How to build a better priest

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The editors interview Father Robert Barron.

"For too long we've had a preferential option for mediocrity in the priesthood," laments Father Robert Barron, assistant professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. "Teilhard de Chardin said the priest calls down fire on the earth," says Barron. That's a far cry from "organizer of ministries," which is one of the dull-as-dishwater descriptions Barron remembers from his seminarian days. "Who's going to be lit on fire by a term like that?" he fumes.

Instead of addressing any of the more controversial methods to change the priesthood, such as ordaining women or married people, Barron focuses on rebuilding the unique and indispensable role of the priest that has been lost in recent years. "I want to make the priesthood as exciting as being a brain surgeon, and as difficult and inspiring."

Barron's book Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 1996) was awarded first prize by the Catholic Press Association. His forthcoming Soul Doctoring will be published by Crossroad in 1998.

Why do you feel the need to come up with a new vision of priesthood?

I'm trying to find a way to talk about the meaning and excitement of being a priest that isn't clerical. When I was growing up, after Vatican II, there were two options for priests: either you were a preconciliar, clerical type of priest, or you were a new, progressive priest with a more muted vision of the priesthood. If you ever spoke positively or enthusiastically about the unique role of the priest, you were automatically characterized as a conservative who hadn't really caught on to Vatican II.

As a seminary professor, I've been sensing that my students are looking for a new vision of priesthood-some way to emphasize its importance without falling into clerical patterns. My research led me to these two images of the priest: priest as one who guides others into the mystery of God and priest as soul doctor.

How did you come up with these images?

They're both very ancient. For centuries, those who wrote about the mystical journey have stressed the need for a guide, someone to give you direction. Theologians, such as Paul Tillich, have described God as being essentially mysterious, and only in relationship to that mystery does life have savor, excitement, and meaning. Mystery is the ever-greater, always more alluring power of God. But it's tricky for us to get properly hooked onto that mystery because, as Tillich said, we mistake other things for our ultimate concern. We get preoccupied with relationships, or political parties, or possessions, or what have you. The role of the guide is to lead people effectively toward the authentic mystery. That's what theologians and spiritual people over the centuries have done.

On the image of soul doctor, as I researched the great theologians of our tradition, I began to see that they were soul doctors. They were not writing to get their articles published in learned journals. The Fathers of the Church and the medieval theologians wrote as pastors and ministers; they worried about the care of souls. That is precisely what the priest doesdoctor that deepest part of the person we call the soul. That's something that makes priesthood fascinating and indispensable, without being exclusive or clerical.

What can go wrong with the soul that it needs doctoring?

First of all, I define soul as the heart, in the biblical sense. It's the imago Dei, to use classical language, the point of contact between the psyche and God.

One way the soul can go wrong is what our great spiritual writers used to call concupiscence, or errant desire. The soul's infinite desire for God can get hooked onto something else: money, sex, power, possessions. The soul then begins to spend its energy on this other object instead of focusing on God. You see this all over scripture in different ways. It's an elemental spiritual disease.

Part of soul doctoring, which you see Jesus do in the story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-32), is to get that infinite energy of the soul properly hooked onto the infinite reality, which is God. Much of our spiritual and theological tradition treats this problem of errant desire.

How does a priest actually doctor the soul?

You use the great doctrines, teachings, spiritual writings, and images of our tradition in a souldoctoring capacity. You do it in preaching. You do it in proclaiming scripture. You do it in your pastoral work-in hospital visits, in preparing people for the sacraments, in counseling. You use psychology and every other tool you can, but in the end what you hold up is the transforming power of Christ, the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is a salve that shows us that our deepest identity comes through a radical surrender to the sacred. The soul doctor tries to awaken us to see how we can participate in the Incarnation. Over the centuries the great spiritual writers like Saint Thomas Aquinas have called the process deificationthat the goal of the Christian life is to realize one's participation in the power of God. We are the beloved children of God. We are shiningsforth from the sacred ground. Part of our soul problem, I think, is that we don't see it. We imagine the world wrongly. Soul doctoring can bring us back to our deepest identity.

My complaint is that we've taken all the great soul-doctoring material and placed it on dusty shelves to be read by doctoral students for dissertations. But those writings were never meant for that. Augustine didn't care about doctoral students, who tragically are the only people who read him nowadays. He wrote his homilies and his theology for the people he was serving. So did John Chrysostom, so did the other Fathers of the Church. I'm trying to recover those treasures so we can use them to transform people, as these writings were meant to be used.

What are some other treasures at our disposal?

