The Role Of The Clergy In The Sanctification Of The Family


Fr. Frank Pavone


Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here this afternoon. I was asked to share some reflections on the role of the clergy in the sanctification of the family.

As it was mentioned, we have in the United States a national association called 'Priests for Life'. This is an association of priests and deacons who make a special commitment to give emphasis to the Church's teachings on the dignity of human life in whatever their ministry might be, whether they be in a parish or school, or some other special ministry. They make a commitment to see that the life issue is the number one priority of our day, not because we decide it's the number one priority but simply because the tragedy in our world, particularly of abortion and of other assaults on human dignity is so great and so urgent that this demands priority attention.

What is the role of the clergy in sanctifying the family? I'm going to briefly make three points. First of all, the priest helps to sanctify the family precisely by more perfectly fulfilling his vocation as a priest because we can see some similarities between the communion of the priesthood and the communion of the family. The second basic point that I'll make is that the priest has a unique opportunity to come against the destructive forces that are tearing the family apart today by his unique teaching role, his ability to teach the people who God is and who the human person is. And then thirdly, the gift of ordination to the priesthood necessarily propels the priest into the fight against abortion. This is not an added extra to his ministry but it flows from the very nature of his ministry.

Let us begin with the first point. Precisely by being a priest, the priest builds up the family. Our Holy Father in the document on the family, Familiars Consortio, calls the family a communion of persons. In his document on the priesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis, he uses the same word over and over again: the priesthood is a communion. And one of the elements of this communion of persons is that it is a gift. A lot of times today people speak about "Let's build up community. Let's build up the family." Well we can't build it up until we first receive it. We are able to have a communion of persons in the family, and in the priesthood, in society, and in the world because the Lord grants us the gift of community. It flows from who He is. One God in three persons. And so we need to have the receptivity, the attitude of openness to God and say: "Lord, we're not just going to build the family by our own efforts. Without you, O Lord, we can do nothing. Give us the gift of communion." And when we receive that gift, what is our response? Our response is self-giving to the point of sacrifice. There will be no communion in the family, there will be no unity in the priesthood, there will be no unity in the world unless we learn to give ourselves away.

Did you ever hear a young person say: "Oh, I don't think I want to be a priest." And a young woman can say this about becoming a religious sister. "I don't think I want to do that because you have to give up too much. I don't think I'll be happy giving up so much." You know what I tell them when they say that? "If that's your reason for not becoming a priest or a religious, don't get married either, because you won't be happy in marriage." You will not be happy in any vocation until you learn to give yourself away.

A lot of times people seek happiness directly. They think: "Oh, I see happiness over there in the corner. I'm going to run over there and get it." If that's the idea we have, when we get over there we are going to find that happiness has vanished. Happiness is not something we seek directly. Happiness is a by-product of doing something else. And the something else that we do is to give ourselves away. Why is there so much breakup of marriage and family? The reason is that people have this notion that their primary goal is self-fulfillment. The bottom line for so many people is self-fulfillment. So what happens if the vocation they're in as a married person, or a parent, or a priest, or a religious stops fulfilling them in their own estimation; then what do they do? Then they go find something else that they think will fulfill them. The bottom line cannot be self-fulfillment. The bottom line is self-giving, and precisely in that and through that do we find fulfillment.

We see here the special powerful role of celibacy and of consecrated chastity, because it declares to the world that ultimately even the gift of marriage is oriented to something more, something higher, something beyond this world, something unseen, namely, the gift of self to God. We also see here, by the way, a very deep reason for the practice, the teaching of the Church, so recently and formally re-affirmed by our Holy Father, that only males are called to the ordained priesthood.

I was in a group of first-graders one day. One of the little first-grade girls asked me: "Father Frank, why can't girls be priests?" So now, how do you explain that to a class of first-graders? I used this example. We're going to have a school play. And the play is going to be about Michael and Mary who are husband and wife. So they practiced for months and months and then comes the day before the play, and Michael gets sick. So now everyone is ready to come to the play and Michael can't play his part! What's going to happen? Well, we have to choose somebody else who can act just as well as Michael. So I looked around the class and I said: "Okay, instead of Michael let's choose Susie." And they all started to laugh. And I said, "What's the matter? Can't Susie do just as good a job of acting as Michael can?" They laughed again. And I asked, "What's wrong. One of them raised his hand and said: "Well, Michael's role was to be Mary's husband. Susie can't do that."

