This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
by Fr. Jim Booth
When I consider that a priest is to be the image of Jesus Himself, it ought to be impossible to escape the gravity of this daunting reality. Actually being, not simply acting, Christ-like is not easy and it is not for the faint of heart. After all, He suffered and died for us, not only to atone for our sins and to open the way for us to be undeservedly justified before the Father by grace, but also to show us the pattern of love expected of us as His disciples. If being a father biologically is an image of Jesus Christ, the role of a spiritual father through the priesthood would be even more closely linked to the reality of sacrifice. And, if the priest gives his life in order to bring people to Christ, one of the worst distortions of this fatherly office would be to withhold that which gives life: the truth.
What Kind of Love Does Jesus Want?
Even Peter, following Jesus from the beginning and hearing and seeing His every word and action, balked at the challenge to love as Jesus loves. The incident comes after the Resurrection, when Peter is clearly not quite ready to commit totally to Jesus. It’s easily missed because most English translations use the same word—“love”—to describe two different realities. With a more precise usage of words, Peter’s reticence to love becomes clear:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I [am fond of] you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I [am fond of] you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, [are you fond of] me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘[are you fond of] me’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I [am fond of] you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’ (John 21:15-17).
Jesus calls for the love that is a total and unconditional commitment, which might lead to persecution, suffering, and death. Peter, even after seeing, touching, and conversing with the risen Lord, is only willing to love Jesus as a friend. Again, this subtlety is lost in our English translations where the word “love” is used for two very different relationships, one based on
“Jesus calls for the love that is a total and unconditional commitment, which might lead to persecution, suffering, and death.”
true unconditional self-sacrificing love, the love Jesus always speaks of, and another based on mere affinity, the friendship that Peter offered Jesus. Our Bibles read this way partially from sloppy translation but also because the English word “love” in its present usage covers all sorts of possible meanings, from preference to friendship to emotional attachment to affection to infatuation to deliberate concern for another, and so on.
Preaching the Hard Truths
Because of the ambiguity in the word “love,” it is easy for us to think we love others in the Christian sense of the word when really we love them in a way that is less than what God intends. Priests are hardly immune to this, and we will do things that seem loving but are not. Many priests fail to teach the truth on tough topics such as contraception, cohabitation, confession, true marriage, abortion, and so forth because offending people is equated with not loving people. Many priests rationalize remaining silent or even teaching falsehood in the name of “love” because they want to keep people in the pews. Or even worse, a priest might want to be liked by the people even if this means betraying the love God has for him.
It is all too easy for a priest to sell out to the sensibilities of the world. It is all too easy for him to think that by catering to his flock’s sensitivity to truth he is imitating St. Paul by being “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), but really he is forsaking being what he ought to be before his brethren and before the Lord. He is not loving when he is not challenging, because loving as Jesus loves is challenging. Like Jesus, St. Paul never compromised the truth. He said some very challenging things (e.g., Galatians 3:1-3 and 5:12). Indeed, a priest cannot be all things to all men by betraying the sometimes hard love of a father any more than a biological father can do so in his home. To not warn of danger is not loving.
The Offensive Gospel
It is as if some priests have forgotten that the Gospel offends. It offends because people do not want to acknowledge that certain behaviors are grievously sinful. If Jesus was inoffensive in his love for us then why was He put to death? The Gospel offends because we have to admit that we are sinners in need of a Savior, a Savior that expects us to follow Him unreservedly,
“…if we priests truly understand ourselves as fathers, the loss of souls should grieve us.”
a Savior that expects us to strive to stop sinning, a Savior that expects us to grow in virtue. The Gospel offends because it requires humility and sacrifice, but we are prideful and comfort-seeking. The Gospel offends because it makes clear the reality of hell and the fact that many will choose that fate.
We see this clearly in the Mass readings from chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. The crowds leave Jesus. Many, maybe even most, of His disciples leave Jesus. It looks as if some of the Apostles have a mind to leave Jesus as well. This happens because Jesus taught the truth, that He is the Bread of Life, that He will give us His Body and Blood as true food and true drink. When they depart can we imagine Jesus’ heart not breaking? The same reality is reflected in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father could have found no joy whatsoever in the son demanding his inheritance so that he could live a life of dissipation. Yet Jesus lets the people walk away and the father acquiesces to the Prodigal Son declaring the father to be dead.
The Prodigal Son freely chose to leave. The crowds and many of the disciples freely chose to leave. Many people today freely choose to leave as well. It is heartbreaking. It breaks the heart of a good father to see a son or daughter choose poorly.
It breaks the heart of a good priest to watch people choose hell.
It breaks the heart of the Good Shepherd as well.
This is an inescapable fact: many choose to forsake heaven. They do so for a multitude of reasons. Many choose hell over heaven because the Gospel is not being preached in its entirety or because a false Gospel, one that is more palatable to worldly sensibilities, has been substituted for the truth. Some, even knowing the truth, choose hell nonetheless. It is not fatherly, and therefore not manly, to avoid teaching the hard things.
And, if we priests truly understand ourselves as fathers, the loss of souls should grieve us. What comfort will we find by being liked for teaching what people want to hear instead of what they need to hear if souls go to hell as a result? What comfort is there in full pews of people who are being led astray by a false gospel? What comfort is a full collection basket in the face of even one soul being lost?
Of course the priest also has to consider his own culpability with regard to teaching the truth and the loss of souls. Popularity, full pews, colossal collections, etc. can hardly compensate for the loss of his own soul. He will be held accountable for souls lost if he does not tell the truth and his salvation is conditional on having proclaimed the truth even if people reject what he teaches (Ezekiel 3:17-21). As tough as it can be to see people walk away because of the truth, he does no one any favors by pandering to worldly sensibilities with comforting lies and heartening half-truths. The saccharine sentimentality of a Hallmark card has no place in the pulpit.
A father can’t always choose for a son or daughter. At some point they are on their own and subject to their own free will. The same can be said of a priest regarding his parishioners. The priest teaches them to “grow up to salvation,” as Peter said (1Peter 2:2), and to engage their will fully in loving and following Jesus Christ. God will not compel people to love Him, to follow Him, or to choose heaven over hell, so a priest can’t do it either. For Jesus, the priest, and the biological father there is no substitute for the truth and for unconditional love. The truth and unconditional love are our primary tools. Our danger then is to succumb to a false understanding of love and fail to give the gift of truth itself, the lessons that lead to life everlasting.
The good news is that Jesus can work with and through us, whether we are fathers according to the flesh or spiritual fathers, even if our love is defective. Peter was still called to lead and feed the flock despite his incomplete love. In doing his part, Peter grew into the man—the rock— he was called to be. This is a possibility for all of us, but only if we do our part. As daunting as it is to feed and lead the lambs entrusted to us, we can do our part by feeding them the truth that is Jesus and by leading them with His love.