As a young Robert Barron clearly indicated in his 1997 interview in U.S. Catholic (“How to Build a Better Priest”) that the crisis in priesthood we’re facing in our time has everything to do with priestly identity. Who is the priest? What does he do? And what sort of man are we looking for in the priesthood today?

This vocal quest for a priestly identity is a fairly contemporary one. This does not mean that it was completely understood or grasped by the priest or the people. It was just commonly understood and accepted that the priest was the Alter Christus, the other Christ, and it was his role to live out the munera of teaching, of administrating, and of sanctifying.

There were very different days than today in the Catholic Church in the United States. Culturally, we live in a different world, and, to be honest, being born in the 1970s, it is a world that I never experienced personally. But even growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still a very different Catholic cultural experience than what is the lived experience of 2019.

To use my home parish in Brooklyn as an example: In 1955, the parish complex was a New York city block, which housed the church, the rectory, the convent, the Brothers’ House, the boys’ school, and the girls’ school. The pastor of the parish was an auxiliary bishop, assisted by the senior curate (who had been ordained around 25 years), two or three other curates (including one who was newly ordained). Also present in the rectory were a few other priests, assigned full-time to other ministries, but who assisted in the parish.

There were packed lines for confessions, with all of the curates on duty. On Sundays, Holy Mass was offered in the upper church, the lower church and in the school basement.

With two schools, with well over 1000 children in it, one staffed by a convent of habited sisters (who had close to 30 in it) and, for the young men, habited religious brothers. Students attending religious education numbered around 800 and the parish was not only the center of the educational, liturgical and spiritual life of the neighborhood, but also the social life.

People identified themselves not by on what street they lived, but by what parish they attended. The “Monsignor,” as any pastor was commonly called, whether he had the papal honor or not, ran the show and there was no doubt about it.

By the time I was growing up, things were slightly different, but it still was a larger, co-educational grade school, with a few religious sisters and brothers teaching in it, and a rectory which housed a pastor and three full-time priests. Today, the parish is one priest, the pastor alone, and the grade school, staffed by no religious at all, is a Catholic academy combined with a neighboring parish.

It is obvious that priests today are overburdened by the weight of parochial administration, not to mention the real fact that they suffer from a general lack of worldly esteem due to the grievous sins of some clerics, among whom were even eminent cardinals and bishops. I am told by some of my brother priests in the United States that they do not feel very comfortable any longer traveling in, and for a vocal few, even being off the parish property in clerical garb or religious habit due to the looks that they receive from some people.

And yet, I contend that there is no better time to be a Catholic priest. Priests are more necessary than ever for the sanctifying of the world. What is necessary today for the priest is a radical reconfiguration to the Person to whom they were configured at their ordination — Jesus Christ, the Lord, the one, true, high priest.

The only problem is, what does it mean to be a priest? For some, as Bishop Barron mentioned in that early article, it means to be an “organizer of ministries.” Obviously, that image is not enough to attract men to the sacred priesthood. It is not enough to help others in their apostolates. That is not what a priest does and it certainly is not what a priest is. A priest is still the Alter Christus, the one who is sacramentally configured to Christ, to teach and to sanctify the People of God.

This is not a triumphal vision of priesthood. Any priest who is self-aware and who has at least an ounce of humility recognizes that he is not worthy of this calling. He knows that he is a sinner, today more than ever. No man is entering seminary today for self-aggrandizement. Today, he is entering a vocation that is seen by many as unnatural and just plain wrong.

One of the basic messages of the program that I attended at Creighton a few summers ago, the Institute for Priestly Formation, is this idea of coming to a greater priestly identity. The priest must reorder his entire being, his entire worldview, around the idea of relationship with God, then identity in Christ, and then his mission. Many problems — particularly burn-out, resentment of his mission, and an over-functionality — occur when the priest gets the order confused. For myself at times (and dare I say for many of my brother priests), I have reversed the order, placing mission first, getting the job done, at the expense of relationship and identity.

The relationship for the priest that has to be primary is with God. He must realize that he is a beloved son of the Father and has to assure, through the formation of a “monasticism of the heart,” becoming an active contemplative, that this relationship is primary. In the midst of a busy schedule, with all of its demands, I can understand how many of my brother priests could scoff at the concept of being an active contemplative. All one needs to do to be an active contemplative is to take the time daily for real, substantial prayer, preferably before the Blessed Sacrament, doing a daily examen.

From this relationship flows his identity, which is, by his ordination, configured to Christ, and he is ontologically, at the root of his being, changed. The priest is called to be the chaste spouse to the Church — married, if you will, to the Church, the Bride of Christ. He is called to be the spiritual father, the one who gives life to his people through his loving service, like any father to a family and by feeding them with the Eucharist. He is called to be the divine physician, healing his flock through the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick. He is called to be head and shepherd, leading and guiding his flock even when the times get tough. These identities are excellent, and, I think, are complementary to the images that Bishop Barron puts forth, namely that which is found in Priest as Bearer of the Mystery” (Church, Summer 1994) and “Priest as Doctor of the Soul,” (Church, Winter 1995). These two articles are found in Barron’s collection, Bridging the Great Divide (2004).

For Bishop Barron, the priest is called to be a mystagogue. He writes: “The priest of Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, a mystagogue, one who bears the Mystery and initiates others into it.” (Bridging the Great Divide, 228). Above all else, the priest has had a “confrontation” with the Mystery of being itself that is God. The priest must be a believer who is “grasped, shaken, overwhelmed by that force, which, in Jesus Christ, is revealed as passionate, unconditional love.”

