THE PRIEST TODAY
Mons. Maurice Maziers, Archbishop of Bordeaux
Joy and confidence predominate in his "apostolic uneasiness"
Q: In recent times, particularly these last months, much has been written about the priest. What do you think of it all?
A: That is true. In this society of ours, now in constant change, the priest stands as a symbol—a symbol that is being investigated and explained. It is got so unusual that, just as at the time of Christ whose minister he is, you are asking who he is. Nor is it strange that when questioned by the world, he himself becomes more conscious of what he is, what he must be. The fact that he is questioned makes him take account.
However, having said this, I must express my regrets on how incompletely and wrongly many aspects of the priesthood are interpreted, how unjustly realized. The result in many cases is that the publicis presented with a profile of the priest which is unrecognizable—even a himself, he is sadly disfigured in the minds of his own brothers.
Q: In what way do you perceive this deformation?
A: I thank you for appealing to what I am trying personally to prove, because what I shall say is the evidence of a witness. It is not the result of an inquiry, but rather a faithful account of what I have experienced in my 30 years of priesthood, with all its limitations, and also, I repeat, in all fairness. It is this experience that encourages me to testify objectively to the JOY of the priest—an aspect which is rarely treated in literature or films about us. This joy I have indeed experienced, and still more have discovered it and contemplated it in priestly souls, whose light illuminated and guided my own life.
It was this that I observed in the life of the priest who had been the curate of my small home parish for 47 years. As a boy and a youth, I have been nourished on his confidence. He was a happy priest who, in the simplicity of his life, in the disinterestedness characterized him, in his love for people made him often express his gratitude to God for the life He had given him. He constantly urged me to discover what was good in the world and in men.
Afterwards during my life in the seminary and military service, I had the good fortune to meet priests who besides encouraging my apostolic life, left the same traces of joy and hope in my heart.
I should also like to add that when I was a young priest, I had the good fortune for 15 years to live very close to a elderly priest in a rest home. The confidence he showed on the approach of death impressed me profoundly. Even when his life had been filled with serious difficulties and hardships, it always had the tone of the Magnificat and the stamp of Faith. In complete objectivity I can truly say that in my contacts with my brother priests, I have only bright remembrances notwithstanding difficulties still existing.
Q: Monsignor, can you describe for us some aspects of this priestly joy which seems unknown to so many and of which you, on the contrary, seem so convinced?
A: It deals with a secret which really should be revealed, but perhaps we have not sufficient occasions to do it. I thank you for offering me this opportunity to say it in a world particularly marked by sadness, boredom, and the spirit of revolt.
This joy has its origin in the Heart of Christ whose confidant and minister the priest is. Before leaving the Apostles on Holy Thursday Jesus said to them: "I tell you this that my joy may be full!" Certainly this wish is not addressed only to the priest, but it finds its verification in the heart of a priest. At that point the priest experiences Christ when He is received with faith and served with love, as a fount of inexhaustible and unalterable joy! … And this joy will be greater when the priest has shared it with men, his brothers. How many times I have marvelled at the change of heart in a man through the action of Christ! To many men is given the legitimate joy of work by which matter and the world are transformed, but a priest’s joy in seeing a heart changed and gradually opened to the love of God and men is still greater.
Q: But if this is the joy of the priest, why do they speak so much about the uneasiness of the clergy?
A: I think this deals with a current of thought that, like so many others, needs to be analyzed and clarified to arrive at a more objective reality. Certainly, there are some facts which in all simplicity must be recognized. The priest is a man, and to him as well as to his brothers, men engaged in other duties, come moments of discouragement and fatigue. On his way to God, the priest like his brothers, is not immune from these moments of uncertainty. In the midst of these difficulties, he may lose sight of motives for joy—even lose contact with the One who is the Fount. Yes, it can happen that one feels out of place and is unprepared to fulfill the mission confided to him.
But why make so much of these facts which can be found in greater abundance and under more saddening circumstances in others conditions of life, or in the accomplishment of other duties? Why make these facts the foundation of a thesis which hides all the riches of the priestly life and thereby risks impoverishing its content? For all priests, I prefer to speak of "apostolic uneasiness." Priests are not strangers to the crisis of civilization that is shaking not only the world’s structure but also of the awareness that man is taking of himself.
Therefore they are really suffering in this topsy-turvy world—suffering because of the structure that bears the mark of the past. They suffer because they are not sufficiently in contact with the men of their time; they do not know how to share in current up-to-date language the Good News of which they are the bearers.
