They are 69 Catholic priests searching their souls for a touch of God or preparing to meet Him face to face. They are in a quiet seaside retreat on America’s East Coast. They are mostly old, white haired or bald, some with rheumy, tired eyes rimmed with discolored pouches. They carry canes to keep from falling or hunch over walkers for balance. Sagging midriffs are obvious signals that something urgently pastoral over the years has sabotaged their youthful resolution for exercise and firm “cores.” Some have semihumps on their shoulders almost symbolizing the years of carrying other people’s crosses and burdens.
A few carry small oxygen tanks as they reach for that precious “piece” of air. Several try to deny the ravage of time, fib a little, and say they are “just the same as always.” They hobble with their stiff legs and try to thumb their noses at the dreaded inevitability of aging. So, they painfully genuflect before the Majesty of God so that one can almost hear the muted “ouch” as they manfully fulfill the expected rubric.
They come to Mass each day, the very center of their lives, in sacred vestments and reverently praise their God with croaking, almost grotesque voices, most amateurishly — which even to the most jaded unbeliever with a tad of insight — is incredibly beautiful. One is in the presence of that priceless factor — True Faith. This is a case of Our Lady’s Juggler (Our Lady’s Juggler, by Anatole France). What appears externally to be “not much” is, in fact, glorious God.
They sit for hours before the Blessed Sacrament, with eyes fixed upon their God, oblivious to the often meaningless swirl going on in the streets outside. All have been activists in their lives but have apparently learned that sheer activism without this deep anchor of personal union with the Master is superficial and possibly ephemeral.
As I watch them I get the palpable impression that I am watching another dimension. While I know that the spiritual Masters of the ages all counsel and warn about the chimera of comparison and its often evil consequence, I find it exceedingly difficult not to wish some kind of “getting like those guys.”
I am a priest for what seems like an eon but I seem so far from their powerful love of Jesus, the Master, that I struggle with a kind of spiritual discouragement. Yet one can learn or sense the way — even by standing by them as they might talk mundanely and banally about the weather or sports or Obamacare. I have had the joy of standing by and speaking with the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta — and it is the same feeling. It is truly another dimension.
For these few days, they are focused on the meaning of their lives as priests without the necessary superficialities of their daily grind, that demanding role of the Catholic priesthood in a world almost totally seduced by hedonism and baubles, a world which generally has no idea what priesthood means to these sons of Melchizedek.
Misunderstood or not these priests have a serenity about them which is so hard to define that only metaphor can come close — it is a real instance of Nescio quid! Have they been touched by God in this brief encounter?
What is happening? Why is everyone so pleasant and even courtly? What is this swift friendliness which allows me almost immediately to disclose my background and my cultural statistics? What is this beautiful quickness to open heavy doors for faltering, hesitant, near dendrite dead oldsters? I have a sense that it is somehow the mysterious ontological “Other” that makes up the priesthood.l This is one life experience which is exclusive.
Here there is no need to tap dance to explain why there are no women, no lay theologians, no teenagers, no financial advisors, no ecumenical representatives. There are only priests. And this kind of priest gathering has an inherent and profound kind of quiet joy and peace available nowhere else.
In a retreat for clergy, the accent on awareness that a priest is truly different is hard to miss. I am not called to be the regular guy at the bar or bowling alley who tells “blue” jokes, gets bombed occasionally and is a “me-first” personality. In these few days the priesthood of Christ speaks out to each other, priests we have never seen before and possibly will never see again. But we are brothers in this great gift we share — which in fact no one else carries.
We are specially chosen by the Father for His reasons and when we become aware of that reality, our affective lives soar! Generational differences seem not to matter as I watch the few younger priests relate, almost tenderly, to their older priest brothers — or is it more of grandsons and grandfathers?
Nevertheless, there is something deeply shared by these men which smacks of the eternal, the transcendent. The young priests are bright and shiny and confident. They are filled with the energy and bright hope and easy gait. They think of activity and achievement — and rightfully so. This is part of the charm of the young.