So it is with the priesthood. Is there a marriage here or is there not? Isn't there a marriage between the head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and the Church, His bride? Yes! And in the sacramental priesthood we continue that imagery which is Scriptural, right from the very beginning. And it is an imagery of marriage because it's an imagery of self-giving. The more the priest gives himself to the bride of Christ, the Church, the more he will show what it means for the family to live out its vocation as a communion of persons, freely and generously giving themselves to each other.

The priest, to be a real priest and fully live his vocation, is to be a father and not a functionary. I'll tell you what I think is the greatest temptation for priests. It is not to go off and violate their vows by having affairs with women. The greatest temptation is to take the sacred for granted. It is to get up and say: "Oh yes, another day. Oh, I have to say another mass. Oh, another round of confessions. Another wedding. The temptation is to start losing the sense of awe, of mystery, the sense of wonder at what he is able to do in Christ.

The priest is a father. Let's consider the priest in the parish. In my parish, some months ago, I recall us having some visitors, and after I said the early mass we still had several masses for the day. And one of the visitors noticed me standing in the back of the church as this next mass began and she said: "You don't have to stay around for these other masses do you?" Well, of course! The family is gathering. I'm the father of this family. It's not that every priest in the parish has to be there for every mass. The point is, what is the attitude that the priest takes towards the people he serves? He's not just there to provide certain functions. He's there as a father intensely interested in his spiritual children.

We know that since the Second Vatican Council we have had a growth of ministries for the laity, and they will continue. We have heard and we have said that the mission of the laity in the Church and in the world is not defined by the shortage of clergy. The laity have their mission by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation. It is not because we have fewer priests that we call the laity into action. However, it is also true that the mission of the priest is not defined by the shortage of clergy. Sometimes we look at it that way and say: "Well, since there are fewer priests, we need to restrict the priest's activity to just the sacraments." Wait a minute. The priest is a father and that means he has a fatherly responsibility for everything that takes place in his parish, or if he is assigned to a school, in the school. Even though the day to day activities of that particular aspect of the parish can be carried out by the laity (for example, the teaching of religion), the priest is ultimately responsible. And if he takes this attitude and if he sees himself really as raising up a spiritual family, which is not any easier nor less fulfilling than raising up a physical family, then his whole attitude, the way he conducts himself, and the way he speaks, is going to foster family life. Fathers and mothers will be able to look at the priest and say: "Here is what I'm supposed to do for my children too."

It's not any easier to raise up a spiritual family than a physical family. Some people look at the priest and say: "Well, he's not married, he doesn't have any children, his life must be easier." Oh, no. To think that it's easier is to fall into materialism. Why materialism? Because we see physical realities as the only real reality. Spiritual realities are real ones too! And people ask us always: "Gee Father, can priests have children?" Sure! In fact, if we don't have children, born of our preaching of the Word and our administration of the Sacraments, there is no growth in faith. Think of those who, through our priestly ministry, hear the call of Christ to come into the Church, or overcome obstacles to faith and prayer, or receive new life by the sacraments. These are our spiritual children! If we are not of the mind that we are to be generative, that we are to bring spiritual children into the world, then we are practicing what might be called a clerical contraception. We are ordained to bring forth life and to do so generously.

Now, the priest has a unique opportunity, and this is my second major point, to counteract the destruction of the family, by means of what he teaches. He teaches the world who God is and, as Pope Paul VI said in 'The Credo of the People of God', two words describe God's essence: being and love. Life and love: the two go together. By continuing to teach that this is the very nature of God, the priest can counteract this anti-life mentality that we have in the world today. This teaching is not only about who God is, but about who the human person is. As Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II says, section 22; "Jesus Christ reveals to us not only who God is but who we are." And if we want to know who we are, we look to Christ.

Those who promote abortion would sometimes say that the baby in the womb is just a blob of tissue. Don't think that when they say this, it reveals only what they think of the baby in the womb. When they say "it's a blob of tissue," they're telling you what they think about all human life at all stages. It's the mentality that human life is disposable, that when it becomes too inconvenient and too burdensome you can just throw it in the garbage like a piece of tissue.