All the ways we talk about Christ. All the ways we hold up the image of Christ. In our architecture. In our art. In our literature. In our drama. In the stained-glass windows of our greatest cathedrals. In the Summa of Aquinas. In the sermons of Cardinal Newman. In the metaphysics of Karl Rahner. Those are all tools at our disposal. But the real salve for souls is Christ. Christ is the salvator-he brings the salvation, the healing. The minister rubs in the salve of the Christian tradition in all these forms and applies its transforming power. That's what Saint Paul did-he kept holding up the image of Christ in a healing way.

Many of us were taught to see God as a far-off Almighty. Don't you think that deification would seem foreign to most people?

Yes, and I think it's a serious pastoral problem. There's a lot of talk today about emphasizing God's transcendence, and that's fine. God is dramatically transcendent. But the transcendent God also became one of us, and he now offers to us the transformative power of his divinity. We tend to look at the Incarnation as a grand metaphysical exception: it happened to Jesus, not to me. And we hold Jesus up and admire him. But Jesus doesn't want admirers-he wants participants. "Eat my Body and drink my Blood. Live in me." That means, become who I am. You are what you eat. So if you eat Christ and drink Christ, you become Christ. That means you become conformed to the Cross, which is pretty scary. We're much happier with a God who stays safely transcendent and distant, because that God doesn't make so many demands on us.

Sounds like we need a guide to the mystery.

Exactly. A guide to the mystery can help people live in the proper tension between the two dimensions of God. Is God as dramatically transcendent as possible? Yes. And is God closer to me than I am to myself? Yes. God is the ground of being, and God is also as dramatically different from me than anything I can imagine-at the same time. God's not one or the other-God is both. God is the one who cannot be grasped-the transcendent. And God is the one who cannot be run from-the immanent. When I neither grasp nor run, then I'm living in the right space.

One way to describe the role of the mystery bearer is to compare it to the artist. The artist is the one who has the eye, the vision. Picasso saw things that no one else saw; that's what made him brilliant. Michelangelo saw the figure hidden in the marble and released it. The mystery bearer is the one who is trained to see the moments of Incarnation and point them out. You see the sacred moment, you point to it, you say, "That's what the sacred looks like." That's the vision the priest should have.

Some people say we did a better job of emphasizing the mystery of God before Vatican ll.

I don't have any personal experience of the time before Vatican II, but that is a typical critique you hear. I'd say the authentic sense of mystery lives in that space between God's transcendence and his radical closeness to us. If what you mean by "mystery" is emphasizing unilaterally the transcendence of God, then you're not talking about authentic mystery. That's mystification.

Bookstores are filled with books about the care of the soul, although Catholics rarely mention the word soul anymore. What do you make of that? Father Andrew Greeley says that whatever Catholics drop is eventually and inevitably picked up by someone else. I think he's right about that. We dropped soul language, and for good reason, because it was dualistic. The minute you say, it's my soul that matters, not my body, you're in trouble. But in dropping it, we lost a lot. We started using the word you instead: "The Lord be with you." Well, that doesn't name the center, the root of all our energies. Soul tries to name the center. It's powerful-that's why so many people have picked it up. It names a sacred part of the human person.

What are some of the obstacles to a priest being a soul doctor and a guide to the mystery?

Functionalism, for one. When a priest is so caught up in the practicalities of administration, it seems like a hopeless ideal that he'll have time to be a wisdom figure. The pastoral demands are so enormous that I'm sure many priests think they have no time to spend with the tradition, with art and architecture and philosophy and drama.

The only way to solve this problem is to enable other people to do some of the hands-on ministry so the priest has some time for these other dimensions. You see the same problem in the Acts of the Apostles, where the first Christians made a distinction between the ministry of the Twelve and the ministry of the seven deacons. The apostles had gotten so caught up in daily ministry that they had no time for prayer or preaching. They chose deacons to carry out some forms of ministry, so the apostles would have time to foster their spiritual wisdom.

So are you saying that the priest needs to be set apart?

In the same way that an artist, a poet, a philosopher needs to be set apart. When we hear "set apart," we think it means "privileged." It doesn't. It means finding a place where you can cultivate what you need to do your life's work. Any artist or philosopher needs to be set apart. Michelangelo went into a five-year retreat when he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Doesn't setting the priest apart also put him on a pedestal?

