The incarnation should never be confused with Disneyland. In the incarnation God enters into actual humanity – pain, mess, ambiguity, misunderstanding, crucifixion. There’s some purity there, on God’s side; but, on our side, nothing is pure, including the priesthood.

Earlier this year, Donald Cozzens, the rector of a large USA seminary, published an important new book entitled, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Mn., c2000).

This book, like the incarnation itself, distances itself from what’s fanciful. Cozzens is eminently qualified to write on the priesthood since he is himself a priest (and by every indication a faithful, talented, and generous one). Moreover, he has spent much of his priesthood ministering to other priests and seminarians. He speaks as an insider, a sympathetic one. Yet his book has not been everywhere well-received. Why? Because Cozzens names some of the painful, hard issues that face the priesthood today in North America and elsewhere.

What are those issues? He focuses particularly on five things: the relational immaturity of many priests; destructive, unspoken jealousy within clerical ranks; the disproportionate number of gay men entering priesthood and the subsequent growth of a gay subculture within some clerical circles; a growing anti-clericalism within the culture that can make priesthood  unattractive; and a radical drop in the number of men who are entering the priesthood, not to mention the number of men who have, within the past 30 years, left the priesthood.

The picture he paints of the priesthood in North America today looks anything but like the priesthood that has so often been idealized within Roman Catholicism. The picture you get is this: There are simply a lot less priests than there used to be, many of these are immature in that they haven’t properly integrated their natural hunger for romantic and sexual intimacy, leaving them too susceptible to aloofness, irresponsible emotional affairs, workaholism, and the misuse of power; a destructive jealousy often abounds within clerical ranks, crushing energy and goodness; a disproportionate number of men entering the seminary are gay, to the point where, sometimes, those who are not gay unconsciously feel out of place and leave; and a fierce anti-clericalism within the culture constantly slanders the priesthood itself, linking it with scandal. Not the kind of picture one would want to put on a vocation brochure! Or is it?

What’s valuable about this book is that Cozzens does more than simply name the issues. He points to where faith lies within all of this. His believe, which I endorse, is that the priesthood today is alive and well and a life-giving option for any young man, not in spite of these issues but because of them. What Cozzens does is crack open the shell of pious encrustment that so often surrounds the priesthood and then place it back where it belongs, inside a proper theology of the incarnation and theological anthropology that is not confused with angelology or The Bells of St. Mary’s. The incarnation always comes fraught with mess, misunderstanding, and ambiguity because it enfleshes the love of a God who embraces the bad with the good, the unredeemed with the redeemed, who loves us for nothing, meets us in our sin, and invariably ends up on a cross, looking compromised, hanging among thieves.

Cozzens concluding words say it well: “[The] reason for hope lies in the apparent purification and maturation the priesthood has undergone in the last two decades of the twentieth century. From their own pastoral experience, priests know something happens to the soul when it is subjected to ordeal upon ordeal, to unrelenting criticism, and to the anxiety that follows the loss of one’s place and identity. Either it surrenders to despair or chooses to hope against hope that life will go on, that mercy upon mercy will lift it up. Most priests have not given in to despair or lost their nerve. Their confidence has been shaken, to be sure, and their spirit bruised. But now, with status diminished and reputation questioned, priests have turned with renewed poverty of soul to the sustaining mercy and grace of God. In the midst of unprecedented crises, they stand as men without illusions, totally dependent on the strength of the Spirit. In the truth of their circumstances, their humility inspires freedom and courage.The strongest reason for hope, of course, is their faith in the power of the Spirit to be with them through the darkest hours. In the power of the Spirit they are reminded that nothing can separate them from Christ’s abiding love and the saving promise of their creator God. In this abiding love and saving promise they look, without fear, to the renewal and transformation of the priesthood. Behind the changing face of the priesthood remains the saving face of Jesus the Christ.”

Well put. The great mystery of priesthood is that it tries, however inadequately, to give a human face to a wondrous God who walks with us even when things aren’t all pure. What an awesome challenge!