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The identity of the Priest, Part 4: Facing sin and failure

By Timothy Radcliffe - posted Thursday, 21 November 2002

This is part 4 of Fr Timothy's essay about the morale of Catholic Priests.  Click for parts one, two and three.

The priest is the bearer of the good news. This is why demoralization so deeply undermines our vocation. Nobody will believe us if we look miserable. But the role of the priest is often to bring this good news to people whose lives are touched by despair and failure. Tony Philpot wrote that: "the diocesan priest deals, ex professo, with failure. There is, of course, his own failure, the knowledge of his own sinfulness. But there is also the fact that the Gospel is about the forgiveness of sins, and his vocation is to deal with the sins of his flock, Failure is the raw material on which he works."

In our society, he must also be faced withall the ills and pain of a society in which the collapse of social structures and secularization means that many people confront a deep loss of meaning in their lives. How can we manage to go on being joyful bearers of good news when we see so many broken families, young people lost and on drugs and the triumph of a culture of trivialization?


Of course the primary way in which we do this is through celebrating the liturgical year. This is a story that includes suffering, failure, humiliation, sin and exile and which propels us beyond them to the Kingdom. Each year we are brought out of Egypt and make the journey towards the Promised Land. We begin in Advent and are carried through to Christmas, and from Lent to Easter, Pentecost and finally to the Feast of Christ the King. We share the demoralization of the Israelites in the desert, and of their descendants in Exile in Babylon, and are carried beyond it.Jesus says to the disciples at the Last Supper, "You have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you." (John 16.22). We live out annually a story that transforms sorrow into joy.

But that is not enough of an answer. Despite the annual cycle some priests still feel burdened and demoralized. The annual re-enactment does propel us towards the Promised Land, but just when we are about to enter and relax, there we start all over again.The year can feel like a liturgical snakes and ladders: we get to the Feast of Christ the King and then, woops, we go sliding all the way back to the beginning again. So, during this endless repetition, some glimpse of the end of the journey must break in now. Even now we must enjoy some foretaste of the joy and peace of the Kingdom. We have to live now so that the people of God get some hint of the end of the journey. We cannot wait until we are dead to become alive. Otherwise, why should the people believe that we are going anywhere? The rhythm of the liturgical year will feel like jam yesterday, jam tomorrow but never jam today.

So I believe that if priest is to be the bearers of good news, then we need to have a way of life in which even now eternity breaks in. It is not enough just to survive now. We need to flourish. We each need to make a way of life that really offers us life, alive with the foretaste of eternity life. Otherwise we will be overwhelmed with the sorrow of this age, or succumb to its culture of trivialization. The earliest name for the Christian life was , 'The Way,' We need to show that it is a way somewhere, and not just a wandering around in circles in the desert.

The big question is how a priest may shape such a way of life. Some diocesan priests have said to me that it is easy for religious to talk about having a way of life, especially when they are not parish priests. We have a rule of life to follow; we live in communities, and we have more control over our lives than do priests who are at the beck and call of their parishioners and can never predict what dramas each day will produce. Other priests deny this and say that the priest can and must shape his time so that he can pray, relax and flourish. Other priests say that this would be possible if the bishop faced the crisis caused by the shortage of priests and bites the bullet. I would ask you to reflect now upon how you can shape your lives so that even now people can glimpse in them the first fruits of the new creation: freedom, peace and joy.

My intuition is that it must be possible to claim that freedom to shape a way of life that is really alive. You are, like Jesus, handed over into the hands of men and women. Like Jesus, you have taken the immense risk of giving yourself to the people freely. When Cardinal Bernadin was consecrated Archbishop of Chicago, he said to the people,: "For however many years I am given, I give myself to you. I offer you my service and leadership, my energies, my gifts, my mind, my heart, my strength,and, yes, my limitations. I offer you myself in faith, hope, and love."

This is a Eucharistic self-gift: ' This is my body, given for you,' Yet Jesus remained the freest person there has ever been, whose life was shaped by obedience to the Father. He gave himself into our hands, and yet he was never a passive puppet. He shaped his life, as indeed did Cardinal Bernadin. How can we find that Eucharistic freedom, so that we give our lives away, and still shape a way of life in which the light of the Kingdom can be glimpsed? That is the question I put to you.


We need to have a way of life that lets us rest sometimes, rest with God and also just rest with ourselves. We need to have moments when we can disappear and do nothing, weekly or monthly and also annually. And this is not primarily because if we are rested we shall be more efficient and effective priests. It is nothing to do with management.It is because the good news that we preach is that all human beings are summoned to rest with God and share his Sabbath. This is the gospel, that we are all citizens of the Kingdom in which we shall lounge around and waste our time with God for all eternity. The greatest dignity of human beings is that we are called to play with God for eternity, homo ludens. Who will ever believe us if we are never seen to rest now?

Most of us are compulsively busy and must be seen to be so. I am. If we are to be credible preachers we must not be afraid to be seen to be lazy sometimes. We must dare to put up a notice on the Church door saying: 'No Mass for the next three days. I am on holiday.' We must resist the demonic voice within us, accusing us of being bad priests. I admit that I am very bad at this. I spent much of my sabbatical being busy and above all making sure that I was seen to be busy. And if I play a quick game of Free Cell on the computer, I have mastered the art of flicking it off the screen if I hear anyone coming, so that next Sunday's sermon appears instead! This is the action of someone who is only on the way to believing in the gift of free salvation, unearned grace.

Finally, the joy of the Kingdom must break in now. It would take another couple of lectures to explore this joy so forgive me for being very brief. When Jesus was baptized, a voice was heard from heaven saying: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I delight." At the heart of the life of the Holy Trinity is God's sheer delight in God, the Father's joy in the Son, which is the Holy Spirit. Jesus the High Priest embraced us within that delight. We are taken up into Father's own pleasure in the Son. The holiness of God radiates this joy that God has in all that exists. When Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was not a duty. It was utter delight in their company, in their very being. When he touched the untouchable, it was not a clinical gesture, but the hug of joy.

So it belongs to our priesthood that we rejoice in the very existence of people, with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married or divorced or single, whether they are straight or gay, whether their lives are lived in accordance with Church teaching or not. The holiness of the priesthood is radiant with this joy. The Church should be a community in which people discover God' s delight in them. This is our ministry. And so our priesthood should make us passionate people, passionate in our delight, passionate in our sorrow at people's sufferings, and even angry at their oppression. If we delight in people then they will delight in us. We shall discover God's joy in us, offered by the most unexpected people, who may not even believe in him.

If joy is indeed at the heart of our priesthood, then we should be concerned for each other's happiness. The happiness of priests should be a primary concern of bishops and of the diocesan presbyterate. If we see that another priest is miserable, then it is not good enough to assume that he must deal with this alone. If we are ourselves plunged in gloom, we must not rely on some macho individualism to pull us through. The joy of the priest is not just his private concern, because it is an intrinsic part of the preaching of the gospel, and the manifestation of God's holiness. We must dare to seek it for each other.

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This is part 4 of an edited version of a speech given at the National Conference of Priests at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, London on 3 September 2002. Click for parts one, two and three. Sourced through CathNews.

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About the Author

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is a Dominican friar of the English Province, and international leader of the Order from 1992 to 2001. His published writings include Sing a New Song: The Christian Vocation.

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