About Being a Priest
by Frederico Suarez,
Manila, 1988 (pp. 195-203)
The priest devotes his life to others. He is a shepherd who has to look after the flock entrusted to him and take great care of them; but his concern must not end with that flock: it should extend to all mankind, for he has been called to perform a universal mission. He must try to ensure that they all get proper nourishment for their souls, so that their lives can develop; he must help them in moments of difficulty, encourage them at all times, raise them up when they fall, seek them if they are lost or have gone astray.
What about the priest himself? Everybody needs the priest, but does he need anybody? Can he reach his goal alone, bearing faults, his limited amount of knowledge, the weaknesses he shares with all mankind? Is he alone to be deprived of help from others, is he alone to be abandoned and live his life without any shepherd to care for him?
This is a problem that the priest has had to face down through the centuries. He is not a cold, impersonal creature, devoid of human feelings. On the contrary, he is deeply human: he must be, if he is to fulfil his function. And it is impossible to be a human being without knowing and experiencing, to a greater or a lesser extent, the feelings common to all men, to all who share this human nature of ours; the priest, like everyone else, feels fear and joy, peace and unrest, euphoria and depression; he can feel terribly lonely and need someone to whom he can simply talk. He is by nature a sociable person and therefore he can never develop fully if he remains alone.
Furthermore, of course, the vocation he has received from God and the fulfilment of the mission entrusted to him by the Church do not allow him to alleviate his loneliness in the same way as other men, by setting up a home and sharing his life with other people related to him in a very special way. Neither can he share his worries, his most intimate sentiments or his most excruciating problems, matters referring to his relationships with God or his pastoral life, with people in a different sphere of life, with lay people; he cannot go to weep on their shoulders or expect them to rejoice with him, because they are not appropriate for this type of relationship. A priest has no right to look for sympathy; he cannot pour out his troubles to the first person he meets. There is an area in every individual, the deepest and most delicate area of all, to which only God should have access; otherwise there is a risk of losing all sense of intimacy and the most basic characteristics of one’s personality.
So if the priest is not to be alone, and yet if his relationships with lay people can be useful to him and appropriate only to a limited extent, there is only one way open to him, namely to be on friendly terms with his brothers in the priesthood.
At this point perhaps we could say a little about this subject. It may cause some surprise to find “friendship” listed among the means a priest should use to sustain his spiritual life of faithfulness to Christ and to his Church, a method of keeping up a high spiritual pressure and adapting and transforming the atmosphere in which he lives so as to conform to the gospel. Yet it is a fact that friendship is an aid in living a spiritual life. Friendship – not its substitutes – when properly understood, is exactly how priests should practise the charity of Christ among themselves; it is exactly how they should fulfil the “new commandment”; it is a living expression of that fraternitas sacramentalis to which the Council refers (PO 8).
Everyone needs some relationship with others, not just to exchange opinions, to comment on trivial events or to chat about current affairs. The need to communicate goes deeper than that, for things happen deep down in everyone’s soul. Some things are pleasant and cry out for cheerful expression of the joy they bring with them: for instance, let us remember how the woman who swept her house carefully to find the coin she had lost and then ran to her neighbours to tell them how fortunate she was and to share her joy with them (Lk 15:9). Other things are sad or distressing, and then too the soul needs to pour out its sorrow, for no one can live with too much weight in his heart; peace, at least some peace, is essential if life is to be worth living. When the prodigal son “came to himself” (Lk 15:17) and realized the injustice he had committed against his father, he felt the need to relieve his soul of that weight by talking about his guilt. And even Judas was obsessed with his treachery; alone and with his callous soul troubled by remorse, he felt impelled to pour out his troubles by going to the Jews and saying: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Mt 27:4).
Is there anyone who can get by without the help of someone else? Is there anyone in the world who is really self-sufficient? Every soul, however holy, needs an outlet, and obviously when it is not so holy, the need is all the greater. But not all outlets alleviate: some do not absorb the troubles being poured out, while others simply reflect them or bounce them back again. The prodigal son and Judas obtained very different reactions from their attempts to pour out their inner anguish: the one was totally freed from it, while the other was thrown into the deepest despair because he projected his remorse on to a hard surface that repelled it at once: “What is that to us? See to it yourself” (Mt 27:4).
If we try to confide in someone and our confidence is rejected, not only does a door close on us but a wound opens; and very often it is we ourselves who are to blame for choosing to confide in someone who is unsuitable for the purpose, instead of someone qualified to understand and able to give advice. Many inner conflicts may give rise to states of neurosis, obsessive ideas or personality breakdowns which may go so far as to need psychiatric treatment. Then many repressions come to light which need never have gone to such extreme if they had been clearly shown to the right person at the proper time.