Not if the priest realizes that the purpose of immersing himself in the tradition is to relate it to people's experience. If you're on a pedestal or in an ivory tower, you're a lousy guide to the mystery. You're not leading anybody anywhere. You might be exploring it yourself, but you're not a guide to anyone. So the constant challenge is to use our tradition in a way that leads people to the mystery. That happens in the hospital room, in the funeral parlor, everywhere that the priest acts as a priest.

Doesn't it take an exceptionally wise and intelligent person to do this?

Absolutely. For too long we've had a preferential option for mediocrity in the priesthood. We almost embrace mediocrity as the norm. What's the difference between a doctor and a priest? As someone once answered long ago, there really is no comparison: one deals with matters of life and death; the other just deals with the health of the body.

Before the 18th-century Enlightenment, the greatest minds of the West gave themselves to soul doctoring. After the Enlightenment, the greatest minds tended to go into the physical sciences, especially into care for the body. The body is important: we respect our doctors, and we expect a great deal from them, and from our psychiatrists. We don't accept mediocrity.

So why do we accept mediocrity in the priesthood? Why do we say priesthood is less demanding than being a medical doctor? It should be an elitist sort of call, just as being a doctor is elitist. If I were the president of a medical school and you said, "This is an elitist place," I'd say, "Yes, it is-we only want the best." I think we should say that about priesthood, too.

Let's say you're a bright, spiritually engaged 18-year-old. Will you be a brain surgeon or a priest? A corporate lawyer or a priest? Which one is more challenging, more enticing? I want to make priesthood as exciting as being a brain surgeon, and as difficult and inspiring. My wager is that we would attract many more people by presenting priesthood this way, rather than trying to flatten it out and render it mediocre.

How would you describe the men who are studying for the priesthood now?

There are some really fine people who are dedicated, who are full of love, and who want to give themselves to the church. I see a few dangers, however. One is that a lot of guys come into the major seminary with a technological or a business background. Our typical student now does not have a humanities background. They are businessmen, scientists, accountants. So they need to move from accounting to the Trinity-that can be quite a switch. They have to move into a different psychological space.

A second challenge is that many of them haven't been immersed in the Catholic culture the way that seminarians were a few decades ago. For many of our students, the seminary is their first Catholic school. We bring them over to the chapel and we show them things that I learned about as an altar server years ago: "Here's the crucifix, here are the cruets, here is the tabernacle." We have a greater struggle to acquaint them with Catholic culture, which will be central to their work as priests.

What should a vocation look like today?

A quick answer is someone of great soul. Someone who is magnanimous in the literal sense: magna anima, having a big soul. Someone who is in touch with human compassion, with love, with justice. Someone in touch with that deepest part of himself and others, and who lives and breathes the great culture that feeds the soul.

How do we find people like this?

When we see this quality in a child or a young person, we need to encourage it, raise it up. The typical experience that brings someone into the priesthood is when someone says, "You'd be a really good priest."

Centuries ago, communities had a shaman-a priest or wise man. When the shaman grew old, he had to find his own replacement. He would look for a child who had easy access to the inner world and knew how to speak out of that interior life. The child didn't have much of a choiceif you were chosen by the shaman, you became a shaman.

We find this in our tradition, too. God, after all, didn't give Jeremiah or Moses much of a choice about what he wanted them to do. In the spiritual traditions, I think people are chosen, sometimes whether or not they want to be.

I heard a story about an eighthgrade boy who was told by his pastor that he was going to go to the high-school seminary. Well, the boy didn't want to go there, so he went to another high school. His pastor showed up at that high school one day to give a talk, saw the kid, and said, "What are you doing here? I told you to go to the seminary." The kid said, "Well, I didn't want to go to the seminary." The pastor said, "I don't care what you want. You're going to the seminary." So the kid went to the seminary, and he's been a priest for 45 years.

Basically, the older shaman had noticed him and singled him out. Obviously you can take this too far, but I think there's something right about it.

Do you think there are a lot of vocations out there that are unfulfilled?

Absolutely. But I think we are still stuck in the old methods that don't work-we're waiting for people to come to us. We have to go out and find them. I happen to think the vocations are at Georgetown and Stanford and Harvard, at the great centers of learning. That's where today's Catholic parents are sending their brightest young people, and that's where we should go to get them. We should hold up priesthood as an exciting and difficult ideal. Make it hard. Challenge them.

Would young people with gifts like this want to go to work in an average parish?

I do believe that priests no longer see the parish as a glamorous, exciting place to practice their craft, and that's a shame. Fifty years ago, the great priests of Chicago, for example, were very parish-focused; they saw the parish as an interesting place where they could live out their love of the mind and the spirit. The parish was a testing ground for all the great stuff they had learned in the seminary. My fear is that the parish has become flattened out, banalized.

