The priest's service provides what the world can't provide itself

  • November 17, 2010
About a dozen years ago I was at a dinner party in the home of people I had not previously met. When our hostess discovered that I was a seminarian, she shrieked with perverse delight, announcing to all, “Wait until my husband hears about that!”

In due course, the husband arrived, was told the scandalous news and all waited for him to rain down ridicule on my head. But aware that it was bad manners to insult his guests, he simply said, “I just don’t think there is any future in that profession.”

“It’s lasted nearly 2,000 years, so if it can hang on another half century or so, it will be good enough for me,” I replied. I asked him what his business was. It was selling school supplies. Ah yes — the future lies in pencils!

So I was delighted to read Pope Benedict’s recent letter to seminarians, which begins with a similar exchange, though in much more dramatic circumstances.

“When in December 1944 I was drafted for military service, the company commander asked each of us what we planned to do in the future,” the Holy Father wrote. “I answered that I wanted to become a Catholic priest. The lieutenant replied: ‘Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed.’ I knew that this ‘new Germany’ was already coming to an end, and that, after the enormous devastation which that madness had brought upon the country, priests would be needed more than ever. Today the situation is completely changed. In different ways, though, many people nowadays also think that the Catholic priesthood is not a ‘job’ for the future, but one that belongs more to the past. You, dear friends, have decided to enter the seminary and to prepare for priestly ministry in the Catholic Church in spite of such opinions and objections. You have done a good thing. ... It does make sense to become a priest: the world needs priests, pastors, today, tomorrow and always, until the end of time.”

The progressive mindset, so decisively shaped by scientific discovery and technological mastery, always looks to the future, seeking to leave the old ways of doing things behind. But the priest already belongs definitively to the future, already lives beyond the consummation of history, acting in the person of the Lord Jesus who is to come. Indeed, the priest in his very existence in the world points to the realm of eternity, without which his identity and mission would be pointless.

Measured against worldly standards, the utility of the priest will always be found lacking. What is he good for? After all, whatever he might do in the world — education, social service, community organizing — can be done by others. The priest exists precisely because all the standards of the world lack the capacity to satisfy the yearnings of the heart. His service to the world lies in providing what the world itself needs but cannot provide.

There will be on Nov. 26 in Toronto a debate between former British prime minister Tony Blair and celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens on the question: “Be it resolved that religion is a force for good in the world.”

It’s another version of the question: What is the priest good for? The debate is a welcome acknowledgment that religion belongs in the public square, but in limiting the horizon to “good in the world” it seeks to measure religion by worldly standards. Religious believers have nothing to fear from that, but it also misses the point. The service religion provides to the world is to point beyond the world, and the criterion is not whether it is socially useful, but whether it is true.

The priesthood exists not to comfort the afflicted or to pursue justice, even though it does that better than many other professions. It exists to proclaim Jesus Christ, preach His Gospel, administer His sacraments and build up His Church. If that task belongs to the past alone, it means that Jesus Christ also belongs only to the past. It means that the future is a future without Jesus, and without God.

The new Germany which had no need of God was passing away even as it was being established. The novelties with which our culture is fascinated soon become dated and stale. The priest proclaims instead Jesus, who makes all things new.

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