Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Secular Priests and their Patron

I have met more than one parish priest who “doesn’t have much time” for St Jean Marie Vianney. More than one priest has let slip that they find him an impossible role model for the priesthood and would rather there were some other saint as their patron.

There is a real problem here, I think, that too often we want to see saints as role models, but we confuse what made their lives holy with the “accidents” of their personal circumstances and personalities.

There may even be a genuine fear among priests that they are supposed to behave like him: spend whole days in the confessional, run an orphanage, eat meager food, run ragged at everybody’s beck and call, suffer breakdowns, and be in constant battle with the Devil. The fear of being totally run into the ground, exhausted and isolated does sadly become a reality for some priests. It is not a good advert for the priesthood and it is not a good model for how priests should live.

On the other hand, I would argue, that if a priest isn’t locked in combat with the Devil then he is not fulfilling his vocation. The Devil hates good priests but is quite happy to let the slackers carry on their merry little way. A good, holy priest who is also an isolated and overworked figure is going to need to all the spiritual armour he can muster. He will be assailed with doubt, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, pride (nobody works harder than me) and temptations. The tragedy being that a priest alone and isolated is probably the easiest to tempt: the bottles of scotch given as Christmas presents, the internet, the cookie jar.

In really caring for our priests, I do think it is important that their protection is taken seriously. I read, and enjoyed the book by Fr Jerome Bertram (Cong Orat) called Vita Communis (published by Gracewing), it is an important study of the various mechanisms for secular clergy living in community that have been in existence since the earliest days of the Catholic priesthood. The most important point raised in the book is that secular clergy were never meant to live on their own. To do so entails the self-discipline of a hermit and few are called to the life of a hermit. Since near enough the French Revolution, clergy living alone and isolated have been the norm rather than the exception and very few forced to live like that have found it has enhanced their vocation. Sadly, models for living in community dating from the early days of the 20th Century, were largely models for bullying and the abuse of curates, leading to generations of priests who couldn’t wait to get a parish of their own. This is all so sad and without arguing for the current vogue of “parish clustering”, a holy and prayerful solution to make the lives of our beloved priests holier and healthier is desperately needed.

This neatly returns us to St Jean Vianney. He is a powerful intercessor for toady’s priest because he is the archetypal isolated priest: self-doubting, overworked, academically inferior to his contemporaries and above all a frail man. It is his hours before the Blessed Sacrament and it is his total reliance on God, allowing His grace to work through him that preserved him. We shouldn’t treat our priests the way St Jean Vianney was treated, but we do, and yes, perhaps he is very nearly impossible to follow. That is why his intercession is so necessary and so powerful.


Paul Mallinder said...

Great post. I have felt the same about how St Jean Vianney sometimes is not taken seriously within the priesthood. I was told once that he was never mentioned during seminary formation. Paul

Rita said...

Thank you Paul,

Also, when my internet connection speeds up a bit I must remember to add your blog to my sidebar, I've been reading it for a while now and it is excellent.

Robert B. Heath said...

There is a lot to be said for a common life for priests: even if they don't live together, they should frequently pray together, recreate together and collaborate freely.

My Pastor, while he lives alone, frequently has priest and religious guests in the rectory. Just about any priest visiting locally, will be welcome to stay with Father, who also is generous with meals.

As to St. Jean Vianney, he's a hard one to imitate as to specifics, but certainly in generalities, he ought to be imitated as much as possible.

There is a world of difference between 12 hours a day in the confessional, and 1-2 hours a week. There is a big difference between spending your evening watching TV or surfing the net, and spending the whole night in prayer for your parishoners. And there is a big difference between living on spoiled potatoes, and having one worn cassock, and collecting Waterford crystal and having a jacuzzi with gold-lated fittings installed in the rectory. There is a workable middle ground between the two extremes.

Sometimes it is difficult to make the initial leap, but when a priest really loves his vocation, he can find in St. Jean a wonderful guide to help him find that middle ground that is best for himself.

Rita said...


I'm just wondering, have you ever known a priest with a jacuzzi?

Robert B. Heath said...


Yes, I have. I had a pastor once who had a tanning booth on the third floor of his rectory. When he left the parish, the priest who took his place installed a jacuzzi with gold-plated fixtures in the bathroom, and he had quite an extensive collection Waterford Crystal on display near the rectory office.

He was a very nice man, very kind. He was also a good singer, liked to sing Broadway show tunes. And I remember one Easter Vigil, he sang the Exultet in his chasuble, seated at an electric piano in the sanctuary.

I liked him, but I thought the jacuzzi was a little inappropriate, and his mode of singing the exultet seemed a little lacking in dignity.

He was only with the parish for a couple of years, and now several years later, that parish has been closed. It was a beautiful little church with a replica of Our Lady of Walsingham at the side altar. (The tanning booth priest had it carved and installed. So... Unfortunately, the tanning booth priest was accused of improprieties with teen boys and eventually was removed from ministry. The whole thing was very sad.)

Pablo said...

"... spend whole days in the confessional, run an orphanage, eat meager food, run ragged at everybody’s beck and call, suffer breakdowns, and be in constant battle with the Devil. The fear of being totally run into the ground, exhausted and isolated does sadly become a reality for some priests. It is not a good advert for the priesthood and it is not a good model for how priests should live..."

Miss Rita,

You just described my mommy, God rest her soul.

There are good Priests in the fashion of the Cure of Ars today.

If us men help Priests, quietly, heavy on the quiet part, and not get involved in their Holy ministry, the Priests are able to work more proficiently.

Priests need 'drivers'; someone available to drive day and night, to drive while the Priests read their Divine Office, to drive while they take a quick nap between Extreme Unctions or visiting the Faithful. Someone that will slap a fool silly if they attack a Priest.

This used to be part of a Sacristan's job.

When a Priest has a man next to him, the devil gets miffed that there is a guard dog on duty.

I enjoy seeing the pictures of the Holy Father with Father Geswain, his assistant close by his side, praying the Holy Rosary, walking through the Vatican gardens, or out in the world attending business.

Were you named after Saint Rita?

Nice blog. I’m happy to have found it.

God be with you.


Rita said...

Hi Pablo,

Thanks for dropping in, glad you like the blog. You are absolutely right about men helping their priests, I hope people listen to you.

BTW. Rita is my confirmation name, St Rita means a lot to me.