Bishop Robert Barron on Heroic Priesthood

Seminarians today are not perfect, but they are striving for holiness. They are inspirations to me as a priest.

Vincenzio Carduccio (1576-1638), “Ordination and First Mass of St. Juan de Mata”
Vincenzio Carduccio (1576-1638), “Ordination and First Mass of St. Juan de Mata” (photo: Public Domain)

In this final section on Bishop Robert E. Barron’s theology of the priesthood, I would like to focus on two of his ideas: first, the image of the priest as a “soul doctor” and second, Barron’s concept from a few years ago of “Heroic Priesthood.” Following that I would like to comment on how we might be able to have a seminary formation program which encourages Bishop Barron’s three most salient concepts of priesthood: “the mystagogue,” “the soul-doctor,” and the “heroic priest.”

The concept of the priest as “doctor of the soul” was one that was featured very early on in Barron’s theological writings. Dating back to his article in Church, “Priest as Doctor of the Soul,” he is not writing this piece purely as an intellectual exercise. No, he is writing this in response to the lived situation of the priests in 1995. It can be argued that the priesthood, despite the scandals that plague the priesthood which have so prominently been in the news today and the minds and hearts of the faithful, is actually in a better place today. Seminary formation today is certainly more uniform and better than it was in the 1980s and 1990s — primarily due to an embrace, an understanding, and an implementation of Pope Saint John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation, and Pope Francis’ instruction through the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy entitled “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (2016). By and large, there seems to be much more of a unity of mind and heart in what the Church is looking for in her priests and in priestly formation. Yet, still, the reason why Bishop Barron wrote this article in 1995 is still very real. He states:

As many commentators have pointed out, there is a sort of crisis in confidence and identity among priests today. Many new ministries and roles of service have emerged in the Church, and lay people are assuming, legitimately, many of the task formerly performed exclusively by the clergy. This phenomenon has led some priests to wonder what their unique contribution might be, what they, distinctively, can offer to the people of God. (Bridging the Great Divide, 235)

Bishop Barron views the image of the priest as doctor of the soul as something that logically follows up on his task as the priest-mystagogue, the one who is the bearer of the gracious Mystery. As the one who is “the artist and poet who fires hearts with the power of the Catholic imagination, the shaman who lures people into a confrontation with the Mystery that suffuses and transcends all experience,” (Bridging the Great Divide, 235), it still is not enough. How can people hear unless they are open? Who will unblock whatever it is that prevents the Christian people from fully surrendering to the Gracious Mystery that is God? That task belongs to the priest, he who is the “Doctor of the Soul.”

The priest, configured to Jesus by his sacred ordination, teaches the faithful, like the Lord did, to hear the voice of the Spirit, to perceive the Kingdom of God in their midst, and to overcome the paralysis of the heart brought on by sin and sadness. It is the priest’s role to be the “healer of broken minds and hearts.” (Bridging the Great Divide, 236). If one were to read Barron’s work, it is clear just how much this image is central to his masterpiece And Now I See (1998) as well as his other text, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (1996). Themes that are more fully developed there are present in this wonderful, earlier article. It is intrinsically tied into Barron’s concept of imago dei, the image and likeness of God, a concept I will describe in a future article.

The priest needs to become an expert on the soul, which Barron describes as “that still-point at the heart of every person, that deepest center, that point of encounter with the transcendent yet incarnate mystery of God.” (Bridging the Great Divide, 236) He describes it further: “It is the ground and source of all psychological and physical energy; it is the matrix and organizing power of the human person” (Bridging the Great Divide, 236).

If the soul is sick, it needs medicine, salve that can only come in and through Jesus Christ. Never lose sight that Barron’s image of priesthood is highly ontological. On the level of being, the priest is the Alter Christus. How does the priest heal the sick soul? Barron states: “We heal the soul by bringing to bear the salvator, the healer, the one who in his person reconciled God and us, who opened soul to the divine power.” (Bridging the Great Divide, 235). The priest, through the sacraments, the Sacred Liturgy, the Christian tradition, the Christian imagination, and in and through the doctrine of the Church, becomes the one who is a “bearer of the new being” and these medicines are “symbols of transformation” whose primary purpose is to change the lives of Christians by drawing them into the imitatio Christi” (Bridging the Great Divide, 237).

