By Fr. John A. Perricone for Crisis Magazine
I know what you’re thinking. It’s not that at all. Black Power is, of course, priests in their cassocks. Can there be any greater power than that? They present the great drama of the Holy Gospel. A priest merely in a black suit is prosaic; in the cassock, he is poetry. Perhaps this is why the Vicar-General of Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago implored his priests to gather in questionable demonstration in their cassocks. Such an episcopal summons for the donning of cassocks had not been heard for over a half century. Interesting. Could there be a rediscovery of the cassock in the offing? Then there is the incident in St. Louis a few weeks ago. Two cassocked priests were leading a large group of young Catholics in the recitation of the Rosary before the statue of Saint Louis. Rioters were enraged; normal folks were moved. The Hurons of Canada called Saint Isaac Jogues and his missionary Jesuits “black robes”. The cassocks of these saints piqued the interest of the Indians. Though unlettered, they sensed they were in the presence of the extraordinary.
There is the nagging question of why young men are not breaking down the doors of our seminaries in restless desire for the graces of Holy Orders. Why are they not enthusing to march in the uniform of the cassock? Some of the answer lies at the steps of secularism. Its delights are like the sirens that seduced Odysseus. Their insistent song seems no contest to the muted whisperings of the Holy Spirit that excites the hearts of those young men. Having said that, modernity’s enticements cannot match the Church’s. She possesses an ensemble of potent supernatural symbols that no earthly force can compete with. They are ancient in their lineage but modest compared to the blinding glare of secularism’s allurements. Their simplicity should not deceive. It is the emblematic manner of the Holy Spirit who woos souls rather than dazzles them. Under such subtle inspirations, the soul responds slowly but surely, guaranteeing a response not born of fleeting enthusiasm but unwavering conviction.
Many in the Church have intentionally permitted this formidable magnet for the young to collect dust. The perennial lessons of the Church seem to have been lost upon not a few Catholic leaders who fall to the seductions of Madison Avenue and the slick sheen of pyschobabble’s ephemera. When elites within the Church decide that she is a corporate affair and not a mystical one, she is dragged into unworthy stratagems. Several years ago, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced that it would hire a top-flight public relations firm to “handle its image.” Around the same time, the Diocese of Albany followed suit.
Glaring anomalies are apparent here. It should be no surprise that the evidence shows that the Church has reached a dangerous critical mass in the decline of vocations. Looking only at a sliver of the East Coast reveals a situation of grave concern. This year the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT, ordained not a single man. The Archdiocese of New York ordained one; the Diocese of Brooklyn, three; and Rockville Center, two. In the Province of New Jersey, the Archdiocese of Newark ordained ten (though nine were from the Neocatechumenal Way); Paterson, three; Metuchen, three; Trenton, one, and Camden, two. Other dioceses are following similar trends. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there does seem to be a cause for concern.
To be sure, exceptions stand out in this grim picture—the Priestley Fraternity of Saint Peter, for instance, and the Institute of Christ the King. Of the conventional Orders, the amazing Dominicans of the Saint Joseph Province stand out. On the diocesan level, meanwhile, we have the newly built Minor Seminary of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, under the extraordinary leadership of Father Matthew Kauth. Their high volume of vocations is wildly disproportionate to the small number of Catholics in that growing diocese. But virtually every other diocesan seminary in the United States remains crippled.
The secret of overcrowded seminaries? Only the millennia-old prescription that the Church has always employed.
The Roman Church began advertising for priests thousands of years before Madison Avenue was even a twinkle in the eye of East Coast moguls. She didn’t need glossy magazine copy or sixty-second television bites. Saints did the trick. Put them in front of young men and you will have a stampede on your hands.
The lure of sanctity is irresistible. Only the saint can speak to the depths of the human person, the depths that beg for happiness. All the stirrings of young men—their passions, strivings, aspirations, dreams, and virile energies—are electrified in the presence of the saint. In fact, without saints, the souls of young men become enervated, leaving only a metaphysical ennui which entombs them. Chesterton’s wisdom tells of this mystery: “When the young man knocks on the door of the brothel, he is looking for God.”
