Many assume the most difficult thing about being a priest is celibacy. I assure you it is no cake walk, but there is something even harder. Jesus spells it out this Sunday - the beatitudes. Matthew mentions eight, but Luke only four. Perhaps as a physician (Col 4:14) the third evangelist knew patients don't follow complicated instructions, so he simplified. At any rate, today we hear four - and, in contrast to them, what we might call the four miseries:
We normally don't consider those things a source of misery, but let's take a closer look. As indicated in the beginning, I want to apply this specifically to the priesthood. It's the life I know and others will be able to make their own applications. But also the beatitudes are more challenging for us.
A priest possesses extraordinary powers, not given to other men. At the same time he faces a unique vulnerability. From above and below, from inside and outside the church, people have expectations of him. Hardly anyone - including those most intimate - can approach us without pre-conceptions. On a whole they are positive. In spite of scandals, defections, etc. we continue to be "well thought of." But we can easily be put on the spot.
I hope it won't sound like whining to give a personal example. A man came to the door after hours. When I answered he began complaining how this parish does not offer services like the one he came from. I said to him, "Don't be rude." Perhaps I was short because earlier a woman called, wanting to know why we "pray" to the saints. I gave her what I considered a reasonable answer, but she insisted on the precise Scripture verse. Ignoring my nuances, she launched into an explanation of how wrong it was to pray to saints. I cut the conversation short and of course afterwards brooded over what I should have said.
The saint I need prayers from is Philip Neri. One of his companions (who later became a cardinal) was taking himself too seriously so Philip made him sing the Miserere at a wedding breakfast. And when people became caught up by the saint's eloquent preaching, he would begin to drool, then fall on the floor. As people flocked to the Oratory to see him, he sometimes greeted them with half his beard shaved. St. Philip Neri deliberately did silly things. Most of us don't have to go out of our way. The point is to accept looking silly, even when misinterpreted. If others knew the half of it, could we really stand on our dignity?
I have spoken about the beatitudes - and the miseries - in relation to priests because in some way they hit us the hardest. Many become discouraged; I've felt it myself. There is no way around it, but in a moment of quiet - perhaps before the Blessed Sacrament - we can remember the source of genuine happiness.
A priest has such incredible potential. As Bishop Sheen said, we have souls at our fingertips. Because of that many people pray for us. Last year I ran into a lovely college girl who told me she was a Little Flower, that is, a person who imitates St. Therese of Lisieux by praying daily for priests. I conclude with the saint's own words:
"I understood my vocation in Italy: it was not too far to go to find such a useful insight! For one month I lived with many holy priests and I came to unnderstand that, although their sublime dignity raises them above the angels, they are nonetheless weak and frail men. If the holy priests who Jesus refers to in his Gospel as 'the salt of the earth' reveal through their behavior that they have great need of prayers, what is one to say about the ones who are half-hearted? Did not Jesus also say, 'If salt were to lose its flavor, with what could we make it salty?' Oh, Mother! How wonderful is the vocation which aims at preserving the salt destined to souls! This is my Carmelite vocation, since the only purpose of our prayers and of our sacrifices is to be the apostle to the apostles, to pray for them as they evangelize souls with words and especially with the example they give." (MS A, 55r)
Bulletin (Valentines Day, Institutio Generalis)
From Archives (Homilies for Sixth Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C