Catholic Corner

by Rev. Chris J. Walsh
Pope John Paul II and the 'Law of the Gift' - The parish priest walks with his people

I have always enjoyed listening to stories of priestly life from an earlier age. I recall my older pastor, Monsignor Thomas Henahan, recounting how in the thirties there were enough active young priests in the Bridgeport area to field a baseball team that played in a league every Sunday afternoon down at Seaside Park. A Jesuit teacher reminisced to me once how in the forties and fifties, a full eight percent of the graduating class of Boston College High School would on average enter the minor seminary or the novitiate: 15-20 priestly vocations a year.

Even Hollywood found the figure of the Catholic priest appealing in the thirties. Whether it was Spencer Tracy straightening out touch adolescents in Boy's Town, Karl Madden fighting corrupt union bosses in On the Waterfront, or Bing Crosby deftly solving all the problems of his parish in Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary's, the character of the priest inspired admiration and emulation.

Today the Catholic priest population in the United States is smaller and aging. Older, less active priests, many carrying large administrative loads, have less interaction with young people who might have a religious vocation. Moreover, some priests give the impression, sadly, through constantly activated answering machines, cadres of lay assistants, and a penchant for doffing their clerics whenever they go out "in public", of wanting to insulate themselves from personal contact with their people as much as possible.

It is not unusual, then, for young men attracted to a priestly vocation these days to be surprisingly naive in their perceptions of the identity and work of a parish priest. Some tend to idealize the priest as a solitary, isolated, radically counter-cultural figure in society, one who disdains what most people desire and challenges what most people believe. While I understand the factors that lead to this perception, I do not find it to be a helpful image of the role of the parish priest. Nor, incidentally, does it reflect the model of priesthood that induced so many American young men to enter the seminary in the forties and fifties.

George Weigel's masterful new biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope (Harper Collins, 1999), offers a different ideal of priesthood, one drawn from the life of Karol Wojtyla - himself a vocation from the forties. Both as a young layman and then as a priest, the future pope always valued the specialness of the priesthood as a calling "set apart"; but this never led him to distance himself, physically or emotionally, from involvement in the lives of ordinary people, the contemporary culture, and society at large.

While pursuing his seminary studies clandestinely in wartime Poland, for example, he worked side by side with manual laborers in a quarry and a chemical factory, where he developed a great respect for the dignity and decency of the life of the common worker. As a popular young chaplain for university students in Krakow, he enjoyed accompanying them every summer on kayaking and camping trips; in later years he would marry many of these former students, baptize their children, and remain and integral part of their families, where he was affectionately known as "wujek" ("uncle").

As archbishop of Krakow, he regularly invited groups of scholars from various disciplines and ideological viewpoints - physicists, philosophers, historians, engineers, and artists, to join him at his episcopal residence for extended intellectual discussions, a practice which he continued as pope with the scholarly conferences he held each summer at Castelgondolfo.

For Pope John Paul, the fundamental principle that explains the priestly vocation is the "Law of the Gift"; it is only by giving ourselves completely to other persons in love and service that we find our own personal fulfillment. It is only by working for the freedom of others that we find freedom ourselves. This "Law of the Gift" does not apply simply to religious vocations or even just to every Christian vocation - thought it is certainly confirmed by the Gospel admonition that "whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 16, 25). Rather, it reflects the basic moral structure of the human person as created by God.

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