What Makes a Good Priest?

Last weekend our team worked with a retreat group of gay Christians. The Vatican’s recent instruction on criteria of admission to priestly training was an unavoidable topic of conversation. In the course of the weekend we did an exercise asking the group to surface the kinds of consideration they felt were applicable to choosing ministers. What qualities and values and talents fit someone for Christian ministry?

The answers weren’t surprising, ranging from practical financial acumen through the capacity to communicate well, affective maturity, etc. to living, prayerful faith. All in all, the kind of recipe for a super-minister that puts actual ministers to shame. The exercise got me thinking about something I was given to pray with when I was a Jesuit novice praying through my 30-day retreat. The context was the Last Supper. My director gave me something written by another Jesuit, Michael Buckley, for some guys about to be ordained. I’ll quote a bit:

There is a tendency among us Americans, common and obvious enough, recommended by common sense and successful practice, to estimate a person’s aptitude for a profession or for a career by listing his strengths. Jane speaks well, possesses an able mind, exhibits genuine talents for leadership and debate; she would be an excellent lawyer. John has recognizably good judgment, a scientific turn of interest, obvious manual dexterity and deep human concerns; he would make a splendid surgeon.

The tendency is to transfer this method of evaluation to the priesthood, to estimate a man by his gifts and talents, to line up his positive achievements and his capacity for more, to understand his promise for the future in terms of his accomplishments in the past, and to make the call within his life contingent on the attainments of personality or grace. Because a man is religiously serious, prayerful, socially adept, intellectually perceptive; possesses interior integrity, sound common sense, and habits of hard work–therefore he will make a fine priest.

I think that transfer is disastrous. There is a different question, one proper to the priesthood as of its very essence, if not uniquely proper to it: Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man? Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish? Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations? These are critical questions and they probe for weakness. Why? Because, according to Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Christ lies.

Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Buckley’s question seems really important to meditate upon in these times. The full text is worth reading.

3 replies on “What Makes a Good Priest?”

  1. And about the Vatican document, I mentioned it a little in my blog (who do you love?), agrreing with Radcliffe when he says in the Tablet article …

    … a vocation is a call from God. It is true that, as the document says, it is “received through the Church, in the Church and for the service of the Church”, but it is God who calls. Having worked with bishops and priests, diocesan and religious, all over the world, I have no doubt that God does call homosexuals to the priesthood, and they are among the most dedicated and impressive priests I have met. So no priest who is convinced of his vocation should feel that this document classifies him as a defective priest. And we may presume that God will continue to call both homosexuals and heterosexuals to the priesthood because the Church needs the gifts of both.

  2. I meant to read the article you mentioned, but didn’t get around to it. I saw it today at the NY province’s page and finally read it, posted part of it. Wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t seen it here earlier – thanks.

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