When a new priest is assigned to a parish, one of the questions that the parishioners wonder about, or which they ask their friends or neighbors, is: “What is the new priest like?” That is a fair question and is quite rightly asked by a lifelong member or relative newcomer to the parish. The parish priest is important in the lives of those who have been entrusted to his care, so it is natural they should want to know what to expect from him.
For over 30 years of my life, I have been working in the priestly formation of seminarians—particularly their liturgical formation—who are in their last four years of preparation for the priesthood. So, what do I imagine that a new priest will be like these days?
What follows is a description and explanation of five marks by which every priest should be recognized—and newly ordained priests especially—so that, when he makes his first appearance at his new assignment, those who might ask how the new priest is coming along will see upon meeting him that he has come along very well indeed as one of God’s servants ordained to lead his people, particularly from the sanctuary.
A Man of Prayer
The new priest will be a man of prayer. Often a seminarian has mentioned to me that in his private prayer he is praying for his future parishioners. He is praying for people whom he has not met and does not know. But already those people are objects of his love and prayer.
This seminarian’s prayer, furthermore, is not superficial or perfunctory. Fidelity to daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, in addition to praying the rosary, time spent in private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, spiritual reading, and other devotions, form the normal course of the seminarian’s day. His relationship with God is profound and essential to his preparation for the priesthood.
Nonetheless, upon ordination, this man is a priest dedicated to his people, and if the pastoral needs of his flock require it, e.g., being called to the hospital to anoint someone, he will have no problem interrupting his prayer or sleep in order to care for the people he has been called to serve.
A Man of the Liturgy
A significant part of seminary life involves being exposed to and initiated into liturgical celebration that is both faithful to the tradition and beautiful. The new priest’s training involves not just the role of the priest himself, but it also includes the full, active, and fruitful participation of all the faithful. The new priest will celebrate according to the liturgical books, not in a slavish fashion, but in a ritual manner that permits the people to feel that the liturgy is their own, not “Father’s.” This mentality means that the liturgy is not something that the priest can, or will, adapt—as if the liturgy centers around him and not on Christ. Only if people are exposed to liturgy as a ritual, with continuously recurring words and actions that they have come to expect, will they be able to relax into the liturgy rather than being concerned about what novelty or surprise they are going to encounter and be expected to respond to. Moreover, it must be recognized that the new priest is often a bit formal—and that is a good thing, because in the liturgy, there is no form without formality. Consistent and cultivated informality will not be one of the new priest’s liturgical trademarks.
Consistent and cultivated informality will not be one of the new priest’s liturgical trademarks.
A few years ago, one of our new deacons, after having been ordained in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, wrote me and said that one of his guests remarked on how the ordination liturgy had lifted the veil between heaven and earth, and how his faith was renewed.
More recently, a newly-ordained priest, after he had celebrated Mass at a monastery of cloistered Carmelite nuns, wrote to tell me that one of the nuns said that it is such a blessing to see how well-prepared our new priests are and how reverently they celebrate the Eucharist.
Just this past year, one of the newly-ordained deacons wrote me to say one of his guests came up to him after the ceremony and commented: “If that is what heaven is like, I can’t wait.”
Only a few weeks ago, one of the seminarians sent me an e-mail saying: “I am in a parish now for my summer assignment and I can confidently say that I have been trained well! Just today the parish liturgy coordinator was on the verge of tears as she told me how reverent, smooth, and beautiful it looked as I set the altar! It was not anything special or something that I thought twice about, but her reaction got me to thinking about how spoiled I have been in seminary when it comes to beautiful and reverent liturgy.”
I have shared these stories as examples of the type of priest who will be coming to parishes in the future and what his liturgies could well be like—reverent, smooth, and beautiful, that the veil between heaven and earth may be lifted and that one’s faith, if need be, may be renewed.
Part of the seminarian’s liturgical training is to help him to be able to celebrate the liturgy as a priest in a way that is formal yet natural, and sacred yet human—or as I tell them in perhaps more vivid language, in a manner that is neither that of the tin soldier nor the grizzly bear.
A Man of Tradition
The new priest will embrace the whole of the Catholic Tradition, including the devotional traditions of the Church: Eucharistic Exposition and Benediction, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary will not be foreign to him. At the same time, he will hold to the moral tradition of the Church, being decidedly pro-life, and always fostering holy matrimony.
He will love the Church. In the liturgical tradition, he will take sacramental life seriously, not altering the baptismal formula, recognizing that the sacraments do effect what they signify. For this reason, he will make himself available for the sacrament of confession, and he will take proper care of the Blessed Sacrament.
At the same time, he will believe that the Second Vatican Council was an action of the Holy Spirit and that it undoubtedly passes down the Tradition of the Church. He recognizes that the Mass of Vatican II sanctified such great saints as St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta, and he will see the Mass as a product and instrument of Tradition.
A Man of Mystery
The new priest will be trained to preach well. Our own seminarians at the North American College give over 20 practice homilies before they are ordained to the diaconate, and they deliver them before both a faculty moderator and a group of their peers. The sacred scriptures serve as the basis of their homilies, and they practice applying them to the concrete lives of the people who will hear them.
The seminarians are challenged to preach not just morality, but the mystery of Jesus Christ. Liturgy is prayed reality, nothing less. In a sense, the question underlying their homilies will not be simply how to act, but what does it mean to be an authentic Christian and what moral behavior flows from that since action follows being.
Finally, the new priest’s homilies will not be composed hastily and without reflection, even if he has little time for proximate preparation. His devotion to regular lectio divina, prayerful reading of the Mass readings, will provide him with prayer and meditation over the years that will serve as the foundation for his homilies—even on short notice. In other words, a priest will not have just a day or a half a day to prepare his homily—he will have had ten, 20, or 30 years to prepare that homily.
A Man of Priestly Fraternity
The new priest will generally want to live in priestly fraternity, pray with other priests, have opportunities to enjoy their company, and share with them the challenges and joys of parish life. The new priest will love his life as a priest and his work as a priest, and he will not see things such as celibacy as a burden thrust upon him. I find those preparing for the priesthood to be happy men, joyful in their vocation, and zealous in their response. In the seminary, they have experienced the support of life in a community, and they are looking for a way that this community carries over to diocesan priesthood, particularly by fraternal support groups of other priests.
The new priest has also grown in his vocation individually and fraternally with a certain toughness that is often not recognized. Today, to become a priest is countercultural in a way that it was not 60 or so years ago. In those days, a certain cultural honor was attached to the priesthood in a way that is not true today. In other words, in those days, the priesthood often supported the priest. In these days, the priest has to support the priesthood. The new priest, therefore, will find his prayer time to be essential, his celebration of the liturgy needing to be true prayer—for himself and for those whom he serves, and what he does has to be done for Christ and the Church. He cannot be satisfied with lesser motives, and his priest friends who support him in his life and ministry will remind him of this.
In former days, the priesthood often supported the priest.
There are always exceptions to the rule, but, by and large, I believe that these five marks are typical of the priest who will be serving the People of God in the coming years. Such a man of God is a blessing to the Church and a credit to the priesthood. He is a sign that God loves his Church very much.
Father Kurt Belsole, OSB, is a monk of St. Vincent Archabbey and Director of Liturgical Formation at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City State, Rome. He earned a license from the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum” in Rome while also pursuing studies at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute. Subsequently, he earned a doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome. His liturgical interests focus principally on the theological foundation for Sacrosanctum Concilium and the authors whose contributions have laid the groundwork for the liturgical reform of Vatican II.