Why are there so few to gather in the harvest? Why are there so few priests and why are so few priests holy? The answers to these questions are many and varied, but one answer is at the heart of them all. There are few men who love Christ the High Priest.
What young man would sacrifice his life to be thrown to obscure parts of the world, to areas where he has no one and no one has him, to set up a temporary home in which he alone will dwell? Why would a young man do something so wasteful with his life, subjecting himself to uncertainty and obscurity? He would not. From the outside, no man would make this offering, for it comes with little to no human benefits. He will have no family to call his own, no home or assets to speak of, nor any ability to plan his own future, as that is selected for him. Yet the young man who desires to respond to Christ, the young man who wants to sacrifice himself out of gratitude and love for the sacrifice our Blessed Lord the High Priest has offered, does so with joy. The difference? Love for the High Priest. There is no other reason to give oneself over to such a life.
The priesthood was born out of Christ's love for His flock, seeing them harassed and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Those first priests followed Christ simply to be near Him. The sacrifice involved was as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed.
Men desire to throw their lives at an adventure, and when the prize is the Person of Christ, there is no question of pitching your person in that direction — that is, for those who know and love Him.
Few know, and even fewer young men love, the High Priest, but look at the priesthood from the outside and have not the capacity to penetrate the black cloth to see what lies beneath: a union between Christ and a man which is substantial, which imparts a character on the man's very soul, such that he is never again simply his own. Most young men cannot see in celibacy the summoning up of one's energies to be employed in pursuit of the High Priest with an undivided heart. Celibacy breeds — or should breed — contemplation, which in itself begets more intense love. In other words, the purpose of celibacy is not to be more available to the laity (which no doubt is one positive effect), but rather to be available to the High Priest.
The engine that drives every apostolic endeavor is love. Why are so few priests holy? For the same reason we saw above. They do not love Christ the High Priest. A priest might run for a time on self-love, wanting to be a good priest because he believes he is worthy of nothing else, and so is quite active in pursuing a good and even orthodox image, fulfilling his station in life with punctiliousness, beyond reproach in his discipline and in his fulfillment of duty. Yet that love will fail him and he will soon see the faithful as not worthy of his efforts. They were mirrors he used for a time, into which he looked to see a beautiful image of himself, despite what the reality might be. His only movement is internal, a movement toward himself that ends in neurotic behaviors which, despite his best efforts at concealment, begin to leak out onto the flock.
What happens to the faithful when he no longer has use for them or he moves on from their parish? They were for a time like satellites, kept in the orbit of his personality. When his gravitational force is no longer felt, they lose their movement. Instead of tending toward the High Priest, they will be tempted to attach themselves to the next planetary personality who passes by.
Less damaging, but nevertheless harmful, is the priest who loves his people but does not love the High Priest. They are his family and he sees them as the purpose of his existence. He loves to call himself the servant of the people, but has forgotten that his service to them comes from the reality that he is Christ's servant first. His service to the people, especially his divine service in the liturgy, is vacuous if he does not give the people what he himself has received, instead of just offering them himself. He will do nothing to offend them since they are his support and his life. They are the wells of consolation from which he daily drinks. Should they fail in their love for him, he must seek reassignment and go off in search of other sheep upon whom he can depend. He can even labor strenuously on their behalf, as would a natural father who loves his children. This love always fails, for Christ did not send him for a natural purpose. Where is Christ the High Priest in this natural love? He is often at best an afterthought, the ostensible reason for gathering on Sunday, when in reality the flock hears only about the priest's life. This priest will lead his flock no nearer to Christ.
The current practice of the divine liturgy makes this all the more true. The priest turns not to the Father on behalf of the faithful, but is always face to face with them. It is to them he turns to be known, to be loved, to be "appreciated." The Psalm he prays weekly from the divine office could be altered to reflect his practice: "It is their faces O Lord that I seek, hide not their faces from me!" He moves toward them, and perhaps they move toward him, but none of them is moving toward the Father.
