Icons of Christ

Saturday Book Pick: Examples down the centuries on what makes a priest indispensible.


By Father Thomas McGovern

with a forward by Cardinal George Pell

Four Courts Press, 2010

456 pages, hardcover $60, sewn softcover $30

To order: FourCourtsPress.ie

This book is targeted toward priests and seminarians, aiming to invigorate them in their vocation to serve Christ and his Church. For all Catholics, however, it should inspire a vivid appreciation of that calling ever ancient, ever new.

Written by an Irish priest of the prelature of Opus Dei, Generations of Priests profiles 10 priests from antiquity through the present, from St. John Chrysostom to Pope John Paul II. Most are canonized and well known. All of them, however, “reflected Christ in his own unique way — they were truly icons of Christ,” writes Father McGovern.

His book is a scholarly and thoroughly engaging model of teaching through storytelling that evidences the Irish gift for letters at its noblest.

These priests fulfilled their callings in a variety of circumstances, confronting all manner of outward challenges and personal struggles. They were not Hamlets, endlessly questioning what to believe and how to act. “These men had very clear objectives because they were convinced about their vocation,” Father McGovern writes. “We do not find here any semblance of the crisis of identity which hit many priests in the aftermath of Vatican II. In fact they had so little time to think of themselves, they were so busy working as priests, that it never occurred to them to doubt their vocation.”

Father McGovern paints these priestly “icons” in such a manner that they form a cohesive mosaic illustrating the perennial character and relevance of the priesthood. Acting in the person of Christ for the benefit of the faithful, they also served as beacons of light within the wider world — a world ever in need of Christ, especially when plunged in darkness so severe that men react viciously to light.

Indeed, two of these priestly beacons were shattered by men bent on evil. Like broken glass, however, their deaths merely reflected so many more rays of light. Like their Master, Sts. John Fisher and Oliver Plunkett accepted fates they easily could have avoided. One was the only English bishop who refused to renounce Rome for a craven king, the other a primate of Ireland in the late 1600s, who in 1920 became the first Irish saint canonized in 700 years. To focus on their deaths, however, would be a disservice: There is so much more to their lives than their passing. As priests and bishops, their examples are richly relevant to the Church today. Of St. John Fisher, the less appreciated contemporary of St. Thomas More (they were executed within weeks of one another), Father McGovern concludes:

“[He] … does not have the same human attractiveness [as More], yet the example of his life and work is no less valid. A theologian of towering intellect which he used magnificently and unselfishly in the exposition and defense of Catholic doctrine, a bishop with an intense loyalty to the see of Peter, a pastor who nourished his flock with the bread of good doctrine and a saintly life — these are surely qualities which make St. John Fisher, if not a ‘man for all seasons,’ certainly very much an inspiration and a challenge for the Catholic Church of the present day.”

In St. Oliver Plunkett, the author reveals a man of supreme fortitude who reformed an Ireland suffering from scandalous clergy and depraved public morality. His example should inspire latter-day reformers tasked with rejuvenating the faith in Ireland. The point is that present problems have past counterparts, the resolution of prior woes offering hope for today.

Indeed, the lessons proffered in these profiles are well springs of practical advice and encouragement for priests as well as the laity of the pilgrim Church today.

Are you a young priest appointed to a moribund parish where only a couple old ladies seem to care? Let St. John Vianney teach you to make your garden grow. An American priest ministering to Spanish-speakers brimming with surface piety but lacking understanding of the faith and prone to Indian superstition? Consider Archbishop John Baptist Lamy, the French missionary tasked with shepherding the American Southwest. Struggling with evil in public life? Take Blessed Clement von Galen for your guide. This German bishop, so beloved for his towering opposition to Hitler that the Führer himself forbade his arrest, is an exemplar of dueling with darkness and never blinking. Or are you a priest or layman striving to be a saint amid the seemingly mundane concerns of everyday life? Then St. Josemaria Escriva is your man. Not surprisingly, the chapter on the founder of Opus Dei is touched with a filial appreciation that, like the cheerful saint himself, is infectious but unassuming.
Generations of Priests is a clarion call for this generation to convert to the first concerns of the faith, the very same preoccupations of these exemplars of the priesthood: good catechesis zealously performed, orthodox seminaries, devotion to the Blessed Mother, Eucharistic adoration, and a firm commitment to the sacrament of penance, which several of the 10, especially St. John Vianney, emphasized a priest is duty-bound to nurture on pain of his own salvation. For what shepherd would have his sheep suffer and die?

These first things, without which everything else collapses, help us the faithful to take up our own crosses and cheerfully follow Christ, uniting ourselves with him as we walk our own paths in this life with the guidance of good priests. Generations of Priests aims to make this burden be as it ought to be: not only light, but in that spiritual sense that baffles nonbelievers, downright merry.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.