Viewed in this context as in so many others, the priest’s position is unique, which makes extreme tact essential when it comes to this type of confidence affecting the most intimate corners of his personality. If friendship of any kind requires not only mutual understanding and good relations between the persons concerned but also a certain equality, it is unlikely that someone with no beliefs could understand the terrible conflict going on inside someone else struggling in darkness to preserve his faith, however well they may understand one another from a human point of view. Neither is it likely, however, that a believer could achieve such an understanding as to be of help or to offer support, if he is not on sufficiently intimate terms as to be really – and not just theoretically – interested in the problem.
If a priest is truly exercising his priesthood, he will find it impossible to communicate his deepest self to anyone but a fellow priest; in general – we cannot speak in absolute terms – he will be able to open up his soul only to another priest, for all his serious or vital problems will necessarily be related to his character as a priest or his pastoral function. A purely human matter can be easily resolved by anyone who is prudent, has experience or is properly qualified, but when the problem refers to the most intimate corner of a man’s character, affecting that deepest of all areas where human nature comes into contact with God, then only a priest is qualified to listen to another priest’s confidences with some hope of being able to help him, for he is the person appointed by God for that very purpose; he has received the proper training; and he has had the experience (perhaps personal experience) necessary to help and advise, to understand and restore peace to his colleague.
We have seen that love, charity, is the real and effective basis of all the priest’s pastoral work with souls. “Charity” is a word which has been used so often that it has become almost a cliche in everyday language, an empty sound meaning almost nothing. Charity concerts, charity performances, acts of charity, to be charitable: in ordinary speech, the word no longer has all the immense connotations given to it by Saint John when he says Deus caritas est, God is love. Charity does not simply mean not harming one another: it is not a negative thing. Neither is it a kind of indifferent politeness or superficial comradeship. It is something different and deeper; it is more refined and more delicate, more intimate and more noble.
Friendship with other priests, mutual communication on problems arising out of one’s pastoral ministry and obviously full examination of one’s spiritual life: these are undoubtedly the sincerest and the most evangelical ways for priests to practise the charity of Christ, the love of Christ: congregavit nos in unum Christi amor. Friendship means unity between friends. The Lord commanded us to love one another “as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34) and to be one as the Father and he were one. He said: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you….Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends…. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 1 5: 9, 1 3 1 5).
It is here, on the question of opening one’s heart to another human being, on the question of sincere friendship, both supernatural and human, that a dialogue between the different generations of priests should take place, and such a dialogue ought to bear fruit to enrich both the priests and the Church in general. Those who have grown old caring for souls, who have spent their entire lives performing apparently routine tasks, day after day and year after year, without ever doing anything brilliant, and those who, after years of experience can no longer be shocked by anything, are in a position to pass on to the younger generation some of their pastoral experience, to temper their youthful enthusiasm which is sometimes more emotional than deep, to moderate their boldness with the prudence they themselves acquired, perhaps, through many failures. When the young pour out all their thoughts to the old, with the confidence of a son talking to his father, they are doing them a great service for they may well infuse some of their own enthusiasm into them, revive ideals which they also may have had in past days, now quenched perhaps by the apparent fruitlessness of their efforts, rejuvenate their minds with new ideas coming to light within the Church. The older priests, in turn, may communicate to the younger ones some of their own serenity and some of the wisdom they never learned in books but acquired from their contact with souls; they may help them in their undertakings and collaborate in discussing them so as to make their way easier and prepare to hand over all the work involved. The younger ones can make the others feel quite proud to see that their work is being continued by men full of enthusiasm and willingness to serve and to continue the struggle, as their predecessors did, of caring for souls and extending the kingdom of God.
Friendship is the bond that allows one priest to open up his soul to another and encourages him to discuss his problems and difficulties, all that spiritual activity going on in his soul which he cannot always understand or interpret properly himself because he has neither the perspective nor the grace of state to be his own spiritual director. It may happen, as our Lord said to Nicodemus, that “the wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes” (.Jn 3:8). Although in theory any priest can open up his soul to any other, in practice he may find a lot of resistance inside himself; he may have great difficulty in unburdening his worries, unless he finds another priest whom he can sincerely regard as a friend. It is true that if we have a supernatural outlook on things and people, this should be sufficient for us; but it is equally true that we are human, and friendship gives us greater confidence.
A brother aided by his brother is like a strong city (Prov 18:19). In the economy of the redemption, God has willed that men should be brought to him by other men, perhaps to inspire them with a sense of solidarity, with a kind of trust and a more deep rooted feeling of being united than merely human motives would produce, perhaps also to show us that no one is self sufficient and that we all need each other. A brother aided by his brother is like a strong city: he will not fall, for he is well supported. Yet, do we not sometimes give the impression that we are not too anxious to help one another, that we find it hard to be real friends and have little genuine interest in each other? Logically it should be quite normal for priests to be closely united, to help one another to be better and more effective in our apostolic ministry, to be of one mind and one will. Yet, in practice, how many of us have the humility and love of God to accept spiritual help from another priest? “Woe to him who is alone when he falls”, says the scripture, “and has not another to lift him up” (Eccles 4:10).