Look at Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century. This ascetic went about the French countryside and mesmerized the young men who heard him speak about the love of God and the renunciation of self. They rushed after him as though he were giving them gold. But he was giving them much more: Christ crucified. And they swooned. Legend has it that when mothers found their boys listening to the saint, they would run and cover their boys’ ears.
Or Saint Philip Neri. Who could have imagined that this seemingly half-mad priest who levitated during Mass could be any match for the lubricious delights of Renaissance Rome? But when Philip strolled through the Eternal City he was like a Pied Piper. Rich young men—men accustomed to gorging themselves on whatever they desired—suddenly desired nothing but the company of this happy saint. They could have had access to a dozen boudoirs but, after being with Philip, they craved only the tabernacle. Saint Philip turned their hunger for carnal pleasures into a hunger for heaven, and it didn’t cost the Church a dime, or a hundred vocation “sharing” sessions.
Only Christ calls men to the priesthood, but His voice passes through Christ-like priests—and not merely through their voices, but through their actions, bearing, and dress. Chesterton once remarked that when he saw Cardinal Manning walking through London, his scarlet cappa billowing in the wind, he thought of a thousand Arabian nights. This should also be no surprise. Look at how we thrill to the sight of a Marine in his dress blues.
Woven into man’s nature is a thirst for the romance of the symbol, and a priest’s cassock announces his high office and makes a man’s heart dance. Here is the truest Black Power. All these gestures of the priest conspire together to prompt a man to throw everything away for Christ. Priests in their cassocks stand out like the Colossus of Rhodes. This leaves Madison Avenue green with envy. Oddly, it leaves many a bishop stone cold, even angry. There is something deeply amiss here, rendering any literate Catholic profoundly disturbed.
Most important, however, is not the priest, but the priest at Mass. Holy Mass envelopes the whole panoply of heaven with Christ immolated reigning at its center. No greater wonder falls upon a man’s soul than to watch a priest attend to the hundred glorious details which coalesce to produce the supernatural beauty of the Mass. It is a beauty not theatrical but theological. It is not spectacle, but mystery. It is not born of clever liturgical workshops, but of the Church’s ancient tradition.
Too many of the jerrybuilt “liturgies” of the average parish are either so fatuous or mawkish that they summon not the noble in man, but his shallowness. A normal man is repulsed by them. And if, per chance, he is attracted, it is because he is being entertained, as though it were a performance of My Fair Lady. If there are men willing to devote themselves to that type of meretricious exhibition, they are only men of a certain disposition for flair and flamboyance. They are men who see the Mass as their stage. The Church has recently reaped the bitter harvest of men like that. Ignatius Loyola and Isaac Jogues would not approve.
The priest at Mass attracts men and makes them. The Mass is a manly act because it is the act of the perfect Man. It is a heroic act because Christ at every Mass is at war, slaying Satan. This divine tumult rivets a young man’s heart more than any sermon or book. Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and General Patton are trifling compared to this divine captain. C. S. Lewis wrote once that the vestments of a priest must always be heavy, or at least look heavy. It is because the priest carries the weight of war at Mass, as well as the grandeur of divine victory. Tissue-weight polyesters simply will not do. Only jewel-encrusted cloth of gold can fully tell the tale.
As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski rightly remarked, “Religion is not a set of propositions, it is the realm of worship, wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality and moral commitment appear as single act.”
On September 21,2001, Pope Saint John Paul II punctuated the indispensable, solemn awe that is constitutive of the Mass, a dynamic and hieratic visibility which conveys a dazzlingly ineffable invisibility:
The Liturgical Celebration is an act of the virtue of religion that, consistent with its nature, should characterize Itself by a profound sense of the sacred. In it, man and the community should realize that it is, in a special way, before Him Who is three times Holy and Transcendent. Consequently, the behavior called for should be permeated by a reverence and by a sense of amazement that pours forth from one knowing that he is in the presence of the Majesty of God. The People of God need to see in the priests and deacons a behavior full of reverence and of dignity, capable of helping them penetrate the invisible things, even without words or explanations.
That is how the Church advertises. It is a millennial strategy which fills seminaries and produces saintly priests. Other methods may be tried, but they will only produce fools—or worse.