A priest who is a truly happy man knows that he is a “vessel of clay”, made of earth and therefore given to weakness, formed by a potter’s hand into a masterpiece that is beautiful yet fragile. A truly happy priest is one who can look at himself squarely and see himself for everything that he is, a person broken and wounded, sinful and weak, and yet loved by a God who has known him long before he was born, who has singled him out, not to give him privilege, but to form him into an instrument, by which grace can be known by a people who are just as vulnerable, beautiful, and fragile as he. In this he becomes a “bridge” between a truly loving God and a wounded and fallen humanity.
Only by seeing himself in his weakness and fragility can a priest also know what it truly means to be a creature of grace, loved infinitely by God, and therefore tasked to share that most profound experience of grace with those to whom he ministers. And this is born, not out of a superficial piety that mumbles the words but feels nothing in the heart. It is rather the result of having come face to face with who and what one truly is. One cannot separate one’s priesthood from one’s humanity, they go hand-in-hand. The priesthood is not sugar-coating on something bitter or sour. It is not something tacked on in order to make something unpleasant look good, or enhance something that would otherwise be unappealing. The priesthood is not some superficial trapping that merely cloaks one's humanity; it is rather anchored and inseparably rooted in it.
A priest is a “vessel of clay”, he is a man like every other man, but he is also one who has peered deep into the reality of himself, and with the strength and courage given by Christ, willingly accepts what he encounters as a gift of God, the very earth out of which God is going to fashion for himself, an instrument who will bring a message of grace, compassion, love, and challenge to a world that is also striving to make sense of its experience of darkness and light.
The seminary is a place where young men are first and foremost initiated into this “encounter in honesty” before God. It is in seminary that a future priest must be taught to stand in the presence of God, empty of all his pretensions, bereft of all the trappings that can hinder him from showing God who and what he truly is. But it is also the place where he must be told that while such prospect might seem utterly terrifying and excruciating, it is the only way by which he will be able to genuinely offer something worthwhile to God. And it is the only way by which God can use him to communicate his life to his people. The seminary is the place where one learns that rather than being a fearful experience, standing before God in all honesty of self, is actually the profoundest experience of grace there can be, and hence there is absolutely nothing to fear. Enter into the fire then, allow the flames to consume you, and know that God will be there with you.
There is a paradox that characterizes the life of a good and happy priest. In facing what is most terrifying, he does not find himself defeated and destroyed, instead he finds himself redeemed, emboldened to proclaim to the whole world, the grace and forgiveness that he has personally experienced as he brought to God’s altar, everything that he is, the desirable and the undesirable, the holy and the unholy, the darkness and the light that dwell in him. Only a man who has known what it means to stand completely empty before God can become an instrument of grace that will set on fire the hearts of other men and women who will recognize in his very experience, a similar invitation to open themselves up to the flames of God’s purifying truth.
The confrontation with truth does not only set one free, it also makes one an instrument of Truth itself. But truth begins with oneself. There is simply no other way. A vessel that has not been washed, cleansed, and purified by the truth, will forever fail in communicating God’s grace and mercy that alone can wash, cleanse, and purify the hearts of others who long to experience what a priest experiences. One who fails or refuses to stand in all honesty before God and self will find himself grasping at straws, carving an identity out of superficial trappings that will only give fleeting and superficial happiness.