The time has flown quickly since the day 48 years ago when I stood before the ordaining bishop and made promises “to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith” and “to celebrate faithfully and reverently…the mysteries of Christ, especially the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people.” I did not realize at the time all that would be demanded by those promises. Since I was educated in Germany by orthodox professors, the post-conciliar confusion engulfing the Church in the United States had barely touched me. That would change in the years ahead as I witnessed strange liturgical excesses, the near-demise of the practice of confession, and explanations of faith and morals more in accord with subjective wishes than with the traditional mind of the Church.
Confession, Thanksgiving, Sacrifice
The barque of Peter had to sail through heavy weather and many sailors were ready to jettison whatever they found burdensome. As a consequence, the jettisoning of traditional ballast rendered the barque lighter and more susceptible to raging swells. The new emphases of Vatican II were pushed beyond measure by many theologians and priests. Admittedly, most did not intend to undermine the Church’s witness to Christ’s truth; they rather thought that they were adapting the message to the modern world: aggionamento. Yet many also cultivated a sense of disillusion or even anger insofar as the Council’s alleged novelties seemed to put into question what they had previously accepted on authority in the seminary. The continuity with Christ seemed to be broken and each theologian seemed intent on rethinking all of reality.
Fortunately, many sane, intelligent, and holy priests remained faithful to their calling and strengthened youngsters like myself. I also recognized that, despite the modern tendency to see all men as equally oriented to God through various religions, a lot of sin existed in the world, and not only out there in others, but also in me. Despite the theological post-conciliar prating by others about “mankind come of age,” my experience of the world strengthened my conviction that original sin touches us all. We live in a fallen world. Concupiscence did not disappear because Americans were urged to believe in themselves and were persuaded that everyone was basically good and needed only the proper education to be convinced where their true happiness lay, i.e., as defined by a society constantly changing. I knew that I needed forgiveness, and if I had to go frequently to confession, most other people probably did too. So I was always willing to hear confessions and urged others to go to confession.
Most salutary, however, was the blessed Eucharist. If Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, not all religions can be considered equally valid; those denying his presence have to be erroneous. Moreover, if Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, nothing more important can be found on this earth. He is an infinite gift to me and everyone else through the Church’s ministry. For that reason, I knew that I should bring Christ to others and not invent new liturgies for myself. When such important realities as the Eucharist become subject to arbitrary manipulation, the sense of mystery vanishes, and without mystery religion is reduced to the confines of a finite mind and soon proves ridiculous. While the Mass is a celebration as well as a sacrifice, to emphasize the former to the neglect of the latter diminishes its importance in a society always anxious to celebrate and have fun.
The sacrificial aspect of the Mass reminds us that we do not save ourselves. We have to receive salvation bought at the price of the unjust murder of God’s only Son. Ultimately love is not what fulfills me, but what causes me to sacrifice myself for God and others. Paradoxically, self-sacrificial love will be rewarded precisely because it is gratuitous and does not seek a reward. The basic mystery of Christianity announces that only in losing oneself does one find oneself. So serious is the challenge with which the Mass confronts us that we too have to sacrifice ourselves if we are to be joined to Christ. If the Mass does not attract interest and going to Church on Sundays or any other day is boring, one might respond, “Well, whoever claimed to be charmed and exhilarated by a sacrifice?” Yet that sacrifice alone is capable of saving me and everyone else from sin and death. Only when I can admit that I too am responsible for Christ’s death do I have a chance of being saved. I cannot detach myself from sinful humanity without losing the chance of being liberated from sin; if I thought myself sinless I would not need Christ. True liberation involves uniting myself to the new Adam and disciplining myself so that base passions are overcome and my entire self is put at the service of God and others. That is the task of a lifetime, and at the end mercy still must be sought.
