by Father John P. Cush, STD
FOR THOSE OF us who are priests, the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah should strike a chord. It should put more than a little bit of fear into our hearts. The prophet writes:
“Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”
Sadly, for some, this is their experience of priesthood. Look to most contemporary images of priests as portrayed in film or television. The priest is either a pompous, ineffectual, and overly pious know-it-all, or he is depraved in many ways, cast as a predator, one who is hungry, ravenous for money or for sex.
Where have all the good portrayals of priests in cinema gone?
No longer do we see Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” (1945) or Karl Malden as Father Barry in “On the Waterfront” (1954). Instead, we have the priests as portrayed on Law and Order! Even portrayals of priests that some laud, like in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (2016) or John Michael McDonough’s “Calvary” (2014), offer images that are not necessarily the best.
I know we need to be realistic. I know we need to show the humanity of the priest, for the Lord knows, we have sadly seen that sinful humanity time and again in real life.
For many people, the priest is not necessarily seen as a heroic figure. The corruption of the few has led to a generally negative image of the priesthood by some. One of the greatest contributions of His Holiness, Pope Francis, has been – by and large – his tremendous popularity with the laity. The Holy Father offers to the Church, and the world, the image of a priest, a bishop, a pope, who is happy, one who loves the Lord, and wants to bring the Gospel message to a world desperately longing to receive it, even if it is completely unaware that it wants it!
A brother priest who works with me here in this seminary mentioned to me that the reason why St. Philip Neri was so successful was pretty simple: He was kind. He was doing those things that all of us as priests should be doing. And he was being – in his joyful demeanor, in his catechesis – Christ to the people of Rome.
Yes, we priests bear a tremendous burden, not only for our own immortal souls, but also for the salvation of the souls of those to whom we minister. We are called “Father,” for indeed, we are spiritual fathers for our people. We have to be fathers, true fathers, for our people. Being a father means that we, as priests, are called to love our children, our parishioners. We are called to care for their well-being – spiritually, and at times, temporally in our roles of administration.
Teach By Example
We are called to educate our children, our parishioners in the faith of the Church, teaching them, giving them catechesis, not about the way we think things should be, but in the true faith as it is definitively taught by the Church. We teach not only by words, not only in the ambo or classroom, but also – and mainly – by how we live our lives.
I tell the seminarians whom I help form here at the Pontifical North American College that if they would be embarrassed if someone saw them do something in their clerical collar, why should they be doing it when they are dressed in lay clothes?
Integrity of life is key for the priest today, as is a proper understanding of the priesthood, not as a job, but as a vocation. Priests are not simply functionaries, but indeed, at the very core of our being, priests are transfigured to Christ. Like a good father, the priest should pray for his children, his parishioners, most especially in his daily recitation of the Divine Office. Above all else, the priest, like a good father, wants to feed his family daily. The desire to celebrate the Eucharist daily, for the intentions of the living and the dead, must remain the highlight of the day of the priest.
Yes, being a priest is not easy, but it is certainly worth it if it is your discerned calling. And yes, in a world that is rapidly expanding, in an age that is losing even the nominal veneer of Christianity in the western world and northern hemisphere, we are lacking in vocations to the priesthood.
We just don’t need more priests. We need happy, healthy, holy priests, men who are indeed heroic, who want to be poured out as a libation for the good of the Church and the world. We need men who know Christ Jesus, who long for Him in the Eucharist, and who long to bring Christ to the world with the grace of the sacraments. And we, the Church, will have them. We will never be left fatherless. Listen again to the words of the Prophet Jeremiah:
“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.”
The Lord has spoken; He will gather the flock and He will give them shepherds.
Where will our shepherds come from in Brooklyn and Queens? They can only come from our families, schools and academies, parishes. Beg the Lord of the Harvest to give us shepherds after His heart, which is meek and humble, men who love the Lord and want to be Christ and see Christ in every soul they encounter.
Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Psalm 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
Ephesians 2: 13-18
Mark 6: 30-34
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as academic dean of the Pontifical North American College, and as a professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church history.