In a fascinating turn, Barron develops the idea of the doctor of the soul prescribing the medicine of Christian doctrine, using the theological concepts of the Incarnation, the Divine Simplicity, and the absolute gratuitous nature of creation to heal the sin-sick soul. For Barron, these concepts and all the rich articles of the faith are indeed icons, ones that “illumine and open up the spirit” (Bridging the Great Divide, 243).

All of this may sound extremely poetic and rather esoteric. How can the parish priest be formed to be the “mystagogue” and the “soul-doctor”? Shouldn’t we be more concerned that the priest has some good business skills? After all, he’s running in his parish what amounts to in many cases a small business?  (Yes, he should have these skills and, if he does not have practical skills like this as a seminarian, he should learn them, at least from a wise and experienced pastor in a parochial placement.) Why should we even want these “mystagogues” and the “soul-doctors”?

Here’s my answer: these “mystagogues” and “soul-doctors” can be viewed as the successful integration of a solid seminary formation. We need an integral, holistic formation of Catholic priests today. Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Program of Priestly Formation, and The Gift of a Priestly Vocation gives us the framework. There are four pillars of priestly formation, all of them building on one another. Like the legs of a chair, move one out and it collapses. Like the legs of a chair, elongate one and you have an imbalance.

The human pillar of formation, making sure that the man is psychologically and physically healthy, as well as affectively mature, is the basis on which to build.

The spiritual pillar of formation, as we have seen indicated in Bishop Barron’s work, is the sine qua non; unless the man has a true and deep relationship in prayer to Christ in His Church, then he cannot serve the People of God, for nemo dat quod non habet (you can give what you do not have).

The intellectual pillar of formation is essential. He cannot communicate the truths of the faith if he does not know them. The seminarian must sacrifice himself on the altar of his desk, knowing, with the same professional rigor of a doctor, the truths of the faith, from his study of orthodox Catholic theology, under the structure of a solid philosophical background and coming from a true immersion in the Catholic imagination, which includes art, history, literature, and many other fields in the liberal arts.

The pastoral pillar of formation is where the “rubber hits the road,” where the seminarian puts into practice what he has been given in the other pillars of formation. It is in this pastoral pillar of formation that the seminarian, the future priest can exhibit his understanding of being a “mystagogue” and a “soul-doctor.”

We should never forget that, when Bishop Barron writes about priesthood, it is more than just an abstract concept. It is his vocation in life, which is why he writes with such passion and devotion to it. We should also never forget that Bishop Barron spent years of his priesthood as a seminary professor and, for three years as the Rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. In 2014, then the Rector of the seminary, Barron released an important video and launched a website called Heroic Priesthood. It was extremely well-done and actually won many professional awards. Yet there were some who seemed to have great difficulties with it, stating it “seems to be in the middle of a time warp” and that it seemed to overemphasize Pope Saint John Paul II almost, in some opinions, to the neglect of Pope Francis, and that the video seemed to separate the priest in a glorified, exalted position.

I do not agree with these positions. I work in a seminary and, by and large, the images of the seminarians on the screen reflect pretty accurately the actual seminarians I encounter daily — men who, in spite of the pressures of the world, are humble, happy, healthy and striving to be holy. I think that Heroic Priesthood is a pretty fair estimation of the seminarians of the present age. These men are not perfect, but they are striving for holiness. They want to give their lives to the Church, to be exhausted in her service. They are inspirations to me as a priest.

Bishop Barron as a theologian has truly contributed to the theology of the priesthood. I know that his images of the priesthood have helped me in my own daily living out of the priesthood. In the next article on Bishop Barron as a theologian, I would like to explore some of his main theological influences before we begin his even more explicitly theological teachings like his doctrine of God, his Christology, and his theological anthropology.