I know, I know – all Priests are single. Or at least they’re supposed to be! (How is that for commentary on current events?)
What does a priest do?
I’ve been wondering about this for a while. Not because I’m stupid enough to not have a clue, but because I’m curious enough to want to have a deeper understanding. Too, I wonder because the ideas of what a priest does have changed over the last half century or so. Which is fine – these things happen. They just take a while to fully comprehend.
The Second Vatican Council – the turning point in the historical life of the Church – doesn’t have a great view of the priesthood, which is most likely to do with the fact that everyone wanted to get away from “clericalism”. Vatican 2 is all about the Bishops and the People of God. (This, ironically, is coming to bizarre fruition as the People of God demand accountability from the Bishops regarding the ongoing abuse crisis after the Bishops in large part responded in acts of clericalism, after throwing priests under the bus.)
The priests are assistants to the bishops. The priests are administrators of the sacraments. The priest must be present to the people constantly. The priest must always be aware of the pastoral concerns of the flock entrusted to his care. All of these were drummed into us at various times in seminary.
It’s not a very lofty vision of the priesthood. We’re assistants to the bishop and attend to the many memos and drafts and programs which are developed by the bishop and his associates at the chancery, and we attend to the items discerned by our pastoral councils. We’re administrators of the sacraments in that we say Masses, Baptisms, Weddings, hear hours of Confessions, occasionally Confirm; we bury the dead, tend to the poor and the sick, help the helpless and the homeless and the hopeless.
And in the midst of it all, we meet the most fascinating people one would ever hope to meet.
Deep Calls to Deep
Many of the men and women I meet who are the most profound in their Faith are the ones who don’t let the current crises and various dramas get to them. It’s not that they’re unaffected. It’s that they have priorities, and their priorities center around virtue, the humility of a confessional life, a focus on truth, and Jesus Christ. Or, they just love the Lord, and in that love they – often unwittingly – find a beautiful sense of self, rooted in humility, humilitas.
Some appear kind of elitist, or snobby. But they have full lives; prayer, family, spiritual directors, apostolates, careers, friends; hundreds to thousands of people asking for a bit of their time. It’s difficult to be present to everyone at every moment. A friend of mine who is principal of a large Catholic school has admitted that she too has to triage – to assign degrees of urgency to various calls and tasks. As a priest, triaging is a matter of course, and we quite honestly want to meet with everyone and speak with them, and take time with them. Some we grow closer to than others, it’s the nature of the spiritual life; sometimes of circumstance. Others don’t appear aloof or snobby at all, just different; set apart; called. Chosen.
Prayer and Seminary
Prayer is stressed in seminary, of course, and obviously. The horrors we hear about in Catholic media, bloggers, vloggers, publications, about seminary life and how horrible and terrible and disgusting it is are, in my experience, not true. Seminary wasn’t a cesspool of filth. It was a place where we discerned priesthood. True some discovered that life exists outside of the faith while they were there. Better there than once ordained.
It’s maturation in the faith to realize that we can do anything we want in life – and then to make a conscious choice to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ and to practice the virtue of faith. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s not rocket science either.
Which gets us back towards prayer obligations… Because prayer in seminary is pretty easy. You walk down to the chapel and there is the whole liturgical life of the Church right there – or at least part of it.
To Teach, to Govern, to Sanctify
So. What does a priest do? Canonically, a priest teaches, governs and sanctifies. I’ve typed up a lot about that and will have to dig it up. (Will I? Will I ever really dig it up and share it?) He also must commit to praying the Divine Office, and to preaching the Gospel.
The problem I have is with the Divine Office, as it’s kind of a murky obligation these days. It’s clear that we have to do it. But even the rubrics of it say that “in case of grave pastoral necessity, it is possible to at least pray the two great hinges of the day – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.” That’s not an exact quote, but it’s something to that effect.
