Despite all attempts from the devil to destroy Catholic priests, the fact remains that their spiritual leadership and guidance are still in high demand. Whenever someone complains about "those priests" or throws all of them together as though talking about one nameless, faceless, monster-pedophile; I have to admit that I wonder about that person's experience with authoritative figures in their life.
I am not minimizing the tragedy of those who have sinned horribly against children. But I do think that priests overall have been painted with a broad brush of guilt, the Roman collar becoming the modern day "scarlet letter." However, the point of this post is to highlight why I think priests are so awesome. The more I become re-acquainted with the faith of my youth, the more impressed and humbled I am by the priesthood.
I've likened the Catholic faith to "the grown-up's religion." It's a mature faith, tough, and holds a high standard for her followers. It is higher education, not elementary school. It is to me the Marines of all spiritual disciplines. If this is true, then my illustration would extend to the priest being an accomplished PhD (And many priests hold such a degree.) or a "special ops" in the field of faith. I have experienced a true sense of security since returning to the Catholic Church and I attribute this to the dedication and pastoring gift of my parish priest.
Protestants criticize Catholics for calling priests "Father." yet they have no problem addressing someone with a PhD as "Doctor." I've also heard many non-Catholics address their pastor as "Pastor Bob" or "Reverend Carrington." We acknowledge "fathers of the faith" such as Abraham, Moses and Elijah. Jesus wasn't referring to those titles when He said "Call no man 'father.'" He was referring to the pride that can creep in when someone is given a title and also; misplaced honor that excludes the superiority of our heavenly Father.
Fathers are important. They help guide and challenge. And whether some want to admit it or not, our society is in greater need than ever of true fathers - men who will sacrifice themselves for the betterment of others. Just take a look at gang culture. Those young boys are looking for male leadership. Sadly, they don't have it within their own homes.
Priests are not perfect, nor without their own set of faults and weaknesses. However, they have taken vows to serve the Church and shepherd their people. To set aside their own opportunities for getting married and having a family is an amazing act that cuts across cultural and the "me-focused" trends.
There is such substance in a priest. They go through years of training after discerning their vow and apply their mind, heart, and soul toward helping people grow in their faith. They often endure loneliness since they do not have a family. However, because they don't have a family, neither is their attention torn between that and the Church. I know some will disagree with me on this, but I support priest celibacy. After watching many pastors try to juggle the demands of serving a busy, thriving church with the demands of being a husband and parent - I believe celibacy wins. A single man can focus his energies upon the needs of his parish.
There are other types of priests, of course, other than the parish priest. They serve within the government of the church and throughout the institution. But within the Catholic Church, there is continuity and safeguards that strengthen the foundation of the faith. Within a non-denominational church, for instance, there is no guarantee that a senior pastor will remain with a church after a 5-7 year period. And because a non-denominational church's purpose fluctuates with a senior pastor's vision, the church is constantly re-inventing itself.
This may sound ideal but can lead to a fragmented faith. Children, for example, are taught "the basics" by their parents - saying "please," "thank you," and showing respect to parents and elders. Obedience is being instilled in small increments until the child grows into an adult, knowing how to conduct themselves with discretion. Church is the same. As a new believer, our priests are instilling in us "the basics" of our faith, over and over again. The point is to produce the Body of Christ that will work together seamlessly and represent Jesus Christ to the world. If these "basics" are not ingrained in us, we run the risk of becoming like the seeds that failed to grow deep roots. When the harsh winds of adversity come, we'll topple over.
Obedience gets a bad rap and too often, priests are accused of being "rigid" or unyielding. But who wants a wimpy faith? I don't. I know how hard the devil is working to undermine the Kingdom of God and to attack His Church. This is why we need our fathers. They help prepare us for such battles.
It took me a long time to see this. For years I was involved with what I call a "feminized faith." It was soft, nurturing, accommodating. There was much creativity within it but also, a permissive spirit that surrendered to emotionalism. When I was accepted within a ministry school, I could see that they were "tough." It's interesting to look back and realize that what I was attracted to was the clear directive of a ministry, which really is what the Catholic Church has in abundance but took me years to finally recognize it.
I remember when I arrived at the ministry school, thinking, "So far, I've been 'mothered' by the church. Now I will be 'fathered.'" A believer needs both, just as a child does. This is why it saddens me when I hear about nuns who think they should be priests. I'd like to say to them, "Don't you understand how important your role is within the church? You're the balance and right now, you're seeking to unbalance a divine pattern simply because you've been duped into thinking your role isn't enough."
Priests impart the fathering that we as the Body of Christ so desperately need. They watch out for us and tell us when we're messing up. They put their arms around our shoulders and console us at times, but exhort us to aim higher. They love but can give us the tough love we need because it's a hard world and soft won't cut it. There is an inherent protection within the guidance of a priest, an understanding that our faith will be tested but if we get the basics right, we'll not only survive but overcome. A priest's calling is to make sure we receive that understanding.
Although I spent many years within non-denominational churches, the one advantage it did give me was a new appreciation for our Catholic priests. As part of these churches' leadership teams, I had a unique vantage point to observe the constant pressure a pastor faces. Without a governing body, it is much harder than most people can imagine. A pastor of a church without a hierarchy is always questioning himself, asking God to reassure him that he's going in the right direction. He has to depend upon networking to find other leaders for support. And if there are any misunderstandings within his church, he has no one to turn to for mediation.
We have an awesome Church, founded by Jesus Christ, continued by His apostles and the priesthood. In this "Year of the Priest," I give thanks more than ever.