The Priestly Quest for Meaning
“‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he said this, he breathed on them and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20:21-23).

In The Joy of the Priesthood, an interesting, penetrating and morale-boosting book, Father Stephen Rossetti tells the not-so-amusing story of a newly-assigned pastor, who was in the sacristy vesting for what would be his very first Mass. In came the officious coordinator of the extraordinary ministers of the Holy Communion who, in the presence of the others, said to the new pastor, “Father, you will be giving out communion in the choir loft.” There was a deafening silence for a brief moment as all present looked at each other with raised eyebrows. And so, the coordinator added, “This is so people will see there is no difference between the priest and everyone else.”

Incidents such as this are not uncommon, thereby compounding the already complex challenges of a priest in pastoral ministry. One priest at a national convention focusing on the priesthood said, “I can stand more work; what I can’t stand is this ambivalence about who I am.” In a recent candid and forthright interview, Cardinal Raymond Burke refers to this widespread blurring of the lines between priests and people as “A Great Confusion,” occasioned by a number of factors, especially the radical feminism that has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s, thereby leaving men very marginalized.

A priest friend of mine told me about a religious sister who served in a hospital as a volunteer. On one of his regular visits as the accredited chaplain, the religious sister approached him and said, “Father, will you please give this patient absolution? I have already heard his confession!” Such defiance is blatantly erroneous and sacrilegious. As is well known, the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate “each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ.” While being “ordered to one another,” they differ essentially. . .the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood (Lumen Gentium, No. 10.2). In a word, the ordained minister is, as it were, an “icon” of Christ the priest (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1142).

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished; but he, prisoner number 119104, had survived.

Meaning

About a year later (1946), and in just nine days, Frankl vividly related his horrific experiences in the camps in what was to be his best-selling book — Man’s Search for Meaning (originally published under the title From Death-Camp to Existentialism). His sole conclusion was that the difference between those who lived and those who died came down to just one thing: meaning.

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Ironically, Fankl worked as a therapist in the camps. For instance, he tells us of two inmates who were suicidal. Like many others, these men felt a crippling sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Very tactfully and persuasively, Frankl endeavored to have them realize that their mission was not complete, that life did expect something from them.

One of them was a father, whose child lived in a foreign country and with whom he would have liked to be reunited; the other was a scientist who was most eager to finish a series of books. Eventually both went on to realize their dreams. To quote his precise words: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. “He who knows the ‘why’ for his existence, will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”

Seeing his fellow-prisoners die of sheer dejection and chronic hopelessness, Frankl felt it his personal and moral duty to do something to save the grim situation. One day he collected approximately 20 highly qualified professionals and urged them to imagine what they hoped to pursue once they were liberated.

As can be expected, they were initially both pessimistic and cynical; but Frankl would not be deterred. As the exercise was repeated day after day, the members of the group realized, to their surprise, that they were becoming progressively more hopeful and buoyant with irrepressible excitement and mounting anticipation.

Logotherapy

Soon after they were liberated, all 20 immigrated to various countries and established successful practices, thereby seeing their dreams come true. They had injected themselves with the most morale-boosting restorative: meaning. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. Very aptly, Frankl branded this Logotherapy.

Research has strikingly shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and general satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resilience, builds self-esteem and decreases the chances of depression. By sharp contrast, those who obsessively pursue happiness as “the be all and end all” of life find, to their disappointment, that it eludes them and they are left dissatisfied and unhappy. And this is Frankl’s explanation, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

On one of my regular visits to a local hospital, I was about to enter the room of a patient, when I stopped for moment and whispered a little prayer that Christ Jesus would reach out to him in and through my priestly ministry.

On entering I greeted him cheerfully and introduced myself as “Father James, a Catholic priest and the hospital chaplain.” The man, in his early 80s, looked at me with manifest joy but stunned disbelief. It was as though I was an apparition. “Father, I am so pleased to see you. Did the doctor speak to you about me? Did the nurses tell you about me?” Very honestly I replied that I had met neither a doctor nor a nurse and that no one had informed me about either him or his state of health.

The patient was ever more nonplussed. “Please sit down, Father, I need to talk to you.” I did. “Well, Father,” he began, “I must confess that I have strayed both from the Church and my Christian faith. The doctor and nurse were in about 10 minutes ago and the news they gave me was not so good. I was very upset. And so, the first thing I said was: ‘Dear Lord, please send me a Catholic priest.’ And, lo and behold, Father, you walked in almost in answer to my prayer.” I was wonderstruck, but very pleased.

“Please may I receive the sacraments, Father; but do help me as it has been a long time.” And that is just what I did with sensitivity, compassion and faith. At the end, he said, “Father, if I gave you my address, will you visit me?” “Of course, I will.” And that is just what I did three weeks later. His recovery and general well-being were both manifest and astounding. There certainly had been a marked change for the better.

For the very first time, I met his wife. She was very respectful, courteous and hospitable. In the course of the conversation, this is what she said to me: “Father, I am not a Catholic. My husband and I were married 52 years ago in England. On that day, I pledged that our children would be baptized and given a Catholic upbringing. And I have fulfilled my pledge with our two daughters. After having witnessed the most miraculous recovery of my dear husband, thanks to your priestly ministry, I wish to become a Catholic and will be most grateful if you will instruct me.”

Indeed, the ordained minister is, as it were, an “icon” of Christ the priest; he is a kind of sacrament with a small ‘s.’ As a friend of God and His official representative, ordained by the Church, a priest represents what is sacred and is meant to be a conduit of grace, often in ways that he does not even recognise. “He who knows the ‘why’ for his existence will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’ ”

FATHER VALLADARES, a pastor, counseling psychologist and author, writes from Myrtle Bank, South Australia.