Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Multiple Identities of the Priest

Picture source

A seminarian friend John Nahrgang recently attended a ten-week summer program for diocesan seminarians at the Institute of Priestly Formation (IPF). IPF, based at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, was created nearly 20 years ago as a program to assist bishops in the area of formation for candidates for the priesthood. He shared the following:

"The program takes its motto from a beautiful quote from Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, a former superior general of the Jesuits:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

That quote has stayed with me, as well as this gem from one of the founders of IPF and an expert on Ignatian spirituality, Fr. George Aschenbrenner, SJ:

Diocesan priestly spirituality builds on a renunciation of this world, with all its goodness and all its allurements… Through an ongoing, graced, expansive experience of God’s love, a whole shift of an individual’s center of gravity occurs.  Gradually more and more identified in God’s love alone, the priest experiences a certain disengagement from the world as an identity center – precisely because he is so fully engaged with the fire of God’s love.

These two insights highlight what I have come to believe God was asking of me at this time in my spiritual formation - a paradigm shift, both in the way I have viewed myself in relation to Him and in the way I interact with Him in my spiritual life, above all in prayer.  And the impulse of this shift has its starting point in Divine Love.  

At IPF, we were blessed with a great mix of meditation, spiritual direction, fellowship, worship, classes, lectures, apostolic service and small-group discussion.  The quality of instruction was tremendous.  Our instructors had deep background in parish ministry, spiritual direction, psychology and deliverance ministry.  Here's just one example of the very sound teaching we got at IPF.  The priest interviewed here was with us for all ten weeks and frequently gave us talks - 

A major part of my education at IPF came through a more thorough understanding of the multiple identities of the priest.  There are five: beloved son, chaste spouse, spiritual father, spiritual physician and head and shepherd.  Here are some insights I learned from each of them.  I hope you find them insightful and edifying as you pray for the priests of our Church. 


A priest must understand that before anything else he is a beloved son of God the Father by virtue of his baptism into Christ (this of course goes for all Christians as well). When God the Father looks upon me, He desires that Christ's sonship be lived out in me.  I had so much lived experience outside of the light of faith that it was extremely difficult for me to accept that truth. For a long time I sort of relegated myself to praying for an occasional "mountaintop" spiritual experience. 

As a beloved son of God the Father, I must imitate Jesus in receiving everything from the Father "in the classroom of dependence."  Put another way, "in my spiritual poverty."  Put yet another way, "in the midst of my unfulfilled desires."  For me this was a crucial insight for understanding better the concept of holiness.  

Holiness is a vocation for everyone since everyone is capable of humbling himself/herself in imitation of Jesus in the Father's classroom of dependence: I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me" (Jn 5:30)

Beloved sonship is a fundamental identity for a future priest.  It enables a child of God to receive God's love, which must happen before he can communicate it to others.  First and foremost, I must know that I'm loved by my Father in Heaven.


A second identity is Chaste Spouse.  We know that priests are married to the Church.  What does that really mean though?  And how is it lived out?

I must be vigilant, because I'm also a creature of attachment whose affections bond me to others (or things).  If I don’t contemplate Christ and have my life deepened and absorbed by Him, I will become self-absorbed and absorbed into the values of the world.  And priestly ordination doesn't automatically protect me from absorption pointed in the wrong direction.  Jesus, of course, is the example par excellence.  The Church is more a bride of Christ than any espoused couple on earth.  That also means that a priest is more truly married than a man married sacramentally to a woman.  Priestly celibacy is not sterile, but fruitful.  Fruitfulness for a celibate priest is measured by spiritual children, meaning a harvest of souls brought closer to God and ultimately to heaven through his service.  Priests guide souls to the Cross and receive the love of God there, which opens up the path to spiritual resurrection in their lives.  There is no Resurrection without the Cross; thanks to the Resurrection the Cross becomes the Tree of Life, for Jesus and for the rest of us.  