Preach the Paradox
Preaching the gospel in accord with the Catholic faith is incumbent upon every priest since the gospel is the liberating truth about God and man. If Jesus is the Son of God who became incarnate with a message to every human being on the face of the earth, it is most unlikely that his Father would let that message lapse from human awareness for any period from the resurrection until today. That Martin Luther or John Calvin rediscovered the gospel truth previously neglected for centuries seems, if not terribly careless of God, incredible. Even more ludicrous is the assertion that some genius in the 20th century finally discovered what Christ was all about. Certainly, the gospel proclaims a mystery that challenges human minds, but it is a mystery of love which remains a mystery—even while being proclaimed and understood. Why should God have created us and redeemed us from our misery? No human can understand why he or she is loved. Neither can any human comprehend the mystery of evil, much less overcome it by intelligence and good will. In dealing with various facets of the mystery, the Church always maintained the sane balance that characterizes self-giving love: material creation is good, even while limiting the spirit; despite creation’s goodness, which points to God, men are mired in sin and need a Savior; Jesus is God as the Father is God, although there is only one God; though God, Jesus is fully man; God alone works man’s salvation, yet man has to exert all his efforts to attain salvation; Scripture is God’s word, though written by men; the sacraments cause grace, even though God alone bestows grace. To deny or neglect one of these paradoxes ultimately makes Christian revelation incomprehensible, yet the polar tension involved in balancing seemingly contrary truths invites hasty men and minor minds (compared to God, we are all idiots) to simplify the mystery, lose their balance, and fall into heresy. Love effects the greatest unity even while preserving the greatest diversity. It involves unconditioned yet concrete commitment to a limited historical being mediating God’s presence. Love has to be manifested in deeds as well as words to convince people living in a selfish world that love is a reality stronger than death and sin.
For instance, the mystery of marriage is “for better and for worse” until death seeks to incorporate such love, yet it needs support. It can too easily be understood as the mere satisfaction of desire and hence allow dissolution. Christ’s death and resurrection alone can assure us that sacrifice is inherent in marriage and can produce great fruit. Marriage also witnesses how both spouses wish to be fully united, body and soul; yet, neither spouse wishes the beloved to be dissolved into himself or herself. In this it weakly intimates the greater unity in diversity of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, of God’s presence in the sacraments, of God’s unity with man’s freedom in redemption.
Tradition’s Hand in Things
The Church’s millennial-long witness to a gospel truth surpassing human intelligence persuaded me that ecclesial tradition should supply the norm of my faith rather than any modern theologian’s new synthesis, much less my desires to change the world into my image. In a time when all institutions were being put into question and all human theories were denounced as mere means of manipulating the unwary, there was need of adhering to the perennial truth of the gospel and seeking to clarify that truth for others. Even in the face of clerical malfeasance and the appalling sexual abuse of minors—today’s uncovered sins go back decades—there is need of upholding the Church’s biblical and traditional moral code. Dissent from the Church’s moral teachings goes back to the post-conciliar confusion, when people were allegedly being liberated from sexual inhibitions and authoritarian impositions. Too many theologians were also “liberating” themselves from solemn commitments to the truth.
Yet it was clear to me that the moralists proclaiming such “liberation” were merely putting into question anyone’s ability to promulgate a binding moral norm for all cases—despite Jesus’ proclamation of such absolute moral norms. That moral confusion has only increased over subsequent decades, and none of the dissenters has produced a coherent system of thought. Actually, the Church’s moral positions do not devolve from any human system, even though many theologians have rightly sought to ground them in such systems to make them more intelligible to people. The Church lives and thinks primarily from Christ’s revelation. Our Lord revealed a self-giving, indeed a self-sacrificing, love at the basis of reality, and all morality should call men to conform themselves to Christ, not to devise a moral code for themselves nor to look for satisfaction, fulfillment, and the avoidance of all sufferings on earth. As a consequence, I have sought to explain in my preaching and teaching how the Church’s doctrine is true, intelligible, liberating, salvific—and practicable.