We need someone to help and support us, to lift us up; we must not remain unknown to one another. There should be another priest – at least one – who is familiar with our spiritual life, with that part of us where the most radical truth of each one of us is rooted. Otherwise, we run the risk of remaining absolutely alone, this time in the most awful sense of the word, enclosed in a selfishness that isolates us from all others.
Some priests seem to have a kind of allergy to spiritual direction nowadays: The very expression makes them shudder. Are they afraid of losing their freedom? Yet we know that the more closely we are identified with Christ, the purer is our freedoms and since all that goes on within us is a way of knowing and accepting the will of God more fully, spiritual guidance is the best help we can get to exercise our freedom properly.
Do they think it may damage their personality? If they do then, with all due respect to such people, we must say that their prejudice is not to be taken seriously. No priest with even a moderate degree of pastoral training can ever share this particular prejudice. Do the faithful who receive spiritual direction from them suffer from damaged personalities? Does not the Council ask all priests of the Church to direct their brothers towards God and to help them discover his ways and his will in the little things of every day? Do we seriously think that without intermediaries we can get to know God’s will, understand our own wretchedness or avoid the subtle obstacles the enemy lays in our path, which is often a wood we cannot see through because of the many little trees?
No, if we think seriously about the matter, we cannot imagine that we can do without help, advice or support. We are our own worst counselors, rocked to and fro by the changing tides of our own selves and by all the winds of our intuitions, personal impressions and opinions picked up from reading books. “That they may be able to verify the unity of their lives in concrete situations too, they should subject all their undertakings to the test of God’s will, which requires that projects should conform to the laws of the Church’s evangelical mission. For loyalty toward Christ can never be divorced from loyalty toward His Church” (PO 14). We have no right to expect special enlightenment if we are unwilling to use the means at our disposal, for normally the will of God is made known to us through the ordinary channels. Let us not forget the Lord’s words: “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10, 16). Saint Paul himself had no hesitation in humbly placing himself at the disposal of Ananias to be told what God wanted him to do. God had certainly no need of any intermediary any more than he needed one for Saint Paul’s conversion; nevertheless, instead of communicating his will personally, he made use of a man. This is his normal procedure, and that is why there are priests whose function includes helping their brothers in the priesthood.
It may be that underlying all our reluctance to be known by a brother priest there may simply be an element of fear, fear that he may get to know us as we really are, fear of losing our “prestige” in the eyes of others, fear of holiness itself, fear of presenting a poor picture if all our faults are seen, fear of going deeply into our own selves and seeing the false image we have built up, fear of losing our “independence” – we who have surrendered ourselves totally! – fear of losing our life even though we know that it means we shall gain it.
Or is it pride? Do we consider ourselves so great that we cannot accept help from people we regard as inferior to us? Or are we too immature to admit our own faults and limitations, to acknowledge our errors and our weaknesses, to resign ourselves to our own worthlessness?
This is quite unreasonable; something rings false in these attitudes. As priests, our tendencies must be the opposite of these: we must be completely and unreservedly open with that particular brother of ours to whom we have entrusted the task of listening to us and advising us. We must be open, instead of closing in upon ourselves; we must throw our soul wide open and let the Holy Spirit’s fresh, life giving air ventilate every corner. It is to be assumed that we want to be holy, to serve God to the best of our ability; it is to be assumed that we wish to be good instruments but that we know how defective we are. Why, then, should we be reluctant to let someone, a brother of ours, get to know us fully? Why this strange unwillingness on our part to regard another priest as an instrument of the Holy Spirit to direct our soul towards holiness?
Perhaps at the root of this kind of resistance which we sometimes feel to accepting a genuine, honest and sincere friendship between priests, there lies a rather frightening diabolical temptation to isolate ourselves, to keep really out of touch, absolutely enclosed in our own insufficiency or perhaps accompanied only by the dumb devil.
“Anyone who cannot see the apostolic effectiveness of friendship is forgetting Jesus Christ – ‘No longer do I call you servants. . .but I have called you friends’ – and his friendship with the apostles, with the disciples, with the family at Bethany” (Escriva de Balaguer, Letter 9 January 1932). Let us remember the Lord, for he was certainly capable of friendship. He was very friendly with Lazarus but was never as close to him as he was to his disciples. They were in different spheres. With his disciples, especially with his closest friends, Peter, James and John, there was no barrier, no secret, nothing in which they did not share. They were witnesses of his transformation on Tabor and he took them with him to Gethsemane so that they would not be deceived by seeing only one side of the coin or have a partial view of him which would not have been the whole truth. He wanted them to see his humiliation also, to see him trembling, anxious, upset, broken.
As Saint John of the Cross said, if there is no love, give love and you will get love in return. If there is no friendship, give friendship and you will get friendship in return. If we each begin to give ourselves a little, to open up and to confide in our brother, another priest, to put something where there is nothing, we shall be very surprised at the results. We shall never again be alone, but like a strong city. And our mother the Church will be very happy to see how those sons of hers – in whom she has so much confidence that she entrusts the care of others to them – are united in loving, helping and supporting each other.”