Finally, the priest who simply does not love will have no movement whatsoever. He is not in the parish for a noble purpose. He has no real reason to do anything. Without divine love coursing through him, giving him purpose and mission, he will grow to hate the flock entrusted to him. There are few in the pews he would care about if he were not a priest, and even fewer he would befriend. They are, on a natural level, often not very lovable. Hence he must find ways to constantly get away from them. He will do that which is absolutely required of him (which is precious little), receive his paycheck, and spend his life looking for a life. There is perhaps nothing sadder than a priest who does not love, for he is a contradiction in terms.
Yet these men are not wholly to blame. The faithful do not often see in the priest more than a man. Christ fashioned priests from the beginning after the desire of His Own heart. Our Lord so desires to be personally present among His flock that He employs the nature of a man. Yet so often the faithful believe that the priesthood is something that some man "got" and that they cannot "get." How infrequently do they see a priest as a living sign of the High Priest's love! He is a living, breathing response of the High Priest's desire and solicitude for them. The union of Christ and priest is such that what the man blesses, Christ blesses; what he consecrates, Christ consecrates; when he absolves, Christ absolves; and where he walks, Christ walks. Why does Christ the High Priest subject Himself to such collaboration? Because He loves His flock.
Without the Eucharist there is no Church, and without the priest there is no Eucharist. The reality is, if the priesthood goes, so too does the Church. For the Church is Christ the Head in union with His body. Take off the head and you have nothing more than a corpse. The faithful often do not see the headship of Christ in the priest. He is to some a force to "keep things going," not someone to obey. They often want a priest to do those things that are necessary, such as baptisms, bedsides, and burials, but not to be a father. To submit themselves to his fatherhood would be to place themselves under his authority and moral guidance. In other words, he would be all too close to their lives and the things that have become precious to them. There has evolved therefore an unholy conspiracy between clergy and laymen that runs something like this: "I the priest will never tell you anything to change your way of life if you will support me sufficiently to pursue my way of life." Each allows the other to go his own way, after the dictates of his ill-formed heart.
Where is the zeal for souls? It lies in the love of Christ. Where is the desire for holiness? It comes from the love of Christ. Only the love of the High Priest can cause a man to pursue Him with such ardor that he abandons his own life. Only the love of the High Priest can transform a priest's weak and watery natural love for his people, which waxes and wanes, into a passionate longing to "father" them, to raise them up as living sacrifices to the High Priest. Christ's love will purify, elevate, and give power to a priest's love. The priest will learn to love what and how Christ loves.
Similarly, only love of the High Priest will allow a layman to see past the obviously flawed priest who stands at the altar, who has no natural qualities that inspire him. Only one who loves Christ the Priest can see Christ's love for him in that man who is yoked to Christ and who therefore moves in tandem with Christ. This alone will cause a layman to humble himself before the rightful authority of one who on the natural plane might be his equal. In other words, only the love of Christ the High Priest moves us, priest and layman, and so moves the mystical body.
Never has there arisen a priest equal to St. John Vianney. The love he possessed for the High Priest consumed him. As one example of many, St. John Vianney would each day boil two potatoes. These he would put in his pockets to keep himself from freezing during the incalculable hours he spent in the confessional. He would eventually eat those two potatoes to keep body and soul together. This diet caused him to look as if he were dead by the age of 45. All his desires, on the level of the body, and that of the soul, were directed to and ordered according to the One he loved.
There is a familiar story about this saint that details his journey to the town of Ars. He knew not the way and, since he was rather lost, asked a local boy he met on the road if he knew the way to Ars. The boy acknowledged that he did and could show him. The saint responded: "You show me the way to Ars, and I will show you the way to Heaven."
This encapsulates the work of the priest. According to the heart of the Good Shepherd, he must bring the flock home to the High Priest through the sacrifice of his own life. He will sacrifice himself to the degree that he loves. He will assume the task worthy of the labor to the extent that he loves the One to whom he is attempting to bring them. He will be followed to the extent that he and the flock love the High Priest. Without love for Christ, it simply stops, for there is nowhere to go. Why sacrifice when there is nowhere to go and no one to get to? Whether Ars or any parish is the starting point, without somewhere to go, some reason for going, someone you long to be with, there will be no movement. Love alone moves a young man, sanctifies the aging priest, and causes the faithful to respond to the voice of the Shepherd. May the "love which moves the sun, and all the stars" move us to follow His way home.