Caution on Barron's 'Heroic Priesthood'

Someone sent me the link to Fr. Robert Barron's video on "Heroic Priesthood." As expected, it has high production values; intriguing lighting; a pounding, heavy-on-the-percussion, heroic soundtrack; and lots of slow motion to emphasize the drama. Not a bad recruiting tool, especially for those young men who might like basketball, because the sport is used as the only metaphor for priesthood throughout the piece. (Full disclosure: I love basketball. I made teams and mostly sat the pine for five years from CYO through 10th grade. A hoop and backboard were always part of the landscape in our family, and three of our four children played. But really, there is a limit to basketball as metaphor for life, not to mention priesthood.) Pity the non-athlete who might want to go to Mundelein.

I have nothing but admiration for the young men pictured here and their dedication to pursuing the vocation of priest. They are, indeed, countering many of the cultural tics that would denigrate such qualities as self-sacrifice and fidelity. But the video should come with an ample warning, and Cathleen Kaveny raises all the important red flags in a piece on the Commonweal site.

I would only add to her caution that "hero" as a concept generally has been overused to the point of uselessness. There are so many heroes that they've become a staple of TV advertising. Heroism becomes meaningless when everyone can claim the appellation.

Kaveny writes that "the video seems to be in the middle of a time warp." She notes that John Paul II dominates the presentation, and it is his notion of "heroic priesthood" that inspires the young men pictured. "Francis is the pope now -- and by all accounts, pretty popular. Why not use him as the centerpiece of a recruiting video?"

She notes that in the presentation, "there is virtually no Church. The priest is a lone romantic figure, standing beside a lake ... There is no one old, no one messy, no one uncoordinated. And no one too short to play basketball. It looks like a recruiting tool for the Legion of Christ -- maybe that's the source of my discomfort."

And that last point is extremely important. For John Paul II, the prime example of heroic priesthood was the Legion of Christ and its founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado*. Maciel's success in recruiting young priests and raising enormous sums of money (which he was not shy about spreading around the Curia) made John Paul blind to the reality that Maciel was anything but heroic. For years, John Paul refused to hear the loud warnings from credible accusers as well as from a few of his own bishops and people within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Maciel's was a priesthood of treachery and manipulation, we now know. He abused his own young seminarians and fathered children by at least two women.

It is about time that we recognize that John Paul II's notion of heroic priesthood is a failed project. Too many of the bishops he appointed bought into the "glory" and "heroic" part of the bargain but not the accountability or servant part and went on to be complicit in perpetrating the greatest scandals in the church since the Reformation.

By relocating the papacy, actually and figuratively, and by repeatedly wading into those sections of cities where popes and others rarely go, into the teeming lives of the poor, the broken, the communities that couldn't imagine such luxuries as gymnasiums with polished hardwood and glass backboards, Pope Francis is removing the pedestal upon which the old notions of "heroic priesthood" relied. Perhaps the description for priesthood, ordained and otherwise, should be "humble."

To the young men in the video and others they represent, this longtime Catholic can only wish the best and impart a warning, for what it's worth, to be careful what you mean by "heroic" and to be careful what you wish to emulate. The soundtrack and the slow-motion drama will not follow you into real life as an ordained minister. The "glory" part of the vocation you speak of in the video I suspect will occur, most of the time, in less-than-celestial settings.

*An earlier version of this story misspelled Degollado's name.

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