Advice to a Soon-to-Be Catholic Priest

COMMENTARY: The average parishioner wants a priest who loves God and loves them and loves what he’s doing, and they’ll forgive a lot of someone who does all this.

Ordination of a Catholic priest during Mass in Havana, Cuba.
Ordination of a Catholic priest during Mass in Havana, Cuba. (photo: Shutterstock)

“As you know well by now,” wrote my former student, a young man awaiting ordination through the Pastoral Provision for former Protestant ministers, being a Catholic priest “is a much more weighty endeavor than that of being an Anglican clergyman. I am scared and feel deeply inadequate for the task. I do not think my education is all that Rome thinks it is.”

Well, probably not, I thought, but then the education of many Catholic priests is not what Rome thinks it is, or wishes it were. He'd been an Episcopal minister for about five years.

As a layman, I found his worries kind of charming, and reassuring. Having taught at a Protestant seminary with some very talented but very confident graduates, I wished more of them had gone into their ministries with the same hesitation. Pride precedes a fall, as Proverbs tells us (twice), and humility would have prevented some really bad falls.

I offered him what advice I could, which was the same advice I give to young writers who ask how to get published: the classic instruction to write (in his case to write, say and do) what you know. He won’t look like a fool pretending to be something he’s not, but he will look like someone who offers what he has without pretending to have more, and people like that kind of honesty and transparency. (Most people. He will have parishioners who would've hated St. Francis of Assisi.)

What he knows will, of course, increase as he grows older and more experienced. But his knowledge will always feel inadequate to the task, because it will always be inadequate to the task. He should never feel that he has the priesthood down pat. I think he thought he should have it down — that being a good priest was like getting an A in a math course by mastering all the formulas.

The priesthood is a job for supermen, and most men aren’t super. Fortunately, God in his wisdom gave us priests whose mediatorial role (in celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions) is primarily a by-the-book affair.

We are not left, as are our Baptist friends, to depend upon the personal gifts of our ministers. If they have a bad preacher, the central purpose of the service is lost. If we have a bad preacher, Christ still comes to us in his body and blood.

I do not mean to diminish the priesthood by saying that it’s more paint-by-numbers than painting freehand — even paint-by-numbers can be done badly or well. Imagine what Rembrandt could have done with a paint set.

So I told my student to trust the people who’d picked him and just put on the uniform and do the job. He has a job description and a manual. The routine is set and the tools are ready. The old guys are around to help. Being humble is good, but being humble too long turns into self-absorption.

He was worrying too much that his parishioners would think him young and ignorant, I continued. From the layman’s point of view, having a young priest is a bit like riding with a new driver who's agreed to take you some place no one else would. You don’t mind his driving slowly and looking both ways several times at every stop sign, and you don’t object when he stays in the right lane on the highway even when he’s behind an even slower moving car.

You’re grateful that he does. You’ll arrive later than you would have with a better driver, but you’ll get there and more or less on time.

You would mind if he pretends to possess experience he doesn’t have, and speeds down side streets and rolls through the stop signs and keeps darting between cars to switch lanes on the highway, all the while driving with one hand and looking over at you every few seconds to talk. (I speak from some near coronary-inducing experiences.)

At any rate, the job is a simple and straightforward one. The driver has to drive the car along a set route, following the laws of the road, taking obvious precautions. He’s not being asked to do anything extraordinarily difficult, something requiring advanced skills, lightning-fast reflexes and long experience.

He’s not being asked to race a powerful F1 race car through the tight narrow streets of a medieval city in a Grand Prix race. He’s being asked to run you over to the grocery store in the next town.

And you may find the new driver’s conversation interesting, especially if he has an enthusiasm for the places through which he’s driving you, or even an enthusiasm for driving by itself. He might offer you pleasures the better driver would not, partly because he is new to driving people around. You may be glad to have had him drive you even if you do arrive late.

The Church has a system by which the least adequate of men may learn to serve her as priests, if they are called and if they are obedient, if they do their work humbly and love their people. Humility and love go a very long way — much farther than skills and gifts without humility and love.

The average parishioner wants a priest who loves God and loves them and loves what he’s doing, and they’ll forgive a lot of someone who does all this. Especially if that love includes the obvious desire to do the best he can and to grow in his gifts as their pastor.