Another Christ or Another Joe?
The Priest Is Not His Own by Fulton Sheen
Ignatius Press, 2005
reviewed by Robert Hart
Sometimes the timing of a message is as prophetic as the message itself. Writing about the priesthood in 1963 in a book that will be of value to pastors in every church, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote: “We become significant to our fellow men not by being a ‘regular guy’, but by being ‘another Christ’. . . . Popularity is not necessarily influence.” Soon after, many clergy sought to be nothing more than a “regular guy,” trying to make church more comfortable and inviting by diminishing the authority and separateness of their role.
Sheen explains that role by reminding the reader that Christ was both Priest and Victim, and that it is not only in the sacrificial ministry at the altar (in Catholic terms), but also in the personal life of sacrifice, that Christ’s pastors must follow him; not only in preaching the Cross, but also in taking it up every day. In this light, the desire to be a “regular guy” can be seen for what it is: a desire to be popular and safe, to avoid the suffering and death of Christ, to live for oneself instead of living for God and the sinful men who need salvation.
Sheen calls the priest to live the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and to live it in such a way that people will feel that they have been with “‘another Christ’ and not merely ‘another Joe’.” In his words:
Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that he was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the Priest a Victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood, if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of his Incarnation.Sheen makes it clear that priests have a special responsibility to live a holy life in order to serve God truly and to be an example for the laity, not to limit the growth in holiness of the laity, but to increase it. When the people look down on the clergy as being less holy in their manner of life, it is an unhealthy situation for everyone, harming not only the life but also the power of the Church.
The priest who is, by God’s grace, seeking to live up to the call to holiness (as an example to all Christians) “crushes his ego and its desires, so that in him there are two natures in one person: on the one hand, his human nature; on the other, his ‘participation in the Divine Nature’ through grace and the losing of his human personality in the Person of Christ.”
As idealistic as this may sound, it comes with very practical advice, such as: “How much more our words would burn as we preach . . . if, before preaching, we prayed for five minutes to the Holy Spirit for Pentecostal fire; if we kept the scriptures ever near us, that we might gird ourselves with their truth when mounting the pulpit.”
The book is uncompromising in its pure and traditional Roman Catholicism, but (speaking as an Anglican) this is one of its strengths. We see in it the kind of clarity so often lacking in the works of the last few decades, even by Catholics for Catholics.
One can imagine the fictional character played by Ward Bond in John Ford’s The Quiet Man nodding his head in approval. Remember the authority that priest had in the Irish village, walking into a saloon and ordering Victor McLaughlin, “You’ll take the man’s hand, or I’ll read your name in the Mass on Sunday.” Would a character with that much authority ring true in a movie made in the seventies, or the eighties, or now?
The Priest Is Not His Own should have a useful message to every man who has entered ordained ministry in whatever body. For every pastor has something to gain from being willing to take up his cross, and follow the Lord to Calvary; that something may be the redeemed souls of those who not only have heard his preaching, but have also seen his message in the life he lives.
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“Another Christ or Another Joe?” first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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