Hilaire Belloc wanted to be remembered as a poet rather than as a writer of superb rhythmical prose. One of his poems has this picturesque line: "You wear the morning like a dress." These words may have subconsciously suggested the title of this essay, which tells of the holiness every Catholic priest is expected to wear like a suit of clothes, both on and off the altar.
This is what the Church and the people expect of their priests. They don't particularly want their priests to be very learned, good sports, or happy-go-lucky people. What they want first and foremost are other Christs, men of prayer who can teach by example. Maybe I can illustrate this from personal experience.
For several years I resided in monasteries in the UK and one of my duties was to show visitors around the church and grounds. Before bidding them goodbye, I often asked if anything in particular impressed them.
Time and again they singled out two things: the silence and the other-worldliness of celibate men living in community with (as one man put it) their feet on the ground and their hearts in heaven.
The frequency with which these observations were made never ceased to surprise me. It meant that the unseen lives of the monks represented a continuous but silent sermon, needing no other advertisement than the day-to-day living of the Rule and the beauty of the liturgy.
In recent times we have become painfully aware that some men dedicated by religious vows have been unfaithful to the solemn promises of their profession. Without going deeply into the reasons for this we can state that the standards of the world in general militate against the standards of the Gospel and quite often supplant them.
I'm old-fashioned enough to believe in the influence of the devil and those wicked spirits "who wander through the world for the ruin of souls". This must also explain, to a large extent, the woeful depletion of religious communities and the return to the world of so many priests and consecrated religious.
Scandals of the kind we are writing about (breaches of the vow of chastity) would have been so rare in a previous age as to be almost unheard of. I remember clearly when I was about fourteen how shocked we were to read of a well-known priest who had left the priesthood to get married. It made headlines in the daily papers.
It is sometimes said by those who should know better that if the Church relaxed its ban on married clergy, more and happier priests would swell the ranks and there would be no sin against the vow of chastity.
I am sure that such thinking is false; but even so the law of celibacy is so essential to a Christ-like presentation of the priesthood that allowing a married clergy would debase the whole concept of a celibate priesthood.
No one is immune from temptations against the angelic virtue of purity, and in a way this can be consoling for lesser mortals on their pilgrimage towards eternal life. It is recorded of St Benedict, for example, that he himself was assailed by unchaste thoughts concerning a girl he once knew or met in his student days in Rome. To banish these sensations he rolled himself in thorns and nettles until the temptation had passed. When he came to write his Rule he insisted that monks should avoid idleness at all times. Hence the monastic dictum, Laborare est orare, to work is to pray.
The ancient prayers set down in the missal for the priest to say as he puts on each item of the sacred vestments frequently refer to the absolute holiness expected of the celebrant as he prepares to offer the spotless Victim to the Father. For example, while putting on the amice he asks God to place on his head the helmet of salvation, to ward off the arrows of the devil. While putting on the alb, he prays that God may cleanse his heart and clothe him in purity, so that washed in the blood of the Lamb he may inherit eternal happiness. While putting on the cincture he asks that he may be girded with the cincture of purity, extinguishing within him all unworthy and unchaste thoughts.
From the above we can see that the Church expects an almost impossibly high standard of virtue from her priests; but then we must remember that the priest has been by his ordination raised to extraordinary heights of grace as the minister of the most high God. Whatever Catholics may say or think of their priests, they expect above all that they will live chaste lives and reflect at all times the Christ whom they are bound to imitate.
Allowance, of course, can be made for human frailty, but never in this area. If the people expect a lot from their priests, the priests themselves are entitled to expect a lot from their people in the way of spiritual support. It would be wrong for Catholics to see their priests in two roles: as "one of the boys" when he is not at the altar; and as someone else when he is in vestments - as one "clothed in holiness".
Fr Fabian Duggan OSB resides at the Lumen Christi Priory, Wagga Wagga, NSW.