Published June 11, 1998
The Catholic Difference
One of the great graces of my life in recent years has been the extraordinary friendship extended to me by the faculty and students of the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Last year, as a group of deacons were leaving for the Holy Land to make their retreat prior to priestly ordination, the faculty member who was their retreat master asked me if I had any suggestions as to what these five young men should discuss on the retreat. I wrote them the letter which follows (and which will be continued in my next column); their appreciation leads me to hope that what I suggested to them may be of interest to others in this ordination season.
…I’ve only now gotten a moment to think more seriously about what I would want to say, as a layman and “consumer” (so to speak), to friends approaching the sanctuary for priestly ordination. If there is anything in what follows that is helpful to you, please accept it as a small gift for the future.
Holiness. Nothing you will do in your priestly lives is more important than your being a reflection of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, for those entrusted to your pastoral care. You will only be that by being holy men. Above all, and before all, the Church today needs holy priests: for only holy priests can summon the People of God to the holiness to which we are all called in baptism.
Holiness is a risk: abandoning ourselves to the Father’s will is the way we conformed to the Son who was made holy by His obedience. The culture of autonomy in which we live cuts against the call to holiness in many ways, but perhaps most profoundly in terms of this necessary, difficult abandonment of self, of ego, to God’s will. To be a holy priest today means to be counter-cultural — not in a catacomb sense (although it may, in your lifetime, come to that), but in terms of calling forth from our people the greatness of spirit of which they — we — are capable.
Our culture’s quest for radical personal autonomy is, ultimately, empty. We are created to make gifts of ourselves, and if we deny that, we finally dehumanize ourselves. The hollowness of dehumanized lives lived solely according to the pleasure principle is now widely, if inarticulately, recognized in our society. That recognition is an opportunity for priestly witness and re-evangelization — if you have yourself become a gift to God and to His people.
Which is to say, if you have become a vessel of holiness — an earthen vessel, but full of grace.
Intelligence. The Church in the United States needs intelligent priests, who have understood that the Christian story is the world’s story, rightly understood. Insofar as our culture tolerates religious belief and practice as another life-style “choice,” it imagines Christianity as a kind of religious supplement to the “real world.” That is not what we believe: we believe that the “real world,” in the fullest and deepest meaning of “reality,” is the world revealed in and by Jesus Christ.
Proclaiming this great truth means nurturing an interest in theology. I sense skepticism about contemporary theology, not all of it unwarranted, among seminarians today. We need not rehearse here the sad tale of deconstruction by which some theologians (often with decent pastoral intentions) have emptied the faith of its drama and truth in recent years. But that is not all there is in theology. A priest who has lost interest in theology is like a doctor who has lost interest in biology or a lawyer who has lost interest in jurisprudence: he is a mechanic, and while he may be a skillful mechanic, it is unlikely that he will be a creative mechanic.
Christianity is the most exciting proposal in the world today. I hope you will make it a constant care to nourish your ministry with serious study, so that you may be able to bring the Holy Scripture, the Catechism, the social doctrine of the Church alive for our people. They are waiting, expectantly, to be reintroduced to the great adventure of Christian truth.
Yours always, in the Lord,
(to be continued)
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.