Today is the memorial of Saint John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. We frequently discuss our pastors and their associates, especially when it comes to difficult or controversial decisions that they make. Given my role working for a parish with four priests and four deacons, I think that it might be good to discuss parish priests from the inside.
Depending on your background as a faithful Catholic, you might have one of two attitudes towards parish priests. You may see them as wonderful men who can practically do no wrong, entrusted with sacred faculties to act in the person of Christ. The pastor is both leader and servant and is able to manage all things through the strength of the God who has empowered him to exercise ministry. With a little prayer, he can handle any challenge of parish life. At times, it seems that he can do no wrong.
On the other hand, you may see priests as fragile, flawed men whom God has unfathomably graced with power beyond their merits. They can do amazing things, but at the bottom, they are human and broken like the rest of us. They have divine assistance, but they desperately need our help. At times, it seems like they are no better than the average person.
Each of these conceptions has a grain of truth to it, as we can see from the special readings for Saint John Vianney. On the one hand, priests are given “authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness” (Matt 10:1). They are sent as God’s messengers to admonish his people, spread the good news, and proclaim liberty to the captives. Parish priests are given abundant grace to overcome every situation, priming them for holiness.
On the other hand, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few” (Matt 9:37). Priests may have power, but they can be outnumbered. They cannot always bear the weight of their duties. The first reading from Ezekiel speaks of a priest’s immense responsibility for those who turn away from God: “I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him” (Ezek 3:20). Priests have awesome power, but they also have a grave responsibility. Sometimes it is too much for them to handle gracefully.
An accurate perspective on parish priests needs to take account of both of these attitudes. Yes, priests are given immense power, authority, and grace. They have been privileged for holiness. Yes, priests are flawed, fragile human beings with responsibilities too great for man to bear. They are much like the rest of us.
As a liturgist working under an eight-man clergy team, I see both sides of this reality routinely. There have been many times in which a priest is being casual and lighthearted one moment and stoic the next. When discussing logistics or community life, jokes are frequent. When preaching from the ambo or explaining the Sacraments, the tone becomes loftier and more serious. Some of the priests I would consider the most simple and unintelligent have given the most profound homilies. Behind the unassuming personality and need for assistance lies an icon screen in an office, or a frequent habit of Adoration. The priests with whom I work are fragile and human, but they are blessed with grace and authority. In the less serious moments, the fragility is front and center. In the context of priestly duties, the sanctity is showcased.
Priests are men like the rest of us, struggling to maintain a life of prayer and sacrifice. Each of them has his own quirks and imperfections, and each is uniquely challenged by different aspects of parish life. Yet, while parish priests are human, they have been changed by God in their very being. They are priests after the order of Melchizedek, and nothing can take that character away from them. Their souls have been marked.
It is important to remember these things about our parish priests. When a complete picture of the priesthood informs our actions, we begin to treat these men differently. Knowing the authority and power of the priest, we address him as “father” and make every effort to avoid insulting the Lord whom he represents. Knowing the humanity and fragility of the priest, we are unafraid to converse with him as a companion on the road to heaven. We recognize that at times he will need our help and that at all times he needs our prayers.
With these things in mind, let us give thanks for our parish priests: human, yet acting in the person of the divine. Saint John Vianney, pray for our parish priests.
David is the Associate Director of Liturgy for a group of parishes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he is not spending time with his wife and infant daughter, he is writing on philosophy and theology for various online publications. You can find some of these in Crisis Magazine and the Imaginative Conservative, and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.