Priesthood, Mystery and Beauty

by Fr. Nick Schneider - Priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota

In his homily to priests at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, April 5, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a passage from the great Russian Novelist Leo Tolstoy.

“Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, tells in a short story of a harsh sovereign who asked his priests and sages to show him God so that he might see him. The wise men were unable to satisfy his desire. 

Then a shepherd, who was just coming in from the fields, volunteered to take on the task of the priests and sages. From him the king learned that his eyes were not good enough to see God. Then, however, he wanted to know at least what God does. "To be able to answer your question", the shepherd said to the king, "we must exchange our clothes".

Somewhat hesitant but impelled by curiosity about the information he was expecting, the king consented; he gave the shepherd his royal robes and had himself dressed in the simple clothes of the poor man.

Then came the answer: ‘This is what God does.’ Indeed, the Son of God, true God from true God, shed his divine splendor: "he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men; and being found in human form he humbled himself..., even unto death on a cross" (cf. Phil 2:6ff.).” 

The beauty and mystery of the priesthood do not come from the person of the priest. The priest is beautiful, not because he is a beautiful person; the priest is not a man of mystery because he is himself so mysterious. Rather, the priest’s beauty and mystery come from the person of Christ. 

In fact, we often speak of the priest acting “In persona Christi capitis,” that is, in the person of Christ the head. The most important moments of a priest’s life are the celebration of the sacred mysteries, the sacraments. Nowhere else is a priest more closely united with Christ. The greatest thing that can be said of a priest when he is celebrating the sacraments is: “I no longer saw Father. He disappeared. Christ alone was acting.”

Of course, there is a difficulty in speaking of “beauty” in terms of the priest. Priests are men, and “beautiful” is not normally a word we think of as complementary! Beauty, though, is really the same thing as goodness. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally; for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently goodness is praised as beauty.”  In fact, in the Greek language, the adjective for “good” and “beautiful” is the same: “kalos.” 

Beauty has an attractive draw that invites contemplation. The more a priest can discover this attractive draw leading him to contemplate in wonder his own priesthood, the more he will move to the very source of his life as a priest.

The beauty of Christ is the greatest of all beauties. The Old Testament prefigures His loveliness “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news, Announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!’” (Is. 52:7) Christ is the one who came to proclaim peace, to bear good news, to announce salvation, and to say that “Your God is King!” He is the beautiful one. “You are the most handsome of men; fair speech has graced your lips, for God has blessed you forever.” (Ps. 45:3) Again, Christ is the most handsome of men, who is blessed forever. 

The Transfiguration

The inner beauty of Christ’s divinity breaks through and shines forth in a remarkable way in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. “And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” (Mt. 17:2) Finally, the hidden beauty of Christ broke forth for the three disciples with Jesus on the Mt. Tabor to see. “While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” The source of Jesus’ beauty is His union with the Father, and obedience to the will of the Father is what kept Him in connection to the source.

The great marvel is that the beauty of the priesthood is nothing other than the beauty of Christ! Hidden under the simplicity of a priest’s human life, the simple gestures and words that he takes on in celebrating the sacred mysteries, is the very activity of Christ. Just as for Jesus, the priest must live out of the source of His own inner beauty in hiddenness and mystery. The more the priest discovers the joy of obedience in faith to the will of the Father in Heaven, the more the priest remains in the source of his own beauty.