In the priest’s conscience there is a search for fraternal community with the men of his day, that has its origin in the deep feeling of their apostolic responsibility. But it is necessary that in this search for a more efficacious presence, of a more lively language that the message they are to spread maintain its relish, its purity, all its demands. A priest whose community with man might become an involvement with sin, or with a humanism enclosed in himself, would betray his mission. Today more than ever before, men have need of meeting someone who makes them look beyond themselves. That is the duty of the priest, not only his word, but also by his way of life… and his comportment. It is this very thing that gives so much importance to his celibacy—that tells why his celibacy is so important.
Q: You have recalled the dangers that threaten the priest in his mission. Do you think there are some particular circumstances that can help the priest?
A: Certainly there are. And to use an up-to-date word, I think I can say that the joy of the priest depends upon his dialogue with Jesus Christ, with his brothers in the priesthood, and with his dialogue with men, also his brother. The priest in effect is the one who is alone through Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ! Therefore, he cannot be a witness of Jesus Christ and His minister if he is not most intimately confident in prayer. It is sufficient to open the Gospel to understand at what point the action of Christ is nourished by his continual dialogue with His Father. The action of the priest, too, must therefore, more than any other, be nourished by a continual dialogue with God. It is in sincere prayer that the strength and the joy of the priest fundamentally have their origin.
Whatever be the kind of adjustment required by his apostolic life, the priest, in order to be a bearer of God, must always be a man of prayer. The priest is what he is in the name of Christ, only together with his Bishop and all the other priests. This bond needs to be rediscovered and better experienced. We must admit that the way in which we have lived our pastoral ministry bears the stamp of a certain individualism. And now the world in which we live and the Church of the Council, are calling us again to live our apostolic lives in a more and more conscious and fraternal solidarity. There are some groups of priests who already are finding in their complete exchange of confidence, and in a common and shared responsibility, the source of a renewed apostolic fervor. It is in this sense that it is necessary to proceed without being discouraged by any difficulty, but by being completely preoccupied with the longing desire to be a witness to the love of Christ who unites us. Lastly, and above all, a priest cannot forget that he is such in the Name of Christ, only by serving the people of God. His ministry puts him in a fraternal dialogue with all men, with those who believe as well as with those who have not yet discovered Jesus Christ. His apostolic joy depends the genuineness of this dialogue with men.
Personally I can testify that it is to this that I owe, for the most part, the grasp and awareness of my priestly role. As a matter of fact, it is by this dialogue and by the more personal contacts I have experienced as a priest, the role of his revealing the presence of Christ in the heart of man. This permits me to add also that the laity can do much to increase a priest’s joy when they ask him to discover with them the Christian sense of all that they are, by freeing them from the scum of sin and permitting them to live in the grace of Christ, in union with God.
If to be a priest means to work among the laity for an increase of faith, hope and charity, the opposite is also true. The apostolic fervor of the priest depends on the sincerity of his services as expected by the laity.
Q: After this evidence, is it correct to declare that you are optimistic about the future of the priesthood?
A: Without a doubt. It is clear that like many others I am aware, facing all that I see and feel, of difficulties in this time of crisis in which we are living, regarding both civilization and faith. But as Father de Lubac emphasized very clearly in one of his last books: "Our hope is not impaired. The believer cannot appear to be a pessimist even if he has reasons to worry. Moments of crisis will always be for him times of greatest hope. Where danger increases, so does the possibility of salvation. My hope is bound to Peter’s act of faith on the temple steps in Jerusalem: "There is no other name given to men by which we may be saved".
It is certain, too, that the world in which we live denies it. The suffering of spiritual emptiness so manifest in the revolt of today’s youth, the fatigue and discouragement manifested by the adults—all this, if we know how to interpret it correctly, is by an appeal to God. I believe the, in the irreplaceable role of the priest. He must help the men of this age to meet Christ and to live in Him. I also think that many young men will, because of these crises, discover the urgent need and the beauty of the priestly vocation. In this world which dangerously risks closing itself up in pride or despair, it is more than ever the critical time for the priest—the man who acts as mediator with God, and consequently of man with man.
For two thousand years now, priests have written many beautiful pages. In this new world that is being born, and in the new ways of his presence in the midst of men, more beautiful pages will be written.
Weekly Edition in English
18 July 1968, page 6
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069