A Dream at Ordination

In June, Our Sunday Visitor published a memoir written by Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, archbishop emeritus of New Orleans. What an inspiring read! Get a copy. Reading it will be worth your time. 

The archbishop is a marvel. Well into his ninth decade, in his 71st year as a priest, and his 54th as a bishop, he is as sharp as a tack. To write this book, he went through his files and found letters and photos to share with his readers. Among these mementos was a poem he wrote long ago, in 1939, as a seminarian on the eve of ordination, about his priestly vocation and the priestly vocation itself. It is splendid, catching as it does the faith and trust that properly should be in the heart of every man as he kneels for ordination and of every priest as he attempts to serve the Lord. I quote the poem here: 

Boyhood dreams of long ago
Saw an altar fair,
Consecrated trembling hands
Lifted there in prayer.
And those dreams have led me on,
Dreamlike though they seemed.
Now, dear friends, thank God with me,
I now am what I dreamed.
Other dreams have I today,
Bright in spite of fears,
That this human heart may be
Christ-like through the years.
Think of me when on your knees,
That this dream comes true.
Bowed before that altar fair,
There I’ll think of you.

God grant that Archbishop Hannan, whose priestly enthusiasm has never waned an iota, always will find in his priesthood the reward of being one with God and with Jesus the High Priest. The archbishop came to his vocation, was ordained, and lived for more than a few years in a Catholic culture that, I regret, has disappeared. 

Here is an example of that culture. In 1944, all-time-acting-and-singing legend Bing Crosby won an academy award for his role in the film, Going My Way . However, according to those who knew the inside story, Crosby almost did not win his Oscar — not because of competition from other nominees, but because he almost refused to play the role of young Father Charles O’Malley.

It is said that Crosby, a devout Irish–American Catholic, hesitated to accept the part because, he said, he was unworthy to portray a priest. 

Our people have learned about our clay feet. Their increasing sophistication — the result of an educational achievement and upward mobility in economic status that generations of priests in this country struggled to attain for them — has let them know that priests are human and fallible. The sexual abuse crisis of several years ago in this country, now a renewed item of discussion because of events in Europe, has let them know quite well that priests are human and fallible, and also that some priests and bishops have done terrible things. 

I do not rejoice in any diminishment in public esteem for priests and for the priesthood. Surely, I find the source of much pain the fact that the misconduct, and indeed the sin, of some priests and bishops have contributed to this decline in public regard for priests. 

Still, there is a lesson that I hope we all may learn. The lesson is that priests, specifically as priests, stand very much within the mystery of the Incarnation. As is Jesus, priests are human. With Jesus, and in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, given in the grace of baptism and of holy orders, renewed in the Eucharist and repaired in sacramental confession, priests lay claim upon the eternal life of God itself. 

The difference between priests and the Lord is that Jesus was without sin and eternal, the very Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Knowing this reality — that we are human despite the fact that we, God willing, seek to live in grace — we must accept our moral and physical vulnerability. 

Each month, on the Last Things page, The Priest presents a short recollection of what appeared in the magazine 50 years earlier. This month an interesting note is that in July 1960, The Priest published an article about the interplay between psychiatry and religion. Then it was not an altogether comfortable relationship, as frankly it has never been completely harmonious. Still many mental health care providers frown at what they consider the Catholic slippery slope toward excessive guilt and obsession with things sexual. Some theologians question what they think is psychology’s tendency to relegate virtually any human behavior to the level of instinct or compulsion. 

Dr. Freud himself, though dead for 70 years, hardly helped to make warmer and more compatible the link between sound mental health and religion, and in their turn, prominent Catholic thinkers kept the suspicions and the estrangement alive. 

It was in this atmosphere that there arose in so very many Catholic circles, not unlearned nor without good intentions themselves, that mental health always was conditioned by, if not totally a byproduct of, genuine moral commitment.

By the way, this attitude had a direct bearing upon the mindset and actual events that, to the greatest extent, produced the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The overwhelming number of outrages in the sexual abuse by priests of minors occurred decades ago, 30 or 40 years ago. Victims of abuse in times earlier, in the course of nature, have passed from the scene or are ending their natural lives. 

The view then was that the chief problem being experienced by any adult, let alone priests, who sexually exploited the young was an abandonment of morality. As far as victims themselves were concerned, they too faced a heavy predisposition about morality, at the expense of mental illness, on the part of the abuser, and victims very likely were denied, or unable to seek, psychiatric care for the injury done their psyches because psychiatry itself was suspect on such a broad scale in society. Being treated for any emotional stress was taboo. It was seen as a weakness. Something was wrong with the victim, as with anyone suffering mental health difficulties. That was the thinking. 