The love that is first received as Beloved Son, is shared as Chaste Spouse.  Being a spouse is also about being attracted.  I must be not only be attracted to the love of God and receive that love so that I may share it, but I must also be attracted to souls who want union with God.  Out of my love for God and love for souls come a desire to draw others into the communion of the Trinity that I myself experience.  Those who want to share in it are fertile (spiritually speaking).  This is the heavenly meaning of being a Chaste Spouse.

Since the Chaste Spouse is oriented towards the spiritual growth of many souls, he must guard against the desire to be desired by any particular person (insert "attractive woman" here).  Although romantic love is an objective good, the celibate priest has already offered his celibacy as a gift to God, and so romantic involvement with a woman would constitute infidelity. 

Asceticism is about wanting more, not less.  I say no to the less, so that I can say yes to the more.  It’s not about hating the less, but about being aware of a desire, bringing it to the Lord and letting Him know that I want Him more.  The heart of a Christian ascetic says, “Lord, I acknowledge to You that I want (fill in the blank) right now, but I want You more.”


Notice that there's a progression to the first three identities.  Good fathers are good because they are good sons and good spouses.

A priest is a father after the image of the Heavenly Father. The heart of spiritual fatherhood is a pastoral charity that says, "I want what is best for you all the time." This is also the true meaning of genuine love.  A spiritual father guides others to the Father in the classroom of dependence and encourages them.


The Spiritual Physician convinces people who are at the Cross that they're being loved there.  He knows how to help a person receive love exactly where they are most wounded spiritually.  And the more wounded one is, the more she is attacked in sin, and the more ready she is disposed to believe the lie in sin/suffering that she's not loved, when sickness comes, and the less willing she is to believe in the good news.  But Christ can do all things, as Msgr. Tom Richter from the Diocese of Bismarck showed us through his beautiful exegesis of Jesus and the woman at the well.  Msgr. Richter taught us how wonderful of a spiritual physician Christ was with the woman at the well.  She came to the well at the hottest point of the day to avoid the shame of being seen by others. She was carrying a big burden.  Jesus entered and evoked holy desires in her heart. She became aware of these desires and related them back to Jesus. Then, in a surprising turn of conversation, he said, "Bring your husband.”  This part of the Gospel confuses a lot of people but Jesus went right to her place of woundedness, the ball of cancer.  Jesus said, "Let’s talk about that."  Brilliant!  He answered her question: "Ok, here’s how we get at it.  I’m a physician.  Here’s your cancer.  Let’s deal with it."  And the very thing that had filled her life with shame no longer did.  She ran off liberated.  She was no longer self-focused in her misery.  Instead, she joyfully ran off to tell others in the village about this Spiritual Physician.

A spiritual father is comfortable with the human mess.  He’s not shocked in the confessional.  He’s a calming presence in the midst of the human mess.  He assures people that God is in control here.  A spiritual father has a disdainful respect for spiritual disease (sin).  The kind of respect that an epidemiologist has for a vial of bubonic plague in the lab.  Evil is real.  Sin is real.  But Jesus is not intimidated by sin, and neither should the priest be as a spiritual physician.


This is an identity specific to ministerial priesthood.  It's about governance and obedience, particularly obedience predicated upon the desire to serve God through the Church.  And guided as well by pastoral charity.

A shepherd guides his flock towards a destination.  The priest heals, teaches, feeds, forgives, encourages, corrects and consoles with the overriding purpose of leading souls to receive love at the Cross.  It's about leading souls to the Resurrection via the Crucifixion.  So that all the people can be united with the true Christ, who then offers all to the Father so that the Father can be glorified.  That’s the ultimate end of all of this.   

The two vices opposed to true pastoral charity as exhibited by the shepherd are hardness of heart and false compassion.  Jesus was never mean, and the priest should imitate him.  There were times he was indignant or angry on account of injustice, but he was never mean.  His anger was above all directed at hypocrisy.