In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II established an exception in the discipline of the Church regarding married men serving as priests. Although a priest is never free to marry, a man who is already married may, under certain conditions, be made a priest. Roughly speaking, the conditions are that a man has been born into a non-Catholic ecclesial tradition, had been ordained a pastor in the Anglican tradition, and converted to the Catholic faith. In the Church’s generosity and mercy, these men may be considered for ordination to the priesthood. This is, and will remain, an exception, for the celibate priesthood is a sign of the mystical reality of God and Man made one flesh. Priests are heroes who are quite literally grasping heaven and dragging it into the present day. To lose this in the name of cultural relevance, a misunderstanding of the joy of the celibate vocation, or misguided notions of equality would be a great disaster. In any event, I am glad that a small exception is made, for I fit it and am endeavoring to walk through that narrow door.
In order to be sure there are no lingering oddities from my prior theological education (Good luck. It would be safer to pry open Pandora’s Box), I am required to pass a general exam. I am currently in the midst of it, and to this end, I have been re-learning old lessons and studiously applying myself to new ones (readers of good will, please pray for me!).
This is all a terribly rambling prelude to beg prayers but also to mention that during my studies I have been reading about and contemplating the events leading up to a far more powerful man than I begging for a far greater mercy.
It is a snowy day in the northern Italian town of Canossa. The Emperor on his knees begging forgiveness is surely serious, for he has also removed his shoes. For years now, he has followed the practice of lay investiture, the common feudal abuse of a monarch “investing” the bishops in his land as his subjects, often through the gift of a royal ring. Well, the ring is not so much a gift, actually, as it is an obligation. The jewelry is bought with the price of a vow of eternal loyalty to the State. The bishops have access to land and income and the Emperor demands his share. This is no sin, thinks the Emperor, after all this is how the medieval world goes round. Not a bad system, really, unless you happen to consider the Church to be of more import than the State. In the case of investing a bishop it erodes the freedom of the Church and subjects it to the State. The monarch wants his own chosen men holding the episcopal sees and is willing to usurp the Holy Father to make it so. Perhaps the Emperor is confused about he ended up kneeling in the snow for a crime he does not consider a crime at all.
Pope Gregory VII, in a previous life the fiery monk, Hildebrand, has brought the issue to a crisis when in the year 1076 he excommunicates Emperor Henry IV for appointing his own bishops and usurping the Church’s authority in the realm of Holy Orders. If the threat of eternal damnation isn’t enough to change Henry’s mind, the revolt of his nobles certainly is. The Empire begins slipping out of his hands.
Henry travels to Canossa where he intercepts the Pope on his way north. He waits shoeless and clad with hairshirt in the snow for three days, begging for reconciliation with the Church. Based on his later actions, we can guess that his unstated, primary motivation is to return to Germany with the blessing of the Church and reassert his power through violence. Perhaps he also wants forgiveness and eternal life, who knows? We know that he asks for the latter. We can also guess that Pope Gregory suspects the former, thus the waiting in the snow for three days.
It seems to me that we misread these events if we consider them merely a matter of pride between two great men. Gregory is first of all a bishop in Christ’s Catholic Church. He is duty bound to absolve any penitent who requests it, for Our Lord always forgives with no conditions. Gregory stays inside and hopes that Henry will get cold and go away. He does not want to meet this man because to do so will be have his own faith wielded against him as a weapon. This is clear from what follows.
Eventually Gregory relents, absolves Henry of his sins, and restores him to full communion in the Body of Christ. Henry returns to Germany, regains control of the Empire and returns to his previous abuses. Eventually he turns on his confessor and appoints an anti-pope, attacks Rome, and Gregory VII flees into exile. The Pope of the Catholic Church dies outside of Rome. He is personally ruined (not without having made his own series of mistakes as well). As he lies on his deathbed, does he have any regrets about having absolved the Emperor years before?
What really interests me, and the reason I am rehearsing all of this, is the price of forgiveness. For Gregory VII, forgiving another is not free. It requires that he personally sacrifice on behalf of another. Most people do not consider priests to be formidable, they are thought of as gentle and weak and harmless. Henry does not take Gregory seriously. He knows that he can manipulate the compassion of the Church against him. But does it ever occur to anyone how much it costs a priest to hear a confession? The sheer weight of the sins of an entire parish thrust upon him? Many priests I know do not sit idly in the confessional while waiting for the next customer, or simply head over to the rectory to watch television afterwards. Many penitents are surprised at how light their penance is, perhaps they ought to know, not that the priest would tell them, that the priest shares the penance with them. While they wait in the confessional or before they turn the lights off in the sanctuary, they offer a bit of themselves in exchange for their parishioners.
GK Chesterton’s Father Brown explains his ability to solve murders. “You see,” says the priest, “It was I who killed those people.” He has virtually experienced every sin that man commits in the confessional. He knows sin. In “The Chief Mourner of Marne,” Father Brown encounters a group who wish to succor their friend, who has been in mourning ever since he killed a man in a duel. Ever since, he has been in voluntary confinement in his country castle. It is high time to put past sins aside and be merry, and his friends intend to help him do so. Father Brown has anticipated them, however, meets them at the gate of the castle, and advises them to leave.
“Trust a priest to have to do with a private occasion,” snarled Sir John Cockspur. “Don’t you know they live behind the scenes like rats behind a wainscot burrowing their way into everybody’s private rooms.”
The party accuses the priest of lacking charity for refusing to assist the pardoned man out of his depression. Suddenly, in a narrative shift, the truth is made known: Upon finding that their friend is not merely a mourner or the victor of a duel but a cold-blooded murderer, the attitude quickly shifts to condemnation. A lynching is proposed. Then the most damning condemnation comes in all its simple modesty, “There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions…You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”
“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”
“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it…We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”
The priest must forgive every single sin that is brought to him, even if the confessor is an Emperor who will leverage his forgiveness into personal revenge. Perhaps we ought to take priests very seriously, indeed. Their gentleness comes at a great, hidden cost.
This is the heroism of the imitation of Christ. Our Lord forgives the very men who kill him. St. Stephen the Protomartyr does the same. So many times I have pictured the scene at the Cross and felt contempt for those people who placed Our Lord there. As if their sins are any worse than mine. It pains me very much when I realize that my more commonplace, socially acceptable sins help pin him to his death. I may as well hold the nail in place while it is hammered in. Along with Father Brown, we may very well look to the Cross and say, “It was I who killed this man.”
Perhaps we do not take priests seriously because we do not take our sins seriously. Our forgiveness is offered to us freely, yes, but let us not forget that a man died that it might be so. Our Lord may be as innocent as a lamb, but he is not weak.
I will remove my shoes and walk to Canossa. May the frost seep into my bones and blood and freeze me from the inside out so that the hidden cost exacted by sin is exposed. Let us make our way to Canossa, bow low, and beg mercy, knowing full well that forgiveness comes only with great suffering. This is not a reason to avoid asking. Rather, it is a reminder that the God to whom we offer penitence is not to be rebelled against later when we feel pride again run like ice through our veins, that Our Lord suffers more than we could ever imagine and the forgiveness he offers is all the more a sign of his love. He will suffer again and again not only for the murderers but also for my simple, conventional sins. It is all the more reason to love him in return.