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Priests, Holiness, and Imperfection

by Fr. Billy SwanJune 23, 2017

The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is also World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. For those who are not priests, it is an invitation to pray for us who are. For this, we beg you - that our faith may not fail and that we may be shepherds after the loving heart of Jesus himself. For those of us who are priests, it is a renewed summons to holiness that we share with all our brothers and sisters in the Church (cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Lumen Gentium, 39-42). It is also a reminder to us to be examples of holiness as men of God and to lead others to holiness of life as spiritual fathers and pastors. But what precisely does priestly holiness look like? What is the essence of it? For a number of years I worked in a seminary where this was always a pertinent question. Does priestly holiness depend on being a champion of orthodoxy, academically brilliant, an excellent preacher, being a great administrator, a model of virtue or being perfect?

It may come as a surprise to hear that priestly holiness has just as much to do with imperfection as perfection. Yes, we are called to ‘be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). Yes, we are made in the image and likeness of God, share the divine life and have been configured to Christ the good shepherd at ordination. But as we encounter God in our blessedness so too we meet him in our imperfections when we face them honestly and courageously. Our path to holiness as priests leads right through our own dysfunction that we have to acknowledge as the first step to spiritual transformation and growth in sanctity. Growth in holiness means coming to terms with both our high calling and darker side for in the words of the psalm: ‘You have created every part of me’ (Ps. 139:13). We priests must make this painful journey of facing the darker side if we are to be effective spiritual fathers and guides to others along the path of holiness and the fullness of life.

‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner’

In the Gospels, Jesus’ parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the temple features one man who had come to terms with his darker side and one who had not (cf. Luke 18:9-14). As the tax collector confronted himself he prayed ‘Lord be merciful to me a sinner’. This was the man who went home at rights with God while the Pharisee did not. For the Apostle Peter, his transformation into a fearless preacher of the Gospel and martyr was preceded by a humbling encounter with his own cowardice. After his three-fold denial of Jesus, St Luke tells us that ‘the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter’ (22:61). In the light and pain of that gaze, Peter was confronted by his pathetic failure and ‘went out and wept bitterly’.

For St Paul, he too had to face his own shadows that included his human weakness and murky past as a persecutor of the Church. In his second letter to the Corinthians he reveals that for many years he battled with ‘a thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7-10) or a human imperfection that he begged God to take away. After a long process of discernment, Paul no longer made this prayer for he realised that his path to holiness was not made by-passing his imperfection but living with it while relying on God’s grace. His struggle gave birth to words that give meaning and hope to all of us who struggle with our own ‘thorns in the flesh’: ‘for when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12: 10).

Facing our Imperfections with the Saints

Few have faced the darker side of their humanity with as much honesty as St Augustine (354-430). In his classic Confessions, he points to the importance of knowing ourselves from the inside out and facing ourselves with courage. When he did so, Augustine admits that all he saw wasn’t pretty: ‘Lord, you turned my attention back to myself…And I looked and was appalled…You thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it’ (Confessions 8, 16). This honest confrontation with himself in God’s light was not an end in itself but a prelude to the transformation of a man who came to know God as beauty, mercy and peace.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) also testifies that being in touch with our misery is always connected to knowing God’s mercy: ‘It is mercy not misery that makes a man happy, but mercy’s natural home is misery’ (On Conversion: a sermon to clerics). In a remarkable admission about his spiritual life he writes: ‘I am more used to falling down than to climbing …I can only tell you what I know myself, the downward path’ (‘The Steps of Humility and Pride’, 22, 57, Treatises II). For Teresa of Avila (1515-1582): ‘It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves, coming to know ourselves, reflecting on our misery…and begging him often for mercy’ (Interior Castle, 2, 1, 11).

St Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) would later share a similar insight when she advised those who seek God to meet him in their own flawed humanity: ‘You wish to scale a mountain, but the good God wants you to descend; he is waiting for you at the bottom of the fertile valley of humility’ (Story of a Soul).

For Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), if we try too eagerly for spiritual perfection while ‘devoid of humility’ and ignoring our imperfections, we will end up in ‘mental confusion and darkness’. Why? Because we have attempted ‘to go upwards before going downwards’ (Letter T 343). For Catherine, this inner journey down into our imperfections makes us more compassionate: ‘Human weakness allows those who are in some way afflicted to acquire humility and self-knowledge…It makes them kind and not cruel towards their neighbours so that they are compassionate with them in their struggles’ (Dialogue of Divine Providence). For the saints therefore, being grounded in the imperfections of human nature not only leads us to know God and his mercy but brings us into closer solidarity with the rest of humanity who struggle like we do.

The Priest as Bridge

This familiarity with God’s mercy and basic solidarity with people is especially important for priests who are charged with the awesome task of leading others to holiness. For when we are in touch with our own imperfections and learn to rely on God’s grace, we can better lead others to holiness and be an effective bridge for people who are searching for God. The priest who has met Christ in his flawed but graced humanity can minister to people more compassionately as brothers and sisters who share the same human struggle. We become less judgemental, more helpful and understanding. We help people to understand the dynamics of sin and grace at play in their lives for we recognise the same dynamics in our own. We help them to repent, accept forgiveness and know God’s mercy for we ourselves have known it first. In this sense, the strength of our priesthood lies precisely in the weakness that seems to threaten it. This is the spirituality of priesthood outlined in Hebrews where it says of Christ the priest: ‘Because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning…he can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is beset with weakness’ (Hebrews 2: 18; 4:15; 5:2). Here is the spirituality of Christ’s priesthood that is at the heart of our priesthood as we minster to God’s people.

Facing Priestly Imperfection

When a priest descends into his own heart and encounters his own imperfections, what does he find there? What are our ‘thorns in the flesh’? Undoubtedly the same as everyone else for we too are human, limited and sinful. We often become tired from overwork, irritable, discouraged, disappointed, grow old and fall ill. Amid many distractions, we can easily lose the habit of prayer and wane in our zeal for souls. All of these are common failings that we are aware of. But even more serious is what can happen when priests lose sight of their own brokenness in a way that allows lust for pleasure, power and glory to take hold. Or when our priesthood becomes more about us and our needs before Christ and his kingdom. These are the dysfunctions that can and have lead to devastating consequences if they go unchecked both by the priest himself and by the Church. Hence the importance of priestly formation programs that don’t just focus on external signs of conformity but emphasise the importance of human formation as a path to holiness. Growing in holiness therefore means radical authenticity - facing ourselves and our own imperfections with courage and honesty as an essential part of developing a heart that resembles the priestly heart of Christ himself.

Every priest is called to be a man of deep roots, grounded in both his own miseria and the misericordia of God. On one hand the miseria of his human limitation, weaknesses, temptations and pride. On the other hand the misericordia of the Father in adopting him as a beloved son and configuring him to Christ his Son, the head and good shepherd of his Church. At the Eucharist, the priest acts in persona Christi but in ministry he knows in the depths of his soul that Christ is also his merciful Saviour and compassionate priest. For this reason, the words of Augustine are always in his heart: ‘for the price of my redemption is always in my thoughts. I eat it and drink it and minister it to others’ (Confessions, 10, 70). On this World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests, may the prayers of the whole Church lead all priests to a greater holiness of life so that we may ever more resemble Christ the true priest and bridge between God and humanity. In the words of the beautiful prayer composed by Pope Francis for the Jubilee Year of Mercy: ‘You willed that your priests would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God’.

About the Author

Fr. Billy Swan

Fr. Billy Swan

Fr. Billy Swan is a priest of the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland. He holds a degree in chemistry and worked for a number of y...

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