I was stunned the other day to have a good man, 25 years a priest, ask me for advice. Not with a specific situation either, just “Do you have any advice for me?” I didn’t know what to say to this priest of God, this man who speaks and the Word is made flesh, who grasps the hands of sinners to drag them back from the edge of that unscalable cliff, who leads people to Christ in a more real way than I ever will.
“Pray,” I said. “Love Christ and his Church and pray.”
But he wanted more. And I always have an opinion, even when I have no right to. So add this to the list of things I have no business giving advice on.1
If I could ask one thing of priests, it would be this: celebrate the Sacraments like you believe that they’re real. I imagine that most of you do believe that they’re real. And I’ve been privileged to know many priests whose love of the Lord is so powerfully evident in the way they lead their people in prayer. But that’s not always the case. Imagine if you celebrated Mass completely attentive to the fact that you were about to call God down to earth. Wouldn’t it be slower, more reverent, more intense? Wouldn’t you be awestruck, holding the host in your hand? Would you really make do with a quick bow if you honestly believed—or maybe remembered is the word—that Jesus Christ was truly there? More than just doing the red and saying the black (which is a great start), what if you treated the sacred mysteries like they are sacred and mysterious?
In a sacristy in Avila, the words surrounding the crucifix on the wall say, “Priest of Jesus Christ, celebrate this Holy Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.” If you can’t excite the emotions your first Mass stirred up, can you try to imagine how you would say Mass if you knew you were about to meet God face to face? You are, after all.
I don’t mean to imply that all you really need is emotions—or that if you try hard enough you can manufacture pious feelings. I just mean that your people don’t need good homilies. They don’t need good administrators. They don’t need friendly guys. Those things are all nice, but what they need are pastors who are showing them what holiness looks like. They need to see you and wonder at your love of the Lord. They need to believe that it’s possible to know Christ, and you can teach them that by coming to know him better yourself.
I have some Facebook friends who are priests and will occasionally post with joy about how they love the confessional. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a bored “Say three Hail Marys now make your act of contrition” after pouring my heart out in the confessional. And I know you’re overworked. But this is sacred: a lost soul crawling home to his Father. What if you heard confessions with the immensity of this work in mind? I know you’ve heard a thousand confessions, and I do hope mine always bores you, but pray. Oh, Father, pray for the grace to remember what it is you’re doing!
Because if you really believed that confession saved souls, that confession was a sinner kneeling at the foot of the Cross and surrendering his hammer into the pierced hands, wouldn’t you do anything to draw people there? Wouldn’t you preach on mercy? Wouldn’t you be in the confessional for hours each day? Or at least for minutes each day? Wouldn’t you offer confession more than half an hour a week? I know you have so much going on. I understand that you’re pastor and teacher and counselor and administrator, but if confession is real, nothing matters more. You have parishioners who’ve been away from the Sacrament for decades because nobody’s asked them to go. Don’t just ask: beg.
Baptize babies like it’s the most important day of their lives. Prepare couples for marriage like that’s how God is making them Saints. Anoint like it’s the lifeline holding people to Christ. Confirm like you’re sending soldiers into battle. Spend enough time in private prayer that your public prayer looks more like prayer and less like a formality. The more you love Christ, the more we’ll see that radiating from you. And the more we see it, the more we’ll line up to follow.
I don’t mean to criticize, just to challenge. I’m so grateful for you and for every priest. I have such respect for you and I understand the pressures and the difficulties of wearing a dozen hats and dealing with a thousand different personalities. I know that you’ve got duties that seem to keep you from the confessional and a timeline to stick to for Mass. I know that appearances aren’t everything and that the priest who seems most bored and inattentive might be in deepest contemplation. I know it’s hard to fake reverence when you’re doubting or sick or just doing it for the ten thousandth time. I know that many of you are saints in the making, offering your lives daily for those you serve. Thank you for all that you do and all that you are, for your love of the Lord that shines through everything you do.
But I also know that sometimes when you make a living challenging others to grow in holiness, nobody challenges you. I don’t speak for everyone, but from one laborer in the vineyard to another: won’t you please show us that you believe what you say? Won’t you please fight for us and worship for us and lead us? Remember the priest you wanted to be 5, 20, 50 years ago and be that man. Be John Vianney or Padre Pio or Don Bosco or Ignatius or Francis Xavier or Ambrose. Be Christ. Be you. But always be his.
My advice to you is the same advice I keep giving myself as I stumble through, halfhearted and distracted: be a saint. Nothing else matters.
- Drafts waiting to be finalized include “How to Raise Kids Who Stay Catholic” and “How to Be Good in Bed.” Don’t get too excited—it’s about chastity. [↩]