Artwork courtesy of Father Harry Hagan, OSB

Happy to Be a Priest!

Portraits of priesthood that bring contentment and joy

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In 2018, I decided to make an exhibit of paintings called “Happy to Be a Priest.” Just as the fall semester began, the media became filled with Pennsylvania’s report on the sexual abuse by priests. I felt particularly bad for new seminarians. You come to a seminary because you feel that being a priest is good and worthwhile and holy. While I don’t want to defend anything that is indefensible, the media can make whatever is on the front page look wholly corrupt and flawed. So, I wanted to say to the new seminarians that it is good to be a priest — that I know many happy priests.

Working in a seminary for 40 years, I know well that priests are human beings who must face their sins and brokenness. Still, I have found them, on the whole, an impressive group of human beings.

A psychiatrist who worked with us at the seminary said priests did not give themselves enough credit. They have high ideals and hold themselves to a high standard. Though their mercy is wide for others, they can be hard on themselves. He thought they should give themselves the credit they deserve. There is a happiness and a satisfaction that rightfully belongs to being a priest. Yes! Happy to be a priest!

happy priests
Artwork courtesy of Father Harry Hagan, OSB

About 12 years ago, I began to paint. Strangely, I became fascinated with portraits and figured out a way to do them. I don’t mean that the portraits were fine art, or even particularly good art. But people could tell, for the most part, who they were supposed to be. So, I set out to paint happy priests for my exhibit. When alumni would come through, I would take their pictures and then paint some of them. Eventually, I had enough, but COVID-19, as with so many other things, delayed the exhibit, which finally happened last fall.

When I was in the sixth grade in the late 1950s, I asked the associate pastor what was the most important thing a priest did. He said: “To offer the sacrifice and forgive sins.” Though some things have changed, it has always struck me that his answer remains fundamentally true. As the priest, you offer with and for the Church the sacrifice; you make holy Christ’s self-gift to reconcile and feed the Body of Christ and the world. You “celebrate” the Eucharist. You “celebrate” the sacraments. They are events of joy. In prayer, you lead the People of God through the mysteries of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection so that we together may celebrate our salvation. Yes! Happy to be a priest!

A Godly Fellow

Some would want to add preaching. In “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer describes various clerics on the journey. The monk, the friar, and the pardoner are all rogues and rascals, but the parson, the parish priest, is a godly fellow. Chaucer tells us that he did not have money.

But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.

Chaucer goes on to praise him for preaching by his deeds as well as by his words. He ends by saying:

He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.

Such a person is a saint; but, mostly, we are not. To be true to God’s Word, we often must preach more than we can do ourselves. I don’t want to excuse anything inexcusable, but bad preaching often begins when we cut the Gospel down to our own size — to just what we can manage. However, there is an authentic joy that comes with being true to the Gospel and accepting the Word as a judgment on myself as well as others.

Example of Father Malloy

I have run across a few more poems about priesthood. My favorite comes from “The Spoon River Anthology” (Dover Publications, $4.99) by Edgar Lee Master, himself a skeptic. In each poem a dead person in the Spoon River cemetery tells his or her story, except for the one on “Father Malloy.” There, the “we” on the hill speak to the priest, buried beyond in the Catholic cemetery. In contrast to him, the “we” describe themselves as people “of wavering faith, and clouded vision / And drifting hope, and unforgiven sins.” But to the priest, they say:

You were so human, Father Malloy,
Taking a friendly glass sometimes with us,
Siding with us who would rescue Spoon River
From the coldness and the dreariness of village morality.

Admittedly, the picture is idealized, but the poem captures the tangible details: “a friendly glass sometimes” contrasted with “the coldness and dreariness of village morality.” It is not hard to imagine. The word “sometimes” shows that both he and they recognized that there was a difference between them, but still, he could bridge the distance.

You were like a traveler who brings a little box of sand
From the wastes about the pyramids
And makes them real and Egypt real.
You were a part of and related to a great past,
And yet you were so close to many of us.

They see Father Malloy as a link between past and present because he is able to “make real” a distant world. We might use the word “tradition,” which at root means to “give over” or “hand over.” Tradition involves knowing your past and then handing it over. It does not mean living in a museum.

