears and my brokenness. Most of all, I needed time to be reminded of God’s presence in my life and the call that he placed on my heart to be His priest.
In my last article I encouraged you to support and encourage our priests in their call to celibacy. This week, I ask that you encourage your priests to be men of prayer. When you see them in the Church sitting quietly, say a quick prayer that they take their time and reject any lies that they should ‘get to work.’ Encourage them after a moving homily by saying, ‘Father, you must have been praying this week because that was a spirit-filled homily.’ Encourage them to pray because none of us can give what we don’t have. If a priest is not assured of God’s love for him and the call that he has placed on his heart, he won’t be the bold witness that he has been called to be.