I read this book under obedience as a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross to which it has been formally commended and found myself caught into another obedience, that of the Son of God towards the Father and the world. Its about priests and its under the patronage of their patron Saint John Vianney, the Cure of Ars. It starts with a lovely story of how Father Vianney is first unable to find the way to Ars because of the fog and asks a shepherd boy who shows him the road. The future saint thanks him saying: ‘My young friend, you have shown me the way to Ars; I shall show you the way to heaven’.
That heaven pointing role of priests by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church is given through the sacrament of holy orders. As the Cardinal affirms of priests’ role in the eucharist: ‘Acting in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ”, to make this gift of Christ present to his Church and effective, we are called to live in conformity with Christ, to conform ourselves to his unstinting gift for his Church and her mission. This unique moment establishes both the Church and the sacred ministry, which will be perpetuated until the end of time; it is the marrow, the very life of our celebration of the Eucharist’.
The author brings his readers back to basics on ministerial priesthood which is leadership in this profound sense. Having read so many books on leadership in the Church today I found it refreshing to pick up one that sees ordination and priesthood as pivotal. At the same time its pastoral wisdom warns against clerical self interest: ‘The priest puts on liturgical vestments “so as to distinguish himself from himself” (Nikolay Gogol, 1809-1852), so as to represent Jesus in persona Christi. Let us not give final instructions on the liturgy or make our final comments on the economy while vesting’!
Schoenborn tackles head on the loss of confidence among priests not just in their priesthood but in Christianity itself. ‘Scripture is indicted and must defend itself before the tribunal of a hermeneutic of suspicion. If we priests can no longer have confidence in the Gospels - in other words, that it is really Jesus whom we meet in them, that he is speaking to us in his parables and teachings; if we are always confronting an opaque filter made up of what the earliest Christian communities formulated, expressed, or even fabricated out of whole cloth; if the real Jesus disappears into a vague penumbra behind that filter, then how can we meet him in the Gospels?’ Our faith is based on facts, the author affirms, and not on myths or legends. ‘The Cross is a scandal, but it is a fact. People try to interpret it, to understand why God should let his Son die on a Cross, but the fact exists in the first place and the interpretation comes afterward’.
The Cardinal looks deeply at loneliness, noting that in Vienna today every other residence is a single-person household, and how this ‘causes so many people to slip into different sorts of dependence: alcoholism especially, but increasingly other harmful addictions as well, notably to the computer, the Internet or pornography’. He explores the pastoral difficulties of priests in their engagement with the divorced and remarried to the ‘fact’ of Jesus. ‘The Church would love so much to have a solution to this problem. But there is after all a certain Jesus of Nazareth who said a few things on the subject: what an obstacle!’ ‘The Church is compassionate toward the children. Where is the lobby, the pressure group for the children of divorce? Where is the voice in public opinion that will say, ‘The first victims are the children’?
I found the ‘The Joy of being a Priest’ a tonic to the slog of principled pastoral engagement in the contemporary scene through its Christ centred vision presented with an eye to the reality of the heaven Saint John Vianney pointed the shepherd boy to.