She Knew What a Priest Is 

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

As Madonna House celebrates its 75th anniversary, we have all been invited to give our thoughts on the matter, specifically around the area of gratitude. Looking back at three-quarters of a century of this community’s life and mission, what am I grateful for?

Honestly, this is a subject I find most difficult to write about. Not because I’m lacking in gratitude. The problem is the exact opposite—I’m so grateful for everything!

Every day, every moment, every person, every work of God and his love, which ultimately is every breath I breathe, the very ground on which I walk, and so forth. When your heart is bursting with gratitude for everything, how do you write about that? Write about everything?

But in the interest of just choosing one thing and focussing on that, and hence attaining some brevity and coherence, I would say that as a priest of Madonna House, I am deeply grateful to Catherine Doherty for her incredible love and penetrating, mystical spiritual vision of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Out of this has come in our community a beautiful love for priests, the fruit of which has been a thriving apostolate of ministering to priests: priests in crisis, priests not in crisis, priests bent double under the heavy burdens of ministry, priests simply walking along in their normal pastoral lives.

Hundreds if not thousands of priests, bishops, and deacons have passed through the doors of Madonna House and been restored and renewed in their clerical mission.

In our days when the Church has been ravaged by scandals of priestly abuse and misconduct, it is a cause for great thanksgiving that our little community has done something to help priests live their vocations better.

For those of us called to serve in Madonna House as priests, this has been a great and ongoing source of joy and strength for us. Thank you, Jesus!

In our modern Church scene, I believe Catherine’s vision is of the utmost importance. We seem to be stuck on a nasty little not-so-merry-go-round in how we talk about and relate to the priesthood today.

We’re stuck spinning between clericalism (an exaggerated sense of the holiness of the priest disregarding his humanity, or of the importance of the priest disregarding the central role of the laity), and anti-clericalism (a wholesale condemnation, resentment, blame and hyper-critical attitude towards priests).

Of course, clericalism begets anti-clericalism, and vice versa, and round and round we go. Priests are either saints and angels or miscreants and devils.

And lacking any deeper vision of what Christ has done and is doing in the life of the Church by establishing an ordained priesthood, this rather ugly vicious circle seems to be the only way open to us.

I believe Catherine has such a vision. First, she has an enormous sense of the holiness of the priesthood. Christ in the priest, acting to make his love and grace available to the whole human race in its fullness. This is what she sees.

The sacramental graces for her are not some remote symbolic abstraction. Rather, in the Eucharist Jesus directly feeds his people the spiritual bread which gives eternal life (cf. John 6). In Confession, Jesus directly washes away our sins and restores our soul to its pristine purity and beauty.

And so with each sacrament, and in the extra-sacramental work of the priest as well. When the priest proclaims the Gospel, Christ himself directly speaks his word of truth. When a priest blesses, Christ himself blesses that person.

Catherine’s faith in the basic sacramental presence of Christ in the Church and in the priest is so total and all-encompassing, that of course she approached every individual priest with a great love and a deep respect. And in that, she would call them forth in ways very loving but also very challenging to live out.

As she saw it, the nature of the priestly role is to not only give the sacraments but in that to give themselves, to not only make Christ’s mercy available, but to become more and more men of mercy.

To become the mysteries we celebrate—this was her constant call to priests, which she could issue with great directness precisely because she loved priests so dearly. She knew what a priest was, and what he was to be, even if the man himself had forgotten.

Her mother had taught her this at a young age, as illustrated by a story she loved to tell. As a young girl in Russia, she had been taught to respect priests. One day her family were visiting relatives in a little village, and she came across the parish priest lying in a ditch passed out drunk.

This shook little Katia to her core. She had never seen a priest in such a state. She ran home to her mother deeply upset and told her, “Mama, the priest is in the ditch. He’s drunk, drunk, drunk!”

Her mother simply said in the calmest of voices, “Oh, is that so, Katia? Well, let’s go do something about that.” Her very calmness and matter of fact manner quieted the girl.

And so they went and they picked up the priest, her mother taking care to kiss his hand first, as is the Slavic custom, and brought him to the rectory and the care of the housekeeper there.

They returned home in silence, and her mother said, “Katia, go fetch the potty from your little brother’s room, rinse it out and fill it with water.”

She did this, and meanwhile her mother went to the garden and cut some beautiful Easter lilies. Her mother placed the lilies in the potty and said, “Now, look at that. The lilies are just as beautiful in a potty as they would be in a crystal vase. Remember that, Katia. The priest might be a potty, but Christ is in him nonetheless. Never forget that.”

So that’s the answer. It’s not a clericalist view of priests. It’s a faith vision based on an intense sacramental realism. Christ does love his people through the priests by making his life available through them, most intensely in the Eucharist, but in many other ways, even if the man in question (speaking personally!) is a stinky potty on any given day.

So I am grateful for that—that among so many other things—God used Catherine to present a deep vision and an abiding love for Jesus Christ, the Priest, living and loving his Church not exclusively, but certainly in and through his ordained ministers.

May we all learn to cherish the ministerial priesthood, especially those of us given a share in it by the mysterious choice of Christ, and may all priests grow to become the good shepherds we are meant to be in fullness.