Saintly Standards

08-06-2023Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

When he came into the temple area the chief priests and elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Matthew 21:23

Jesus was often asked this question. After all he had not been tutored under any of the great rabbis of his day. He was not from the high priestly clan, like his cousin John, nor was he in anyway linked to the official temple worship in Jerusalem. The only qualifications Jesus would claim were his works or signs and his relationship to the Father.

Likewise, John Vianney whom the Church holds up as exemplar for priests, and whose feast day was August 4, had little in the way of claims to human competencies. If the Saint would be here today, I am sure he would not be accepted into one of our seminaries. And if he were able to pass the entrance exam, he probably would not withstand the rigorous academic requirements. His only claim to competence was his relationship to Jesus the High Priest.

What this 19th century curate does teach us 21st century priests is to be wary of the worldly trap of becoming a “professional”. Too often we feel the need to answer the question posed to Jesus by giving the world an answer that conforms to the world and not the Gospel. Most priests today have multiple graduate degrees, certifications, and clinical pastoral experience; have attended more seminars, lectures, and workshops than most of our non-clerical peers. And none of this qualifies us to be servants of the Gospel. All it does is measure us by the standards of the world.

This “professionalism compulsion” infects our schools and hospitals as well. Just witness how so many of our Catholic institutions have been compromised by accepting worldly trends at the expense of the long-held teachings of the Church. Many of our Universities and Health Care Institutions can certainly stand toe to toe with the best of secular ones, in terms of competency. But do they fulfill their mission to proclaim the Gospel?

Somehow, we decided we should compete with the world, live by their standards and not the Gospel’s. And the question is why? Our self-proclaimed mission is the work of the Gospel. Our justification for operating hospitals is not to run a health care system but to provide healing as a continuation of the healing ministry of Jesus. Likewise, we do not run educational systems just to grant degrees but to invite learners to learn that reason detached from faith is an incomplete education. I realize there is a certain accommodation we must make with the civil part of society; we do have to give to Caesar at times. But when our primary emphasis is pleasing Caesar, we have subverted our mission. A Christianity tamed by the world is also a fruitless Christianity.

If you walk into a priest’s office and the walls are lined with his degrees, honors, and certifications, you should politely excuse yourself and go seek out the village idiot from whom you are more likely to find authenticity. Too often we priests cloth ourselves in the garb of professionalism to justify our ministry. But the only justification we really have is the Gospel we proclaim. We pursue worldly standards in order to assuage some sort of inferiority complex. But why feel inferior? We should brim with pride to represent the Church, stalwart, enduring and with a history that has no rival and claims to mediate the divine presence.

This is why I find it a bit perplexing and somewhat amusing that the Church holds up St. John Vianney for us priests to model. This simple, holy man never measured up to the world’s standards. Yet we contemporary priests are pushed or often push ourselves to conform to the world’s standards as a rationale for ministry. John Vianney’s lifestyle, his love of the sacraments and desire for the salvation of souls is often forgotten as we matriculate through the system and expand our résumés.

The authority for priestly ministry comes from Jesus Christ and His Gospel as ratified by the people who follow Him and await His return, the Church. Priests are so often asked, “Why are you a priest?” or “what made you become a priest?” The only answer is simply: “I am a priest because I was called so by Jesus Christ and His Church”. There is no other justification needed, no other rationalization required.

Knowledge and learning are very important, but they are no substitute for the pursuit of holiness, especially for anyone who would seek qualification in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ yet alone those who would minister in His name.


Fr. John B.

PS Pray especially for our seminarians, particularly the new ones and for the efforts of our Bishop to develop our own local seminary.