Saturday, July 12, 2008

Good Books For Understanding The Priesthood

Usually when I write about books I’ve read, I focus on books directly relating to consecrated virginity in the world (especially since good reading lists for those discerning this vocation are virtually non-existent). But as the “Ordination season” draws to a close, I thought I would share some books which I found helpful in understanding the Priesthood.

While it may not seem so initially, I think that it is important for consecrated virgins to have a good grasp on the nature of the Priesthood. Off of the top of my head I can think of three major reasons:

1. Consecrated virgins are supposed to pray for priests, and it’s good to understand the people for whom you pray.

2. Understanding the Priesthood can help us understand our own vocation more fully; specifically, understanding a priest’s identity as an icon of Christ can help us understand, in an analogous fashion, our own call to be an icon of the Church.

3. These days the Priesthood is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Catholicism, and as people living “in the world” it’s important to be able to explain and defend this and all the teachings of the Church.

A fourth reason could be that having a decent understanding of the priesthood could inspire one to foster priestly vocations if and when the occasion arises, but of course this goes without saying! This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think that these books are all enlightening and enjoyable places to start:

The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, by Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT – This is the best book I have ever come across which explains the Church’s practice of reserving priestly Ordination to men. The Catholic Priesthood and Women is based on the thesis that the Church’s teaching regarding women and the Priesthood is based on the “fundamental reason” that Christ called only men to be His original apostles—and not, as has commonly been held, on the “theological explanations” (e.g., male/female differences make men more intrinsically capable of imaging Christ, etc.) which have been proposed to explain why Christ acted as He did in this. Butler also points out that the exclusion of women from Holy Orders is not truly a question of injustice, as the Priesthood in and of itself does not affect a Christian’s personal salvation the way other sacraments (such as Baptism and the Eucharist) do.

Interestingly, when she began her study of this topic, Sr. Sara was originally in favor of women’s Ordination. However, she came to change her mind after further examining the arguments on both sides. (Would that all academics were this honest and open-minded!) This book is some of the fruit of her research.

This book is “real” Theology, yet it’s concise (only 132 pages) and very readable. I would recommend this book to everybody.

A Priest Forever: The Life of Father Eugene Hamilton, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR – This is the first biography written about Fr. Eugene Hamilton, who was ordained by special dispensation three hours before he died in 1997 at age twenty-five. Growing up Eugene Hamilton had dreamed of becoming a priest, but serious health issues prevented him first from entering the college seminary, and then from completing his studies at the major seminary. Yet due to the remarkable depth of his spirituality, he was given permission by Pope John Paul II to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders early so that he could have the privilege of dying as a priest.

On one level, I found this book incredibly inspiring because it reads like the life of a saint—but one where the subject lived in cultural circumstances very similar to mine. Reading about Fr. Hamilton’s longing for the Priesthood in the face of numerous setbacks was also a great encouragement to me as I faced difficulties in following my own vocation. In some odd way, it made me feel less alone.

Yet it may be that the major significance of this story is theological. The fact that Fr. Hamilton could be “a priest forever” despite never having had the chance to preach, celebrate Mass, or administer any other sacrament brilliantly illistrates the Church’s teaching that that the essence of the Priesthood is far more profound than a set of functions. A priest is first and foremost called to be an image of Christ, and all priestly activity flows out of this fundamental priestly identity. (Which is why I think it’s an almost uncanny “coincidence” that Fr. Hamilton was a priest in this world for about three hours—the same amount of time that Jesus took on the cross to offer the sacrifice which is re-presented at every Mass.)

Diary of A Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos - This novel, a modern French classic, tells the story of a very young parish priest as he struggles to minister to the disaffected people in a small French town during the early twentieth century. Written first-person in the form a journal, the nameless priest documents what he perceives as his failed attempts to reach the souls under his care, all while he struggles heavily with his own spiritual desolation before dying suddenly of cancer.

On the surface, this would seem like a REALLY BAD choice of reading material for anyone even remotely hoping to foster priestly vocations, let alone for a young man discerning one! However, it dramatizes beautifully the Catholic belief in the redemptive value of suffering. The “twist” in the story (which, by the way, completely eluded me when I read this book for the first time at age nineteen) is that in his pain and weakness, the young priest has unknowingly configured his life to Christ’s.


Anonymous said...

The Diary of a Country Priest is definitely one of my favorite books of all time, and as a seminarian I can say it totally reflects my understanding of the priesthood. In fact I have used it for meditation. I would also recommend the black and white movie version. It adds a whole new level to this insightful work.

Sponsa Christi said...

Dear Corey,

Yes, the black-and-white movie version (the one in French, with subtitles) of “Diary of a Country Priest” is awesome! I liked the movie so much that I made a few of my own seminarian friends sit down and watch it one afternoon.

Actually, I didn’t quite “get” the book until I saw the movie. It was easier for me to pick up on the nuances—wherein lies most of the plot—after I saw the story acted out.