By Mark Michael
You’ve probably seen “your pastor before and after coronavirus” memes on your Facebook feed. Over the course of a year, wrinkles sprout and wild hair proliferates, or cuddly Grogu morphs into a wearied ancient Yoda.
We’re all tired, saddened, and anxious for the future, some more than others. As with so many other effects of the pandemic, clerical agonies have not been equitably distributed. Some priests have died of the Coronavirus, others continue to suffer from its long-haul form or bear the guilt of having passed it to others. Some have lost their jobs or struggled to stay on top of repeated leadership crises and expanded pastoral care duties. We’ve all had to learn new things and we’ve all made mistakes and shouldered the burden of decision-making in the face of conflicting advice.
Crises bring out the best and the worst in all of us. Sometimes when we least expect it, we find God using them to define the course of our allotted task, laying down unmistakably the particular cross he summons us to bear.
It’s worth remembering that the clergy have been here before. For nearly two millennia, they have tended the flock as plagues raged and floodwaters rose, as fiery arrows whizzed through the air and bombs fell from the sky. There’s a long tradition of clerical crisis memoirs. Most tell a familiar story: a few moments of heroic glory, some tragic errors, and mostly trying to keep it together in the face of monotony, with God’s help.
Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1973 novel, The Kappillan of Malta, presents a moving example of the genre. It’s set during the island’s 1940-42 siege by the Luftwaffe, when Malta became the most bombed place in human history. It’s told from the perspective of Salvatore Santo-Nobile, a Roman Catholic priest known to his people as “Dun Salv.”
The son of a British ship captain and the heiress of one of the island’s ancient noble families, Dun Salv combines florid Mediterranean piety (and a first-rate relic collection) with an Anglican-style pastoral pragmatism (and a taste for Victorian hymns). He relinquished the privileges of his name to become a humble parish priest, though he dutifully attends his aged mother, the baroness, for ceremonial coffees at the family’s tumbledown palazzo. Dun Salv is a thoroughly good man, conscientious and self-giving: a rarity in modern clerical fiction.
When the first German bombing raid reduces his nearly completed parish church to rubble, Dun Salv follows his homeless flock into a series of catacombs beneath the Cottonera Lines, a series of Baroque-era fortifications. He sets up his traveling altar in the midst of the chaos, and for two years tries his best to keep order as hundreds of people and their domestic animals eat, sleep, argue, fall in love, and die around him. Dun Salv tends the wounded, secures morsels for the hungry from shortage-strapped shopkeepers, and relates the island’s long history of heroic fortitude in a series of narrative homilies.
The Kappillan of Malta is emphatically not a tale of social distancing. But human drama being what it is, there are plenty of striking parallels to our times. Conspiracy theories run wild in the desperate city, and the best of souls, like Dun Salv’s earnest sacristan, Nero, suffer most severely. When supplies run perilously short, some are greedy and treacherous, while others are breathtakingly generous. There’s a quick-blossoming romance, as Dun Salv’s pretty niece falls for a dashing British airman. The priest’s shifty brother-in-law becomes an outright Fascist traitor, a grotesque parody of his worst features.
In the end, Dun Salv is done in by a punctilious brown-noser, Monsignor Scholti, who reports him for violating social gathering restrictions for public worship. It’s nothing to do with six-feet distances of course; the exhausted Dun Salv had forgotten to obtain a dispensation of place for his sacristan’s wedding in the catacombs. But more than a few priests worry these days about legal niceties getting in the way of pastoral care — and who might get wind of what couldn’t not be done, and email the bishop.
Dun Salv, too, has his bout of crisis Anfechtung, when he slips out of his penalty box at a remote monastery, worn down almost to the point of forsaking his faith and his vocation. He’s tempted to seduce Maddalena, a peasant woman who takes him in. She recoils from his touch. “You poor man” is all she needs to say.
He flees, and speeds back to Valletta. “Robbed of honor, a cripple of the faith, he must return to his sole service, even if only for a short while,” Dun Salv resolves. “‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.’ He prayed with all his might that it would prove so.” And it does, in a series of gripping plot twists amid the island’s deliverance. If only we could swap a haphazard vaccine rollout for the arrival of the Royal Navy’s Italian fleet to mark our hour of triumph.
Those who answer Christ’s call to feed his sheep are called to a particular kind of conformity with his suffering people. St. Paul admits to “daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28), and likens his concern for the Galatians to the pains of a woman in labor (Gal. 4:19).
There may be room here for some sort of “self-care,” as we say, but we should think more deeply about what this concept comes to. Would St. Paul have been a better priest for participating in a diocesan Zoom mindfulness program? How would one “set clear boundaries” in a catacomb full of homeless refugees?
To take up the care of souls is to give oneself to suffer alongside them — bearing burdens together, and returning exhausted to the altar, to find there once more the God of our joy and gladness. The priesthood is not a calling for heroes or cowards, but for ordinary men and women who give themselves over to God, trusting that he will renew their strength, building up and making complete all that is truly needed (cf. Col. 1:24).
Father Al Zadig, who participates in the lectionary text study hosted by The Living Word, regularly says that he’s never known a better time to be a priest. Father Al is 90, and this year he celebrates the 60th anniversary of his ordination. He doesn’t mean that it’s an easy time to be a priest, or even a necessarily rewarding one, at least not in this life. But this is a time when the gospel speaks with directness and power, when sacramental commerce in things ultimate and transcendent is profoundly needed.
Let us imitate our Master in his weariness and pain, trusting that all good and enduring things can only be built from such labor.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland.