Posted February 01, 2010 in My Dear Family:
What Is a Priest?

by Catherine Doherty.

Our foundress Catherine Doherty gave the following talk in the 1970s before the current revelations of sexual abuse by priests. Had she written it now, her style and approach would have been different. Her essential vision of priesthood, however, would have remained the same.

Well aware of the specific ills and problems of her day, she addressed them, but she always went deeper than that. She used contemporary realities as springboards to proclaim the universal and eternal truths of the Gospel, truths which, if truly believed and lived, would in fact provide the basis for the healing of those ills.

In the seventies, another time of crisis in the priesthood, she proclaimed the supernatural dignity, the holiness, not of the individual priest, but of the priesthood in the man.

Numerous priests have testified that the gospel vision of priesthood that she proclaimed transformed their lives. Many said it saved their vocations.

Christ instituted the priesthood. Since morning I have been filled with its awesomeness. The day before his passion, the day of the breaking of the bread, the night Judas kissed him, Christ instituted the priesthood.

Let your mind enter into this mystery beyond all mysteries, that Christ chose to take men out from among men, for he said, You have not chosen me; I have chosen you (Jn 15:16).

Into these men he has entered, not like the milk has entered into the pitcher, or the tea entered into the cup. No. He has become the cup, as well as entered into the cup.

It is the hands of Christ that anoint. It is the hands of Christ that give us the Eucharist. It is the lips of Christ that pronounce the words that change the bread and wine into his Body and Blood.

In every priest Christ walks across the width and breadth of our whole land. There are no nooks and corners where he isn’t present. (Though all people have not yet been converted to God, this will come in time, for Christ is the Lord of history.) Think of that. Ponder over it.

Sometimes men ask, "Should I become a priest?" Well, it is not up to you to say so. But if in the heart of any man there passes the slightest breath of the Holy Spirit which makes him turn his face toward the priesthood, let him go and find out, because he might be one of the few chosen ones.

Christ knew our hunger for himself. He knew that we would be walking around in the darkness of a thousand wars and miseries throughout this life.

He knew that people would not all accept his commandment of love. He knew that we would be angry and hurt each other and kill each other. In order to have someone walk over the waters as he did, the waters of all those miseries of man and to bring his peace there, he enters into the ones he has chosen as priests.

If one really understands what is going on at an ordination, one should faint, even if he or she be strong. Because a miracle is before you, a miracle beyond all proportions! A miracle like those performed at Lourdes!

A man becomes another Christ, and in his hands he has the power of healing others, the power of healing souls, of bringing back the prodigal sons and daughters.

He has the power of feeding the hungry—those who haven’t bread and those who have—for the Bread that the priest gives assuages the hunger of both poor and rich.

What is a priest? A priest is a lover of God. Let us not analyze or try to poke our dirty hands into the soul of a priest.

He might appear to have jumped over the wall, married somebody, or simply lived common-law or whatever, but who are you or I to know how much he loves God?

And he still has the power, at a moment of death or in moments of extreme catastrophes of all kinds, to give us the Body and Blood of Christ and to absolve us. Make no mistake about that. His name might be Mister, but he is still a priest of the order of Melchizedek forever.

We who are eternally tearing priests apart because of their human sinfulness, we who leave the Church because a priest has erred or has upset us, we who criticize, who walk around with our heads high but with stones in our hands, we are in sin.

As Christ said when the woman was taken in adultery, If any of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone (Jn 8:7).

A priest is a lover of men. A priest is a holy man, because he walks before the face of the All–Holy.

That doesn’t mean that every priest you meet is holy in the sense that kids in the first grade, or even we who are seventy years old, may think of holiness.

He is holy because Christ in him is holy, and because he stands, no matter where he goes, before the All–Holy, the Trinity, who is reflected in him. So he is as if he were not: God is in him.

A priest understands all things, a priest forgives all things, and a priest encompasses all things. Priests, as human beings, often understand very little, and as human beings often do not forgive very well. Priests are human beings like you and me.

Sometimes they encompass only a very small part of the spiritual territory, but don’t kid yourself, don’t be deluded. A priest is holy ground walking about. What he can’t do, Christ in him can do.

So you become a priest and you arrive at a new parish and they say to you, "Oh, you are wearing your clerics! What an old–fashioned guy! Very structured!"

You’re a parishioner there, and you have a few ideas of what the new parish priest is going to be like. You look for some priest who has ideas like you, unstructured, or whatever.

Or maybe you are on the opposite side and you want him to say the Latin Mass. All this has nothing to do with it at all. It is just fog in the valley of our thoughts.

Christ in the priest understands all things, forgives all things, and encompasses all things. Faith that is like a burning bush, faith that transcends all understanding—that is you, standing before a priest. You have to go before this opaque, fat, thin, tall, ugly or whatever, man, in the tremendous power of faith.

The heart of a priest is pierced like Christ’s with a lance of love. Whether he knows this or not, it is. He may try to tear the lance out, but he can’t, because there was a moment when Christ entered into him and put that lance in. The words are, "I put a seal upon your heart," and there is nothing that will rub it off.

The heart of a priest is a vessel of compassion. The heart of a priest is a chalice of love. The heart of a priest is a trysting place of human and divine love. Of course, it is. The heart of a priest is a vessel of compassion because it is the vessel of Christ.

Maybe the priest himself needs compassion, because he has forgotten about his vessel. But if I come to him, even when he doesn’t say much, or says nothing, even if he repulses me in a sense, I feel the compassion of Christ within me, if I begin to understand what a priest is.

A priest is a man whose goal is to be another Christ. A priest is a man who lives to serve. If he isn’t, then Christ in him will be the servant, yours and mine, and if the priest doesn’t feel like being another Christ, the Christ in him will be revealed more clearly if only you and I have eyes to see.

Now we are entering into the realm of faith. I am not appealing to your reason, which would be impossible, because our senses and our mind might feel the opposite.

But Christ took an ordinary piece of bread and a little wine and changed it into his Body and his Blood.

Is it impossible to believe that Christ is in every priest, because he wishes to be there? So that he can walk with the priest’s feet, heal with the priest’s hands, give the Eucharist to us through the priest’s hands?

Enter now into the reality of a priest. Shed all preconceived notions and ideas.

Suddenly, easily, simply, before you will stand God who fills the priest. And that Face that no one can see without dying will be there, and you will be looking at an icon.

No, you will look at Christ himself, and know beyond all knowledge that he is here in our midst, in the shape of this fat, unshaven, good–looking or bad–looking priest, with a breath that stinks or a breath that doesn’t stink.

That doesn’t make any difference. He is always the same, this Christ that loved us so much that he returned to heaven and yet stayed in our midst.

Remember Holy Thursday always, year after year: the day of Christ’s infinite love, when he went away and yet he remained, in Bread and Wine and in the priest.

It is the day of Christ’s ordination of the priesthood. Pray that you might understand, and understanding, see Christ in the priest.

Catherine Doherty had a great love for priests. In fact, she offered her life for them. This love she passed on to her community.

In Madonna House, we stand when a priest comes to our dinner table, and we fast at Friday supper for them.

Madonna House has 19 member priests and 103 associate bishops, priests, and deacons.

We also have a guest house where priests can come for rest, restoration, and healing.

Except for the editor’s introduction and conclusion, this was excerpted and adapted from Season of Mercy, pp. 94-98, (1996), out of print.


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