Bishop Barron further explains:

The priest is the one who bears that strange power and who leads the people of God into an ever more intimate contact with it. It is in the carrying out of this task that one is most authentically priest, that is to say, the one who performs a sacrifice linking heaven and earth, mediating between the Mystery and those who have been grasped by it. Christ is the High Priest because, in his own person, he is the reconciliation of creation and Creator, the mediation between Lover and beloved. The mystagogue is, in the depths of his being, conformed to Christ the Priest, shaped according to the icon of Christ, because his whole existence is to become transparent to the Mystery.

So, now that we know WHO the priest is according to Bishop Barron, we can then attempt to learn WHAT a priest — this mystagogue, this man who stands in the breach between God and man — does. The one who is the bearer of the Gracious Mystery is “to hold up to the people of God the great images, stories, and pictures of salvation that are at the heart of the Christian tradition” (Bridging the Great Divide, 228-229).

The priest-mystagogue is, according to Barron, the man who is “entrusted with the sacred symbols and given the responsibility of making them speak.” (Bridging the Great Divide, 229). In many ways, we can see that Barron’s masterwork, Catholicism (2011), that series that introduced him to an even-wider congregation, is the Bishop’s attempt, among many, many others, precisely to be that mystagogue for the Church and the world.

Deeply rooted in Catholic theology, this image of the priest-mystagogue is based on the notion of analogy of being, a concept that is central to understanding Barron’s theological project. He writes:

Theologically, it is rooted in the Incarnation, God’s radical union with Jesus of Nazareth and his entry, by implication, into the whole of the cosmos. According to this view of things, God is present everywhere in the universe, hints and traces of divine love are “spread out on the earth” for those who have the eyes to see them. Bernanos’s country priest was seized by the Catholic imagination when he announced, in the face of his enormous suffering and disappointment” “Everything is grace.” (Bridging the Great Divide, 229)

It is the priest’s task, as mystagogue, to be an artist who “in image, symbol, and story, presents the truth which is God’s love in Christ and seduces, draws the worshipping community to share in it” (Bridging the Great Divide, 229). How does he do this and how can we form priests who know how to be mystagogues? Allow me to elaborate on the bishop’s suggestions:

First, seminarians should be exposed not only to solid, orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology, but also the best that the Catholic imagination has to offer in terms of literature, art, drama, poetry, rhetoric. I work in a seminary whose local parish is Saint Peter’s Basilica, and sadly, I can pass to cross the street on Via della Conciliazione and not even blink at the artistic treasure (and spiritual powerhouse) that is Saint Peter’s.

I live in a city where I can walk to see a Caravaggio anytime I want or see the works of Michelangelo readily. But one does not have to study in Rome for this experience. One can virtually visit all these places and see these treasures.

I recently sat with a priest who said that he does not like to read. I was flabbergasted at his statement. If we do not read, then how can we offer the people of God the insights gleaned from a Walker Percy, a Flannery O’Connor, a J.R.R. Tolkien, a Dante? Seminarians and priests need to know the Catholic intellectual tradition and this includes her artistic and historical tradition. Barron write, “G.K. Chesterton said that to see the world properly one must stand on one’s head. In this way, he sees everything as hanging upside down, as literally dependent on the creator God. The mystagogue is the one who dedicates his life to standing upside down in order to share his peculiar vision with the Church” (Bridging the Great Divide, 229). If one never reads, then one’s vision is no doubt limited.

Second, according to Barron, the priest-mystagogue is called to become an exceptional preacher, one who cannot help but tell the Good News, having been “(C)onformed personally and existentially to that word, the priest speaks of and from the experience of being grasped by God.” Bridging the Great Divide, 230). The priest-mystagogue as a preacher is one who is “conformed to the Word that is Jesus Christ and must therefore be a lifelong student, not only of the Scripture, but of the great literary expressions of the Catholic sensibility” (Bridging the Great Divide, 230).

Third, Bishop Barron states that the priest-mystagogue must have be an “authentically religious leader.” He must be a man conformed by Christ in prayer, an active mystic in the midst of a busy ministry.

For Bishop Barron, the celibacy of the priest is closely tied into his role as mystagogue. He writes:

Celibacy is unreasonable, unnatural, excessive- and that is why it has been chosen, again transculturally and transhistorically, as one of the ways in which lovers of God have traditionally expressed their love. When one tries to “understand” this self-gift or to “explain” it, one misses the point. Its very strangeness and incomprehensibility is the point. It is not surprising that mystagogues, those who have been chosen by the Mystery to speak of the Mystery, see the appropriateness of this excessive stance and lifestyle. Called to stand on the horizon between heaven and earth, set on fire by the presence of God, the mystagogue rather naturally chooses this unnatural option of celibacy. People in love do strange things. [emphasis mine] (Bridging the Great Divide, 233)

Yes, people in love do strange things, and Bishop Barron’s unique ministry shows how much he loves the Lord and how much he loves the priesthood. He quotes the Protestant preacher John Wesley who stated: “I set myself on fire and people come out to watch me burn.” Alive with the Word on Fire, the priest is called to be a bearer of the Gracious Mystery Who is God.

(See also this article, which is my examination of Bishop Barron on the priesthood by describing his image of priest as “doctor of the soul,” and then briefly describe the Bishop’s concept of “Heroic Priesthood,” as well as the reaction that some had against it.)