The old priest is battered and slowed and shaky but filled with a specific gratitude only possible after years of living “in persona Christi.” When the two, old and young, interface, it is a beautiful thing to see. In such a spiritual, psychological, profound climate, there is a kind of relaxation to be fully oneself, to be with others like oneself, beyond nationality, skin color, accent, education, rank, achievement. There is no need to impress. Only a need to be fully alive as to what one is!
Is it that years in the priesthood bring a kind of Carlo Carretto mood? (Carlo Carretto, 20th century Italian spiritual writer.) Does a slowed down old priest see the disappointments and the hurts and the failures in a different way as set against the great backdrop of eternity?
In the midst of such ruminations about complexity, the thought surfaces: How associate this truly superior group of men with what has been called the “scandals of the priesthood”? The thought correlates with cognitive dissonance or huge oxymoronism!
Gut reactions or mature intuition could probably arrive at a conclusion as accurate as professional psychological studies. With a seasoned background of both the theological-anthropological insights of Original sin and the psychological experiences of research, Church and secular studies on the question have reasonably testified that such un-priestly behavior is statistically rare and unlikely among those who follow the sensible recommendations of the Church.
While it is sad and tragic that the comparatively unfaithful few did great harm to Christ’s Church, it is also sad and tragic that the beauty of priests’ lives like those on this retreat are so blithely hidden and rarely mentioned. These priests described above, as human, gifted with the priesthood of Christ, have stumbled some time or other in their lives. But they, as priests, sought God’s mercy and were reconciled. Rather than detract from the “Power and the Glory” they were given, they, like Peter and Magdalen and Augustine and millions of others, became closer to Christ than ever.
I, the writer, was also on this retreat, and at 92 years of age, ordained for 65 years, was probably the oldest retreatant in the group. But old as I am, I am still capable of being inspired by the sheer goodness I saw among these men of God. No one is loopy enough to speak of “perfection” in this life but growth is real and possible. I stood beside real priests and breathed in the refreshing air of what can be!
1 When one speaks of “priesthood” one clearly speaks also of the office of Deacon which is an ordained state in a which a man shares the priesthood of Jesus. The bishop, the priest, the deacon all share in the Lord’s priesthood in different dimensions. This is further elucidated in Lumen Gentium wherein it is taught that the priesthood of Orders (bishop, priest, and deacon) and that of baptism of the faithful are different not only in degree but in kind.
FATHER LLOYD, C.S.P., was ordained a Paulist priest in 1948. He served as a missionary in South Africa, taught theology in the Paulist Information Center in New York and moderated a television program for 15 years on WNBC. He was President of St. Peter’s College, Baltimore, a house of formation for students to the priesthood. He served as director of the Graduate Division of Pastoral Counseling at Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
|In a Single Word
By Jerry Goguen
You found me in a single word, that I could not have heard alone
While your person may change, your role to shepherd understood
The mystery solved, theology explains how you must have known
Spirit everywhere you seem to be, you helped grace awaken in me
The first call, to a young man, I was led to teach what little I knew
You told me to proclaim, as I would not dare to embarrass myself
Visits to the homebound came next, you knew they would respond
When darkness came, you were not blind to purgination’s effects
Language of our faith important, you prompted me to learn it well
In Transcendent moments, you knew the I needed, to escape itself
We became visible, we are all together, we became joined to one
You shocked me as the word mystic, described the journey’s path
Then, a test, what does humble, holy, self, mean for my destiny
Your ladder down grounded, when flights touched heaven’s edge
I should Express myself, let beauty flow, let love reveal the truth
Christ has won my freedom, together, we watch evil step aside
Another treasure, ecclesial, the future defined, fear well behind
Your own Charism obvious, to help humanity celebrate our God
Hidden strength, fidelity to embrace love, virtues starting place
You point to the Cross, “this man,” living resurrection’s promise
Together we call out to Spirit, bring Christ into us as Eucharist
Breathe, onto bread and wine, while we too transform into Christ
We the body consume ourselves, giving back the precious gift
Salvation victory’s sanctifies, forgiveness makes us whole again
United, Church not a single moment, rather Spirit’s permanence
Pentecost never left, in you the fire’s peaceful light never ceases
You find inside each son and daughter, what we can grow to be
Our Priest, our friends, holy men, complete, full of love for us
My humble gift, a short prayer for you, power through eternity
Peace and joy; In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit