The elusiveness of holiness

The elusiveness of holiness

This month’s Homiletic and Pastoral Review has an article on Priests for the New Evangelization. It explore the model of priesthood as exemplified by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

I recommend it to seminarians. Everyone I knew in the seminary drew a lot of inspiration from Bl John Paul, and from his successor too. It’s a big time investment, but the return is worthwhile.

Priests will take it or leave it, depending on their own understanding of the priesthood — not to mention John Paul’s papacy. Lay people, too, may not find a lot of reason to persevere to the end. It is a long article, and its focus is narrow.

Nonetheless, the article contains some real gems. In his consideration of the priest’s role as alter Christus — another Christ — the author warns the priest of “the constant temptation to confuse his own person with that of Christ.”

St. Bernard relates a story about a horse carrying a prince. The horse thinks that all the honors and adulation are directed at him. Such a fool, writes Bernard, is the bishop or priest who thinks that awe and reverence are directed at his private person, rather than at Christ, whom he represents. It is, indeed, a sad experience to see a priest who forces himself to play a role that compels him to become a hypocrite. In other words, he feels it is his duty to appear holy, and in fact holier, than he really is.

This is a great observation. The priest who not only strives for the saintly ideal, but who also seems to attain it, is often leading a double life — or at least setting himself up for disintegration.

In one of his best blog posts, Fr Longenecker relates the pattern of the saintly priest who seems too good to be true. Most of the time, he is true good to be true.

The best priests I’ve known have been the dull ones. Give me a plodder priest any day. Give me the Samwise Gamgees of the priestly fraternity. When it comes to priests, remember that all that glitters is not gold.

That can be taken two ways obviously. Fr Longenecker is not cynical, and neither am I. I take seriously the universal call to holiness. But of course the point is that Samwise Gamgee is saintly, in his humble and unassuming way.

Sometimes I think ‘holiness’ is as elusive as God himself. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, another dimension reveals itself, and a rethink is in order.