If I can use the doctor analogy again, I want doctors of the soul who are not going to stay in the lab and do more research, but who are going to hit the road with new medicines. If the parish is seen as a place of drudgery, or simply a local branch of the general store, then it loses its poetry. When we lose our poetry, we lose our soul. Today we call the priest the "presider at liturgy," or the "president of the assembly." Give me a break. It sounds like a Boy Scout leader.

French theologian Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said the priest calls down fire on the earth. Now we're talking! If you're a young 18-year-old, why would you want to be the president of the assembly? When I was in the seminary, they used to say the priest was the "organizer of ministries." Sure, that's a part of priesthood. But who's going to be lit on fire by a term like that?

How about, "You're the one that calls down fire on the earth." Or as James Joyce said, you're a "priest of the beautiful." You're a bearer of the power of God, which is the beautiful itself. You're an artist. You're a poet, a shaman, a mystic. Those terms will light up a few souls.

If you're a bishop concerned about whether you're going to have any priests in your diocese, can you afford to worry about whether someone is a potential mystic?

We wouldn't tolerate lousy doctors, would we? If you were in medical school and said, "I really want to help people, but I just can't get this chemistry stuff," you'd be kicked out. Maybe you're a nice person, but you're going to do damage somewhere along the line. Why don't we apply that analogy to the priest? If I had to choose between a smart spiritual director or a wellmeaning one, I'd take the smart one any day.

Part of my job as a seminary professor is to see if the students are up to this task. Sometimes they'll come to me and say, "You know, Bob, I've been out in the parish, and nobody ever asks me about the Council of Chalcedon or the Trinity or any of this stuff." My standard response is, "How many people come to a doctor and say, `My ascending aorta is killing me,' or 'My occipital lobe is bothering me'? They'll just come and say, `I've got a pain in my head,' and the doctor better know about the aorta because that's where it's coming from."

Theology is the technical language of soul doctoring. People will say, "I don't know where I'm going. I've lost my direction." Or, "I can't pray anymore." Those are the symptoms, and the soul doctor better know what's going on. What's the soul like? What goes wrong with it? How do you get in touch with the sacred? He'd better know about all this, or he'll be doing real damage.

In this age of psychology, wouldn't most people who are hurting go to see a counselor long before seeing a spiritual director?

I have no quarrel with psychology. The great psychologist Carl Jung said that deep down, every psychological problem is a spiritual problem. He's absolutely right. The soul names the deepest center of the psyche. Problems at the level of the soul radiate out to all levels of the psyche and even the body.

The priest, the soul doctor, traces the problem all the way back to its deepest point. A hurting person should be addressed at all of those levels, but it's the soul doctor who addresses the very deepest level. The soul is just as complicated as the body, just as rich and strange and puzzling. And it needs just as much attention. That doesn't mean that any priest can necessarily address these soul problems. There are a lot of mystical guides who could be sued for malpractice. But the true soul doctor is the depth psychologist.

Would it be possible, or even necessary, to have a mystical leader or a soul doctor at every parish?

Maybe in the end numbers aren't the key, but rather the quality of the spiritual leadership. I think the priest is the shaman of the community. There weren't lots of shamans in a village-there was only one.

But if numbers continue to suffer, do you risk a situation where the person presiding at the sacraments is not the spiritual leader?

The sacraments are extensions of the power of Christ. For that reason, it's essential that the mystery bearer be the one who brings the healing power of Christ to bear in the sacraments, who knows how to use symbols and make them speak.

In Baptism, we need to experience the archetypes of water and life and death in the hands of someone who can show us their power and richness. And the Eucharist is the moment when we most definitively hold up Christ. As Saint Paul said, the spiritual leader of the community is the one who ought to be presiding at the Eucharist. Aren't there many people who are mystical guides who are not priests?

Of course. My grandmother, for instance, was a wisdom figure who opened up all kinds of possibilities for me. She did it spontaneously and informally. This happens all the time outside the ordained ministry, but there is also a certain focusing that ordination gives-the ordained are formally chosen by the Christian community and formally educated and empowered for that task. Would the lifestyle of a mystical guide necessarily look different from that of an average believer?

To live a life of a mystery bearer is to make a commitment at the level of your behavior-your lifestyleand it involves those questions of celibacy and simplicity. It can't just be a disembodied intellectual exercise. It means I make a commitment of my life, and I'm going to live stubbornly in the presence of the mystery. That means attending to all that language about poverty and asceticism that the spiritual teachers insist upon.

