July 19, 2024

By Father Darin Schmidt

I often meet people who are unfamiliar with—or even surprised by—the term secular priest. It’s another name for a diocesan priest, as distinguished from religious priests who are part of a religious order. Secular and secularization often have negative connotations today, when referring to the tendency of societies at large, drifting away from God or even belief in God towards greater worldliness, materialism and practical atheism. 

The word secular comes from the Latin word for “age, era or world,” so it can have those negative or anti-religious meanings, but when used to refer to a secular priest, it’s simply an acknowledgment that priests who are not monks or part of a religious order are often more involved in the things of this passing world.

Some degree of worldly wisdom is necessary for priests or for anyone living and working in the world. You wouldn’t want someone in charge of balancing a parish’s budget to know nothing at all about finances. Stewards of God’s gifts and of the resources of God’s people can’t just bury them in the ground and refuse to have any dealings on a practical level. “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10:16).

We also see Jesus use his own knowledge of worldly things and events to communicate profound truths in his parables and to connect his teachings with objects and images his listeners encountered every day. Wheat and weeds, sheep and goats, coins and fish, birds and flowers, bread and water, weddings and feasts could all be reminders and gateways into understanding the mysteries he communicated to them.

In a similar way, priests are called to be in the world but not of the world (cf. Jn 17:13-16). We must have enough worldly wisdom—or be able to find and work with those who do—to be good stewards of the gifts entrusted to our parishes. We need to be conversant in the events, joys, struggles and interests of parishioners to grow in mutual understanding and trust with them, and to connect the truths of the Gospel with things from everyday life, as an aid to understanding and more frequent reminders to turn to God in prayer.

As with anything, a proper balance is key. A priest who spends all his time pouring over the eternal truths contained in Scripture will have difficulty communicating those truths to others if he doesn’t know anything about the world around him today. Likewise, a priest who spends all his time with a constant feed of news and sports and pop songs will not be well-equipped to help anyone taste the timelessness of God and his wisdom for our lives. 

Just as there are sins of gluttony with respect to the types and amount of food and drink we consume, so there can also be a type of gluttony when it comes to the types and amount of media we take in through our eyes and ears. How does the amount of time I devote to passing things—news media, sports, entertainment, secular topics—compare to the time I spend in prayer, in study of the Scriptures and the writings of the saints, in consideration of things that are eternal? Is this ratio, whatever it is, serving me well to be an effective instrument of God’s truth and mercy to the people around me? If not, what needs to change?

Striving for proper balance, with one foot in time and the other in eternity, is a challenge for priests and for everyone throughout the course of life. We need to re-evaluate how we’re doing on a regular basis. This is especially important for priests because of our vocation to serve as a type of bridge for others between this passing world and the life of the world to come, but all of us are meant to live forever, “For even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures” (Post Communion of the First Sunday of Advent).

May God grant all of us to use well the things of earth so as to attain the treasures of heaven.

 Father Darin Schmidt is parochial vicar of Pastorate 14.