Obedience to the Cross
The priest to be newly ordained also has to promise obedience to his bishop or religious superior. That is where the shoe rubs. But Christ came to do his Father’s will, not his own. A priest has to trust that the will of God will be worked through all the political machinations of ecclesial appointments. The Church was not established to produce a wonderful human society in which all feel themselves appreciated, esteemed, and coddled. The Church exists as the place of concrete commitment in time; she came into existence from Christ’s pierced side and she remains on Calvary in offering his life in the Eucharistic sacrifice. She makes the saving cross present in history, calling sinful humans to conversion. Her task is to conform all men to Christ by challenging them to go out of themselves and love others, even the humanly repulsive ones whom Christ loves. Mother Theresa saw that as her special vocation, and since her vision reflects Christ’s, her vision should be shared to one degree or another by every Christian.
So the priest can love and obey even a bishop who is a burden to him, provided that no sin is involved and no serious harm is caused to God’s people. His promise of obedience summons him to take the risk of crucified love. For, however much he might respect and appreciate his ordaining bishop, he does not know the successor whom God has in store for him. Just as married couples risk together an unknown future for better and worse, the priest entrusts his future to God, who works his salvation through the concrete Church. Ultimately the priest’s concern should not be his own fulfillment, but the good of God’s people whom he is sent to serve.
Of course, if the Church accomplishes her mission of conforming all her members to Christ, the Church becomes a joyous, loving community of believers willing to help each other through life’s difficulties with all types of material and spiritual support. What one does not expect in heeding Christ’s command to follow him to the cross is bestowed as a great gift: one knows that one is loved not only by God but also by the members of his Body. What one should not and does not expect is granted as a gift. The priest as leader of a parish must witness to the truth of self-dispossession for the sake of those entrusted to his particular care, and he dispossesses himself by consigning his will into the bishop’s governance as well as in serving the people to whom he is sent.
The priestly life is not designed for repose and comfort, and no one who desires such ease should apply for the priesthood at the peril of his soul. There will always be frustrations in dealing with ecclesial authorities as well as with recalcitrant members of the parish. But temptations can also come from the other direction. Because most believers respect the Church’s ministers as representatives of God, the priest can more or less fashion his own life-style. Indeed, the daily handling of sacred realities can deaden his sense of awe and mystery. Unreflective habit destroys wonder, and the priest can be tempted to see himself as the dispenser of grace and the authority to whose will all others should submit. For that reason the priest must have developed his spiritual life in the seminary by daily recourse to meditation and prayer. That daily recourse to prayer represents not a mere boot-camp to be survived, but it should characterize his whole life thereafter.
Only by placing his life before his crucified Lord every day and by referring all joys and sorrows to his Sacred Heart will the priest find the strength to remain faithful to his vocation. Love will hollow him out in order that he may grow in holiness, but he must subordinate all else to his relation to Jesus to appreciate what wondrous graces have been bestowed upon him: to spread the gospel truth to the world, to communicate God’s forgiveness and love to sinners, to share his Eucharistic presence with believers, and to grow thereby in holiness, i.e., to unite himself ever more to the One whom he loves above all, and to receive in return a friendship beyond everything else in this world. Then his whole life will become a hymn of joyous thanksgiving to the God who became man to save him and the whole world. That is why the Church requires of the young candidate to the priesthood the promise to “pray without ceasing.”
Needless to say, this priest has not lived up fully to the challenge of his glorious calling, but he has experienced moments of exaltation even in his struggles with people in the Church and his own weaknesses. No human life is without suffering and frustration, and this priest can even thank God for those trials since he recognizes that through them his Lord was seeking to conform him ever more to himself. That is a blessing and a joy, and I pray that I may remain faithful to my vocation and discover that the joys of this earth are but the foretaste of the moment when I shall have to look upon the face of my Judge and Redeemer and beseech his pardoning mercy once and for all in eternity. May Mother Mary stand by me in the hour of truth.
Father John M. McDermott, SJ, currently teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He previously taught at Fordham University, the Gregorian University (Rome), and the Pontifical College Josephinum. He was also invited professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Yonkers) and Seton Hall University. He served on the International Theological Commission, various Roman commissions, and as consultor to the USCCB Doctrine Committee. He has published two books, edited two others, and produced more than 150 articles on philosophy, dogmatic theology, scripture, history, and spirituality.