The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
July 19, 2015
Calling our Priests to Holiness
St. John Vianney, the humble parish priest of the tiny and insignificant village of Ars in France during the early decades of the 19th century, was – in the eyes of the world – a worthless and weak specimen of a priest. He failed his classes in the seminary, was in poor health for most of his life, was physically unattractive, lacked social charisma, and was ostracized by many of the other priests in his diocese. He was sent to Ars – a “backwater” town with barely 200 people in it – under the presumption that he could do very little damage there since the place was already in such bad shape. It was a poor village and the people of Ars had become quite irreligious in the aftermath of the French Revolution: on Sundays the parish church would be almost empty while the four taverns in town were bursting at the seams. The people openly blasphemed God in the streets and the fathers of families squandered their money away on gambling and drink. This was, it seemed, the perfect place to send a dud of a priest.
But, as you can well imagine, the new curé of Ars had been underestimated. As is so often the case with God, John Vianney had been deprived of earthly wisdom and magnanimity so that he could excel in spiritual wisdom and sanctity. When he arrived in Ars, he immediately began fasting and making sacrifices for his people: his diet consisted of rotten potatoes and stale bread, his bed was nothing more than a couple of planks of wood on the floor, and he would spend long hours throughout the night before the Blessed Sacrament begging God to convert the hearts of his people. And slowly, over time, things began to change in Ars. The taverns began to close and more and more people began coming to Mass to hear the little priest preach with passionate conviction. The name of Jesus could be heard on the streets spoken with piety and reverence rather than in blasphemy. And due to the word that was spreading all throughout the region, the lines of John Vianney’s confessional were so long that he would have to sit there for upwards of 17 hours a day – breaking only to say Mass, to teach catechism, and to replenish his feeble body with a modicum of sleep. In a few short decades, Ars had been completely changed by this so-called dud of a priest. In fact, St. John Vianney had been so successful that the Devil – who often attacked him – told him once: “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined.”
The example of St. John Vianney, and of so many others like him, shows us yet again that God does not build up His Church with the great and the intelligent and the wonderful, but with the humble and the holy. This was true in the early 19th century, it was true in 33 AD, and it still is true in our day. It is the genuine sanctity of our priests, of our shepherds, that keeps the flock strong and faithful. A priest can be charming, intelligent, charismatic, attractive, cultured, funny, and yet if he lacks holiness these very traits will lead him and others to destruction.
There’s an old saying, attributed to another 19th century French priest, that says:
“If a priest is a saint, his people will be holy.
If a priest is holy, his people will be good.
If a priest is good, his people will be lukewarm.
If a priest is lukewarm, his people will be bad.
And if a priest is bad, his people will go to hell.”
This is a sober, but poignant reality: a shepherd of souls bears great responsibility, and if he fails to grow closer to Christ himself, how can he expect to help bring others closer to Christ? If holiness is not his goal, he will lead himself and others to pursue things that are not holy or that are unholy. If you listened closely to our readings today, you’ll hear this message loud and clear. In the first reading, Jeremiah brings the very harsh and frightening words of God to those who had charge over the people of Israel: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture…you have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.” And in the Gospel, our Lord is moved to pity for a people who had been abandoned in their needs, like sheep without a shepherd.
In our world and in our Church today, shepherds are continuing to scatter the flock of the Lord, just as in the days of Jeremiah and in the days of our Lord Himself. We can easily think of the horrible tragedy of the sex abuse scandal, but the scattering can and does happen in more subtle and pernicious ways. Priests who refuse to preach the truth, who condone sin, who abuse their authority in the confessional…priests who celebrate the Mass and the Sacraments carelessly and recklessly, who don’t go to the hospital when they’re called, who won’t make time to meet with those in distress…priests who over-indulge in pleasure, who seek the things of the earth and not the things of heaven, priests who don’t pray and who don’t help others to pray. The only key to a good priest is not his worldliness or his intelligence, it’s not his ability to socialize or his charm…it’s his holiness.
But priests do not become holy in a vacuum – we need you, just as you need us, to attain holiness. We need your prayers and your sacrifices. And we need you to challenge us and to call us to greater holiness. We cannot be seen just as professional ministers employed to make sure religious services happen and sermons get preached…we are your shepherds, and if we are to succeed in our mission, we have to become holy. Often times priests become less holy because there’s no one to keep them accountable…people become satisfied simply that there’s a priest, and it’s easy to lower their expectations of them. But the Lord calls His priests to much more, and the people of God deserve everything that the Lord can give them through His priests. There are certain things that you can absolutely expect from your priests, and when they fail, for the sake of your salvation and theirs, you have the right and the obligation to challenge him to more. Here are the things that you can expect from your priest:
1.) That he celebrate the Mass and the Sacraments faithfully, reverently, and carefully.
2.) That he is moral and chaste.
3.) That he pray and fast often, and that if you ask him he will do so for you personally.
4.) That he preach and teach the truth and not error, and that he remain 100% faithful to the teachings of the Church.
5.) That he preach thoughtful homilies, or at least homilies in which he has put much thought.
6.) That he be a lion in the pulpit, but a lamb in the confessional.
7.) That when you or a loved one is sick or ailing and in need of the Sacraments, he will come as quickly as possible.
8.) That he will tell you the truth, even if you don’t want to hear it at the time.
9.) That he will live relatively simply – being a man in the world, but not of the world.
10.) That he will sacrifice himself for your needs and the needs of the parish.
There are other qualities you might want in a priest, but these are the things I think that are necessary for his holiness, and by extension, your holiness. In truth and in love, hold us accountable when we fail so that we all might truly and more really experience the same grace that flowed through the little village of Ars, the grace of the Holy Priesthood.