You may not believe what I'm about to tell you but I have a picture of it. This past summer I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the United States with a group of people praying outside of an abortion center where abortions were taking place right at that very moment. And there was a group of counter demonstrators. These people who support abortion were holding up their signs saying: "Keep Abortion Legal." (It's legal in the United States through all nine months of pregnancy.) And so together with those people who were supporting abortion rights there was a man who held a sign. You know what it said? "Keep baby killing legal." I went up to this man and I talked to him about this sign. And he said to me: "I am here because I support abortion but I believe that those of us who support it ought to be honest about what we're supporting." He said, "There's no denying that it kills a baby. We believe that that's the woman's legal choice anyway." Now this is the mentality that we're dealing with. We're not just dealing with people who say, "Oh I don't know when life begins." If you say, "I don't know when life begins" you might as well say that the earth is flat. It's absolutely, totally absurd and behind the times. We know when human life begins. The issue here is, "What is the value of human life. What does it mean!"

The problem in the United States and throughout the world with abortion can be traced to the original sin. Note this carefully. In the garden, God told Adam and Eve, "You may eat from any of the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Now we might ask ourselves what's wrong with knowing good and evil. Aren't we supposed to know good and evil? The meaning of the verse is not just that they would know good from evil but that they would decide it, that they would be the ones to determine what is right and what is wrong. This is the original temptation, the original lie, that they would be the ones to create the moral norm. They would have to account to nobody but themselves! This is why the same passage says, "You will be like God." Why? Because you decide what's right and wrong! What's right for you is right for you, what's wrong for you is wrong for you, what's right for the other person is right for them, but let them decide and don't you interfere. Isn't that the mentality that we have going all around today?

I'll decide. It's my choice! Choice, choice. Pro-choice, the empty and meaningless slogan that is used to promote abortion. Pro-choice ultimately tries to say that I decide what truth is. Truth is not something that we decide. It's something that we discover and submit ourselves to. But this original lie, that it's all up to me what's right and wrong, was reaffirmed in a very strange way by the United States Supreme Court in 1992. There was a case called 'Planned Parenthood vs. Casey'. Among other things that this decision did, it reaffirmed the 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court legalizing abortion in our country through all nine months of pregnancy. Well, there's a line in this Casey decision that says that "at the heart of liberty" is a person's right "to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Did you catch that? Everyone decides for himself the meaning of the Universe! I can't even decide the weather. How am I supposed to decide the meaning of the Universe? Do I decide what color my eyes would be, or when I would be born, or where? Of course not. This is absurdity! But doesn't it sound familiar? "You will be like God, knowing good and evil," deciding good and evil. The danger of this court decision is that if I decide that the meaning of life is to exploit you, then who can tell me I'm wrong? If there's no moral standard outside of my own mind and my own choice, then who can call me to account for my actions? And ultimately the answer is, "nobody." That's why our country (the US) is on the road to destruction, absolute destruction. And every other country of the world that follows the error that any government can decide who has the right to life and can decide whether or not we can protect the unborn is on the road to destruction.

Brothers and sisters, this brings me to my third and final point. We (especially as priests by our ordination), not by our choice, not because it's what we like to do, but by our very ordination find ourselves today in the middle, in the heart of the fight against abortion. And there we must be, because what do we teach? We teach that human freedom and the power of human choice finds its fulfillment precisely in submitting to the truth of God. The truth makes us free, not just a whim about whatever we might want to do to enhance our independence. The human person finds his or her fulfillment in adherence to God. That is how we fight abortion.

Abortion denies the very right to exist. The pamphlet I have distributed is one of those I have prepared in our 'Priests for Life' work. It's called "Are you a single issue person?" Sometimes those of us who put a special emphasis on the work to end abortion are called 'single issue'. Brothers and sisters, there is no other issue if there isn't life. If we cannot defend the very right people have to exist, especially when they are most weak and most defenseless, then we undermine the defense of every other right. Yes, we have to work to secure all the rights of the human person but all the rights that there are exist precisely because of the dignity of the person. Abortion changes all of that. It says that you don't even have the right to exist. Does a poor person have a right to food and to shelter? Absolutely! But why? They have a right to food because they have a right to live. Take away the right to live and you've taken away the basis for fighting poverty or for fighting any other thing that degrades the dignity of the human person.

