A while back, the Archdiocese of Chicago ran an ad campaign promoting the priesthood and encouraging men to consider that vocation. It was pretty clever. One billboard read “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.” Another said “Good guys wear black.” (Which is also the slogan for the Chicago White Sox…)

And another one said “Help wanted: Inquire within.” Good message. But harder for men these days when the church and especially the priesthood has been so tainted by scandal. In the minds of many people, priests are predators and there’s something unnatural about celibacy and the demands of the sacrament of ‘Holy Orders’ is archaic and badly in need of updating.

So….like Pope Benedict….when contemplating and addressing an issue, it’s good to start with defining terms. What is the priesthood, and what was it intended to be when first instituted….by Christ?

This weekend begins the season of ordinations to the priesthood, and a good time to revisit these questions. Looking back at the last time I did that, after the eruption of scandals earlier this decade, it’s interesting to see the unchanging parts of the story.

“The twelve apostles are the first twelve priests; Judas is the first bad priest”, cites the great French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac in his work Holy Thursday: An Intimate Remembrance. Thus he strikingly notes that from the beginning, the perfection of the ministry has not relied upon perfect ministers, so sufficient is the perfection of the mission.

That mission, and its faithful realization, has remained a crucial focus of the Church through the ages. While some things have changed, that cannot. In 1992, Pope John Paul called for a synod on the formation of priests, after which he issued the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds). Its message carried a sense of urgency, and in it the Holy Father expounded at great length on the teachings and traditions of the Church. “For this reason the synod considered it necessary to summarize the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood, as the Church’s faith has acknowledged them down the centuries of its history and as the Second Vatican Council has presented them anew to the people of our day”. That sentence alone carried a footnote referencing five different papal and other Church documents.

Mauriac wrote a fascinating study of the priesthood in that writing.

In his chapter on Holy Orders: An Intimate Remembrance, Mauriac continues to wonder that men would choose to follow the call. “They no longer have any human advantage”, he points out, and it is remarkable to realize that he did not write this anytime in the past year and a half.

“Celibacy, solitude, hatred very often, derision and, above all, the indifference of a world in which there seems to be no longer room for them — such is the portion they have chosen. They have no apparent power; their task sometimes seems to be centered about material things, identifying them, in the eyes of the masses, with the staffs of town halls and of funeral parlors. A pagan atmosphere prevails all around them. The people would laugh at their virtue if they believed in it, but they do not. They are spied upon. A thousand voices accuse those who fall. As for the others, the greater number, no one is surprised to see them toiling without any sort of recognition, without appreciable salary, bending over the bodies of the dying or ambling about the parish schoolyards. Who can describe the solitude of the priest in the country, in the midst of peasants so often indifferent, if not hostile, to the spirit of Christ?”

Mauriac’s description is startling because it is apt, as much today as ever. But the grace and promise of ordination rests in being conformed to Christ, and the modern world does not appreciate that His is a timeless and unchanging mission. “The priesthood of Christ, in which all priests really share, is necessarily intended for all peoples and all times, and it knows no limits of blood, nationality or time, since it is already mysteriously prefigured in the person of Melchizedek”.

(Who is this Melchizedek guy, and why does he matter? The article speculates…)

In his Holy Orders meditation, Mauriac [said]:

The words of Christ concerning priests are proven every day: “I am sending you forth like sheep in the midst of wolves… You will be hated by all for my name’s sake”. For centuries, since the first Holy Thursday, some men have chosen to become objects of hatred, without expecting any human consolation. They have chosen to lose their lives because once Someone made them the seemingly foolish promise: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it”… But if they did not find their joy even in this world, would they persevere?

Thank God they do.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....