My favorite definition of tradition comes from Pablo Picasso, who is reported to have said: “Tradition is not wearing your grandfather’s hat. Tradition is having a baby.” Tradition hands over life. Moreover, the words “make real” say more than these people realize. The priest makes real and hands over the life of Christ, bringing a distant past close in his person and his word. Something in that defines a father, and there is joy in being a father.

You believed in the joy of life.
You did not seem to be ashamed of the flesh.
You faced life as it is,
And as it changes.

The joy of life is “not ashamed of the flesh.” Priesthood is incarnational, and surely people get themselves in trouble when they try to become spiritual by denying the flesh. We can only bear the priesthood of Christ in our own person. This demands humility, which Michael Casey, OCSO, an author and a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey, Australia, defines as living in the truth — seeing yourself and others as neither better nor worse than you really are. That is not easy to do.

These folks “of wavering faith” celebrate Father Malloy because he could face reality “as it is / and as it changes.” This resonates with St. John Henry Newman’s saying: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Young seminarians, sometimes wanting to be perfect and finding they can’t, pretend, but there is no joy of life in pretending. Father Malloy does not need to pretend because he can face the joy of life “as it changes.”

Some of us almost came to you, Father Malloy,

Seeing how your church had divined the heart,
And provided for it,
Through Peter the Flame,
Peter the Rock.

Remarkably, these folks see the centrality of Peter for the Church in “divining the heart.” “Peter the Rock” is traditional and speaks of stability. “Peter the Flame” is surprising and fresh; it captures the apostle’s spontaneity, impulsiveness and passion — the spirit that both allows and causes life to change.

A seminarian from Springfield, Illinois, told me that “Father Malloy” was, in fact, a priest of the diocese. Though the poem idealizes the man, it still captures the ideal with tangible humanity, which I have encountered in happy priests.

Tie Up Loose Threads

More than 20 years ago, an alumnus came for a sabbatical and wanted to learn Hebrew so that he could read the psalms or, at least, know something of them in their original language. So, we worked on Hebrew twice a week. Though a bright man, he could never remember the vocabulary, much less the forms. However, he would tell me about people in a parish nearby where he had served 25 years earlier. Happily, he remembered their names and their complicated family relationships. He was a happy priest, and I was happy to have known him.

Allow me to end with a poem of my own that ties up a loose thread from above:

They come to tell their sins.
They tell their sins to me.
I am the priest,
and so they tell me things
little things sometimes
just what you would expect
but not always small
sometimes hard things
things said in fear
never before said out loud
to anyone, not to anyone
but now to me
but not really to me.
I must remember that —
that it is not to me.
But really, who could forget?
It is all so humbling
this mystery of forgiveness —
theirs and mine.
Yes! Happy to be a priest!

FATHER HARRY HAGAN, OSB, is an associate professor of Scripture at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.

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Anointed with the Oil of Gladness

Pope Francis reflected on priestly joy at the Chrism Mass on April 17, 2014: “Priestly joy has its source in the Father’s love, and the Lord wishes the joy of this Love to be ‘ours’ and to be ‘complete’ (Jn 15:11). I like to reflect on joy by contemplating Our Lady, for Mary, the ‘Mother of the living Gospel, is a wellspring of joy for God’s little ones’ (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 288). I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that priest is very little indeed: the incomparable grandeur of the gift granted us for the ministry sets us among the least of men. The priest is the poorest of men unless Jesus enriches him by his poverty, the most useless of servants unless Jesus calls him his friend, the most ignorant of men unless Jesus patiently teaches him as he did Peter, the frailest of Christians unless the Good Shepherd strengthens him in the midst of the flock. No one is more “little” than a priest left to his own devices; and so our prayer of protection against every snare of the Evil One is the prayer of our Mother: I am a priest because he has regarded my littleness (cf. Lk 1:48). And in that littleness we find our joy. Joy in our littleness!

“For me, there are three significant features of our priestly joy. It is a joy which anoints us (not one which ‘greases’ us, making us unctuous, sumptuous and presumptuous), it is a joy which is imperishable, and it is a missionary joy which spreads and attracts, starting backwards — with those farthest away from us.”

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