A relationship between a mother and her child is the closest, the most basic, the most fundamental relationship between any two people. So how do we allow that relationship to be destroyed without destroying every other relationship that there is? It's very basic. Here is where the family disintegrates; here is the heart of the matter. If you can't even preserve the relationship between mother and child, how can you preserve the relationship between others in the family? How can you preserve the relationships between nations? Mother Teresa, when she came to the capitol of the United States back in February (of 1994)and spoke at the annual National Prayer Breakfast with so many members of Congress and the president and the vice-president present, she said it very simply: "If we accept even that a mother can kill her own child how can we tell other people not to kill each other?" Brothers and sisters, if the mother can kill her innocent and unwanted child, why can't the child kill her innocent and unwanted mother? Or aunt, or uncle, or neighbour, or YOU?

I tell the people in the United States who sometimes say, "The government shouldn't be involved in this, shouldn't be involved in abortion," I tell them that the government got too involved as soon as it determined that it had the authority to decide who lives and who dies. That's when it gets too involved, when its starts taking away protection from the weak and the powerless! You don't want the government to be involved? Then the government should back away entirely and realize that it does not give the right to life and it cannot take it away!

Today, from a city in the United States which is in many ways the abortion capitol - the city of New York -- I appeal to you to give top priority to bringing an end to abortion, because in fighting abortion we are fighting every other evil. A lot of people have said and have realized, the way things progress, that abortion leads to many other evils, and yes it does. But I'll take it even a step further. It doesn't only lead to other evils; it contains them in itself! Why? Because abortion is a statement about what it means to be human - that human life is disposable. Let us declare to our people, wherever we are, that it is not disposable. And the game plan for bringing an end to abortion is given to us right in the heart of the mass. "This is my body, given up for you, this is my blood shed for you." In other words, if we tell the mother already carrying her child that she must sacrifice herself to preserve the life of that child, and we are right in teaching her that, then we must do the same thing. We must sacrifice our own convenience in order to save the life of that child. We must absorb the suffering because there is no way that we will root out abortion from our nations and from our world without suffering on our part. It's the way of the cross. We have to be like lightning rods standing up in the midst of this great storm of destruction of human life… Lightning rods! …and say, "O Lord, I am willing to take some of the suffering rather than to let it be transformed into violence. Lord, I am ready to love the children who are in danger, the mothers who are in need, a society that has gone astray, and I know in loving, I will have to endure the cross. Brothers and sisters, we can turn this around! We can, with the leadership of the clergy, but with the involvement of all of us, transform this culture of death into the culture of life and of love.

We can do it and there has never been a more critical moment to do it than now. Never doubt that we can do it. And I'll leave you with the vision of Ezekiel, chapter 37, the vision of the dry bones. There was Ezekiel, this field of dry bones before him, and God asked him: "Ezekiel, can these bones live?" Now imagine the dilemma he was in. He must of thought to himself: "Well, gee, if I say yes that's going to appear foolish but if I say no, I risk disobeying God." So what did Ezekiel say? "Well, I don't know." And so God said to him: "Speak, prophesy, speak the word of truth to the bones." Now he knew he was in a dilemma, because to speak to dry bones humanly appears foolish, but now, if he didn't do it, he would be disobeying God. So he spoke, and what an awesome moment it must have been, because Scripture tells us that he heard a rattling sound and then he saw one bone begin to join to another. And God, as if cheering him on, said: "Keep speaking, speak again. Prophesy to the bones!" And the bones stood up, flesh came on them, and the spirit of life was breathed into the bones. And there you have a vast army living because of the word of truth.

You and I are standing in a world today over a field of dry bones: those who have been killed by abortion, those who have been killed by so many other things attacking the dignity of human life. Dry bones, because of the deaths and also because of the dead consciences. And God has placed us here, we don't know why, we don't know how. But we find ourselves here in the midst of this incredible tragedy. Like Ezekiel. you and I are in a dilemma because God says to us: "Speak and proclaim the Word of Life. Keep doing it. Let nothing deter you." And so people can look at Him and say, "This is humanly foolish, humanly impossible. How can we transform the world from the path of death that it's on?" Speak, and speak like Ezekiel, for as long as you live! And if you ever doubt that we can bring an end to this culture of death, this destruction of the family, this destruction of life by abortion, if you ever think for a moment that it's impossible, then ask yourself this: Can a field of dry bones ever live? Or better yet ask yourself, Can a man who has been scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed hands and feet to a cross, pierced with a lance, has died and been buried, can such a man ever live again?

God bless you.