Society has come a long way, although elders not uncommonly hold on to the old point of view. Church leaders have come a long way. 

As articles in recent issues of The Priest have noted, testing for mental health and care in improving mental health sufficiency are today requisite programs in every American seminary and house of formation. Reckless indeed at this time would be any bishop, any religious superior, any rector, any vocations director or any master of novices who overlooked a professional psychiatric diagnosis of a mental health problem in any candidate. We have come a long way. 

For a long time, every few years, The Priest has offered an article written by a physician about how priests can keep their physical health, and how to respond should symptoms of ill health present themselves. Last fall, in this tradition, the magazine offered an article by a physician, who by the way also is a woman religious. 

Running alongside her article was a piece written by a clinical psychologist, deliberately included in the magazine to call to readers, to priests, the reality of their own mental health. Shortcomings, inadequacies, bad judgment and just plain reaction to stress and burdens are not necessarily the results of mental illness. However, in every case, they are human. 

Our people need to realize that we priests are human. No human being can put in the hours that often are expected of priests these days and function with quickness and enthusiasm. The human body simply does not have that much strength and stamina, especially as the aging process takes its toll. Even priests who are young and energetic are not infallible.  

But, by the same token, people should realize that they themselves are limited and that all people sometimes make very bad judgments. 

Thankfully, not yet at least, our culture in Catholicism does not face the anti-clericalism that besets Catholic life today in many places in the world. But, there is a certain anti-clericalism. At times, I wonder what people think that we study in seminaries, or if they think that priests live in a dense cocoon, immune to all and isolated from all, and utterly ignorant of the realities of life. 

The bottom line is that we all are humans, ordained or not. We all need to recognize this fact. We priests cannot expect of ourselves, and people cannot expect of priests, the impossible. There is an exception. People have every right to expect of priests, and priests have by their acceptance of their vocation, the duty to be moral. Fatigue, poor judgments, even temper, are all part of the human equation. But, frankly, for a priest, immorality in any sense never can be presumed inevitable or unimportant. 

In late April, the Pew opinion research people reported that the younger generation of Americans finds religion in general, and surely institutionalized religion, increasingly unimportant. No priest today needs any scientific study of popular attitudes to know that this study hit the mark. Few parents, for that matter, would have found the report astonishing. 

However, no matter how convincingly we gloss over the facts and reassure ourselves and others that it represents simply a stage in growth and that as these adolescents and young adults mature and face the facts of being spouses, parents and bread-winners, they again will sit in our pews, this drift away from religion is not a cheerful sign. Yet maybe it gives us priests an opportunity. It certainly defines our pastoral task. 

So, must we be more aggressive in bringing the young into our religious education programs, and must we make these programs as stimulating and intellectually beneficial as possible? Well, we must do this, of course, but providing our young with sound and appealing catechesis is nothing new. What is new is that the Catholic cultural atmosphere from which Bing Crosby’s misgivings about his worthiness to play the role of a priest in a movie came is going and going fast. It is part of an overall cultural drift toward secularism and selfishness, to employ a quite blunt term. We priests must convey to people that indeed we see something very wonderful in life, and that it is not about self-interest, pleasure, or “success.” 

Looking at the sex abuse scandal, the late Pope John Paul II stressed, and now Pope Benedict XVI stresses, lives that are thoroughly Christian, completely Christ-like. 

In the spring, as the crisis reached volcanic proportions in Ireland, Pope Benedict wrote to the Catholics in that country that was so identified with Catholic devotion for so many centuries. He had much to say to priests. He had much to say to bishops and religious superiors, and rightly so. He also said very much to lay Catholics, especially to parents. Reflecting the Lord Jesus, giving the impression that there is in a life of faith something much more “meaningful” than what mere earthly satisfaction may offer, it is a task — and an obligation flowing from baptism itself — that all share. It is not a priestly chore alone. 

So, we must call our people to be holy. We priests must be holy. It is not that we wish to set ourselves apart, or that our people should set themselves apart. Rather, it is witness to the fact that we find a blessed meaning in our lives that comes to us solely from Christ Jesus, the “way, the truth, and the life.” 

God grant everything good to priests ordained this spring, and God grant Archbishop Hannan and all priests already ordained that their dreams of serving God and of being Christ-like through the years, formed when they “saw an altar afar,” come true. Amen. TP

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.