The Divine Office
Over the years the Divine Office has changed a lot. It’s composed mainly of Psalms, with readings from the Old Testament, the lives and writings of the saints, the Gospel and the Epistles. When we read about the saints who spent hours in prayer, it’s mainly because of the Divine Office – also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, or simply as the Breviary. It used to occupy several hours of the day and was structured, after centuries of use, in accord with the flow of the week, the season of the year, the liturgical life of the church. The Mass is part of the Divine Office, and so was offered daily as often as one might. (Mass was never required to be said daily, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter by someone well-versed int he 1917 code of Canon Law, and who was really, really enthusiastic about putting me in my place. I’m not an expert here, and I don’t pretend to be. ProTip: admit you’re not the expert when you know you’re not.)
I struggle with the Divine Office in its current form because it’s – well, how do I say this. I don’t want to say it’s insipid. And I don’t want to say it’s uninspiring, or that it comes across as a random mish-mash of scriptural writings that leave one wondering what one just read. It’s not all that.
It’s more that, after studying the various formats used over the centuries, I don’t understand the drastic changes, abrogations and additions that were made in the late 60’s. It’s easier, it does have sense in its format and structure. but like the changes in the Mass, it’s more ordered to recitation in community, than in personal prayer.
And a priest in a parish doesn’t always have the luxury of a community with which to pray the Office, or with which to pray daily Mass. (Unless one send out texts to people announcing an individual Mass that day – which happens.)
As a consequence, the mandatory hours of prayer in which religious used to spend their time have been cut drastically short. Recommended time of prayer abounds, but each soul has to be creative and persistent. There’s no real (I’ll add the word clear in here) advice or mandate on prayer from the Church. Pray the Office, have a devotion to Mary the Mother of God, have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Say the Mass as often as possible unless you’re alone and the bishop doesn’t think you should do that, in which case you can certainly still say it. It’s not a crime.
- Read the Bible daily
- Pray the Divine Office – recite it aloud
- Liturgical Prayer is important – Mass plus Divine Office above
- think about God – meditate on the Law of the Lord day and night
- trim your daily duties – TV, idle chatter; triage important items
- develop your personal relationships; friends, family – it will help develop your relationship with the Lord
- beg the Lord for the grace of prayer. Be humble and beg. Pride led to the downfall, after all.
- meditate on the name of Jesus Christ. Meditate on the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection.
- don’t forget to meditate on the ascension of Jesus Christ. It’s important too – do you know why?
- meditate on the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Do you often consider that the greatest power in the universe, the Spirit of the Lord, has been poured forth into your heart as God’s love for you?
- Read the Epistles – St. Paul and the other New Testament writers give a bold witness to what it means to be a Christian.
- Meditate on the Gospels. What do they mean? What was it like when these things happened? While written simply, almost every chapter or verse could be made into a book or a movie.
- Just pray. Abraham our father in Faith sat under an oak tree and spoke with God. He was highly favored, but he didn’t have the spirit of the living God dwelling within him. He took the time to sit out of his busy life and discern that the Lord was speaking to him; he listened, he responded, he shaped his life accordingly with a few mistakes on the way.
Structuring prayer time is really up to you. But recommendations usually go along these lines.
- Have a place for prayer. We like place – and sacred place is a beautiful thing to be in, and to create in your own home.
- Quiet yourself as you might. A blessed icon, a specific prayer, a focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Trinity – all will help calm your mind and clear distractions.
- Don’t be afraid of distractions. We live in one of the busiest times ever known to mankind, with as many distractions as have ever existed. Distraction is a part of prayer. Maybe the Lord is using a distraction to call your attention to something? The tasks you have to organize – maybe a need to declutter your life; a relationship that causes struggle – perhaps forgiveness and humility are called for – or a stern scolding; a person you’ve met and would like to know better – perhaps a call to prayer for them; the drama of current events; a pressing unresolved issue – a reminder to be persistent in prayer and to be persistent in your trust in the promises of the Lord. He knows our needs before we do, and he created us in his image and likeness to his glory. Do not be afraid.
- Give this all to the Lord.
- Think about whatever it is your praying with. Fill your mind with thoughts of Jesus Christ, God the Father, the Holy Spirit; or some verse(s) or incidents from Scripture.
- Ask Jesus to help you.
- Close with the Our Father. Keep it simple.
You can do this!
And certainly, I can too. I just need to get over my bad self and stop wondering about the changes to the Divine Office, and just do it. Life is much less complex than I pretend it to be.