BEND,OREGON – The expressions of esteem for the dignity of the priesthood which I quoted from the saints last week are sentiments which are not often heard in our modern era. If any priest would be so bold as to utter them he would be roundly mocked and yet they are the fruit of the meditation of the saints. Any hint that such an elevation of priestly dignity would be proposed in our day would, in many circles, generate an immediate rebellion from the priests themselves as well as from the laity. Many are much more comfortable with that easy familiarity so common and so popular, “Just call me Tom or Jim or Bob, I am no different than anyone else.” I am not at all proposing that we condone the possibility that priests, lacking an appropriate humility, hold themselves in such high esteem that they carry the priestly mantle like a club with which to beat the laity. That is not at all what these saints are proposing. Unfortunately, somehow the necessary promotion of the proper role and dignity of the baptismal priesthood of the laity seems to have been accompanied by the abandonment of a proper sense of the true dignity of the ministerial priesthood. Now anyone who would dare to hint that the priesthood constitutes a higher state of life runs the risk of being accused of a grossly inappropriate and insensitive air of superiority. There is not, however, any necessary connection between the recognition of the great dignity of the priesthood, by either the laity or the priest himself, and an egotistical pride in the honor. Jesus, after all, the Great High Priest, was himself meek and humble of heart without ever abandoning or denying his priestly dignity.
The profound depth of appreciation for the priesthood which the saints manifest ought to be an impetus for all of us, priests and laity alike, to evaluate the poverty of our own appreciation. The church’s Year of the Priest affords us the opportunity to do precisely that.
The Holy Father’s brief announcement of the coming year gives us a hint of the outline which he might follow in approaching this effort to foster a priest’s yearning for spiritual perfection. Certainly the effort must be made by all of us priests, as the Holy Father points out, to be more present, identifiable and recognizable. We need to be more recognizable for our faith filled view of this world and the next. We need to be more identifiable in our aspiration to and manifestation of personal virtue. The Holy Father also adds that we need to be more visible and identifiable in our priestly attire. These are not only external trappings. They must be, first and foremost, external expressions of an interior appreciation and commitment.
When there is a deepened sense for all of us of the interior dignity of the priesthood then the exterior garb cannot be seen as an imposition of some difficult externally imposed rule by the Church. Such distinctive garb becomes the concrete expression of our realization that the priesthood sets us apart. Our recognition that we have been set apart demands that we give witness to this otherness of the ministerial priesthood in a variety of ways, including proper clerical dress. As we know, that dress applies to proper daily clerical garb as well as and especially to liturgical vestments. The proper use of the alb, sometimes with the amice as needed to cover the clerical collar, the conscientious use of the required cincture, a sign of our commitment to celibacy and chastity, the use of a stole as a concelebrant and the use of a chasuble over the stole for the main celebrant are all external manifestations and indications of our own humble recognition of the dignity of the priestly office which is entrusted to us. Every priest needs to take the graced opportunity which this year presents to evaluate how well, or how poorly, our own utilization of clerical garb reflects the awesome dignity of the priestly service which we are to provide. If it is true that the holiness of a man is manifested even in how he picks things up and puts them down, how much more is the holiness of a priest manifested in how conscientiously he attends to the details of appearance especially at Holy Mass.
St. Ambrose notes: “To offer sacrifice worthily, the priest ought first to sacrifice himself by the oblation of his whole being to God.” When the Church asks us to be garbed in an alb which fully covers the collar, girded with a cincture and clothed with a stole and chasuble we have an opportunity to exercise humility, obedience and even a bit of self sacrifice. The more fully we recognize the dignity of the liturgical work we are called upon to fulfill the more readily will we make conscientious efforts to conform to the liturgical norms of dress and demeanor.
There is an unfortunate casualness which has invaded our churches and our sanctuaries and this excess of casualness, often mistaken for charitable hospitality, erodes our ability to recognize, with the Spirit’s gift of wonder and awe, the sacredness of places, liturgical actions and persons. In this the clergy certainly have a responsibility but the laity must likewise bear a large portion of the responsibility for the erosion of the sense of the sacred. Those who exercise liturgical ministries of one type or another have an obligation, as does the priest, to reflect upon the sublime dignity of the task entrusted and to make sure that all interior and exterior dispositions are well suited to the task at hand. In this, a particular attention to modesty needs to be noted. It is not only those who enter into the Sanctuary during Holy Mass who are to be properly disposed and properly attired but everyone who comes to participate in the Holy Sacrifice needs to take note of those same dispositions. Each needs to ask: How well does my appearance reflect my appreciation of the holiness and otherness of the event for which I am preparing? It may be necessary for parents occasionally to say to their children, I love you but you are not properly dressed for Holy Mass. It may be necessary to recognize that teens might tend to dress a couple of levels less respectfully than parents and this might require parents to dress up a couple of levels in order to justify asking their teens to step up as well.
If the laity recognize the need to show a greater wonder and awe for that which is sacred, perhaps the priests will be aided in fostering a deeper yearning for spiritual perfection.