Is celibacy an essential component of that lifestyle?

I'm very impatient with some of the pragmatic arguments for celibacy-that it frees up your time and allows you to focus your energy in different ways. Those may be true, but they're also vaguely insulting to rabbis and ministers who marry. Are they less effective? Less available to their people?

I'd rather see celibacy as a kind of irrational, over-the-top, poetic, symbolic expression of the soul in love. People in love do strange things. They signal their love in excessive and irrational ways. And that's what celibacy is-an irrational expression of love. Is it tied necessarily to priesthood? I'd say no, it's not. Have mystery bearers across cultures and across history traditionally opted for celibacy? Yes, they have. So I think there's an archetypal link between the two, but it's not a necessary link.

Some people suggest that we draft priests for five or ten years.

I wouldn't be enthusiastic about that. I think priesthood involves a radical commitment of self. It's not something you can move into and out of. It's not just a function-once you're into it, you're into it, inescapably.

Despite all the problems, studies show that Catholics still like priests and want priests. What do you make of that?

If the church got rid of priesthood, the people would reinvent it the next day. It's in our bones to want a mystical guide.

When this plays out in real life-for example, when someone in the hospital wants to see a priest instead of the lay hospital minister-doesn't it seem insulting to laypeople?

I think it's an instinct for the sacred. It doesn't mean the priest is a holier person. My father and my grandmother were holier people than I'll ever be, and I can say that without hesitation. But Catholics have an instinct for the person who is mediating the sacred, the mysterious. There's nothing wrong with the pastoral minister in the hospital, but we have an instinct for the one who is the fire bearer.

I think ordination is enormously important. It's the link back to Christ through the centuries, and as a church we see the need to link our priests to that tradition-it's in our blood. People see the importance of ordination. It's not just clericalism.

What do you mean by clericalism?

Clericalism to me is using one's sacred identity to establish one's superiority, or getting special favors and privileges because of one's status. All that is diametrically opposed to what I've been describing as the role of the priest. The great enemy of the priesthood is clericalism.

The priest should do as Christ does-Christ is set apart, yes, and is identified as unique, but in his ministry, in his life, Christ never claims privilege or exemption.

My generation of priests were raised knowing the dangers of clericalism. I have a sense that's not our problem today. If I were to gather my classmates here, who were ordained 11 years ago, we could each get up and spontaneously give a great speech about the priesthood of all believers. We could explain how the priest is not everything and how the laypeople are important-we cut our teeth on that stuff.

If you asked my classmates, though, "Tell me what a priest is," you'd probably hear, "Um . . ." We don't have the words for that. Our problem is not clericalism-it's the inability to say and celebrate who priests are. We become apologetic, self-conscious. We're worried that if we celebrate priesthood, we'll offend this group or that group. Along the way we forget to ask, "Who on earth would be attracted to this, when we can't even say who we are? Who would find this rich and compelling?"

Another way that some younger priests deal with this identity crisis is to grasp at artificial ways to set themselves apart. I just saw a photo of three newly ordained young men wearing birettas and cassocks-in 1997!

Because we've done such a poor job of articulating the priestly role, we end up with priests clutching at birettas and ever-present Roman collars as a way to express their identity. I want to give them a rich and important identity as bearers of the mystery and doctors of the soul-an identity like that is far deeper than a Roman collar.

How do we get past the conflicts between priests and laypeople over who does what?

We get past the conflicts by recalling what Vatican II said-that the layperson's job is to sanctify the world. That's a truly exciting thing. I agree with those who say that there's a real danger in clericalizing the laity. When people say, "Get more laypeople involved," too often that means get more lectors. Lay involvement means be a great Catholic lawyer. A great Catholic physician. A great Catholic mother or father. A great Catholic businessperson. It's a shockingly important job. But we've trivialized it by saying, "Be a eucharistic minister." I mean, that's grand, but it's such a trivialization of what the layperson's ministry is.

We each have our roles. The priest's job is to bring people into the sacred space that they might be filled up with its power and then use it to transform the world. So, who's more important? The priest or the layperson? It depends on how you look at it. You could easily argue the layperson is more important. He or she is the one going into the world to sanctify it.

I think the debates between priests and laypeople have become counterproductive. They're just ego battles now. Let's stop dragging priests down and making them feel self-conscious, and let's remember that laypeople have the most exciting job in the world. Let's stop fighting and demoralizing each other. We've all got plenty of work to do.

This article appeared in the December 1997 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 62, No. 12, pages 10-16).