A priest in a village in the Middle Rhine is walking along a lane, perhaps on his way back to the rectory after hearing confessions in the church. Several children see him approaching and come to greet him, give him a small gift and receive his blessing. Their faces, open and fresh, express their pleasure to meet him; at the same time, on the physiognomies of these innocent lambs one finds deep admiration and respect, almost veneration, for their pastor.
The children are hanging on his every word. They seem to want to learn from him and to put into practice whatever he will teach them on this particular day. Their eyes reveal a complete trust in their pastor. They want to touch his hand, as if they might thereby absorb some of the goodness and venerability of the Church that he represents. We are reminded of the woman in the Gospel who knew she could be cured by simply touching the hem of Our Lord’s garment. Even the baby is attracted to the priest and tries to touch his hand.
The artist, Jakob Furchtegott Dielmann, was a popular German artist of the mid-19th century well known for his paintings of this genre of village life. He liked to depict the little people in their typical traditional dress and engaged in the activities of daily life. He titled this charming painting The Children’s Greeting.
Let us look a little more deeply into this amiable scene. Everything in it reveals the good customs and hierarchical values of a society still imbued with the Catholic spirit. The priest's features reveal him to be one of the people, but clearly he is elevated by his priestly dignity, reflected in his garb. We can imagine his rich lace surplice was crafted for him by the ladies of the parish or the nuns in a nearby convent, disclosing that this particular art had penetrated the ranks of a village people. His tasseled mozetta and stole add a note of refinement that clearly ennobles the man.
His serious bearing and attitude also reflect the respect he has for himself and the dignity of the priestly office. Contrary to a tendency quite common in today’s American clergy, he is not attempting to befriend the children but, rather, to guide them on the correct pathway to Heaven. There is a distance between him and the children, of which they are all aware. Even though he is the pastor of a small village church, this priest exudes the dignity that should be a part of the universal priesthood.
Looking at him, we recall this counsel of St. Pius X to priests: “The priest must always have that gravity that will ensure that his words, his bearing and his way of working arouse love, win authority and excite reverence. For, the very reasons that oblige him to be holy make it a duty for him to show it by his outward acts in order to edify all those with whom he is obliged to come into contact.
"A composed and dignified exterior is a powerful eloquence that wins souls in a much more efficacious manner than persuasive sermons. Nothing inspires greater confidence than an ecclesiastic who, never forgetting the dignity of his state, demonstrates in every situation that gravity which attracts and wins universal homage.” (1)
We also find a lesson for our days in the attire and attitudes of the children. We realize that their simple but charming dress is their daily wear, not their Sunday best. But, compared to the daily garb of the modern child, how civilized and expressive they are! The apron, kerchief and cap of the eldest girl are a small rendition of the dress of her mother – or that of the two girls talking at the well in the background. She wears it easily, conscious of her own modest dignity and responsibilities. It is an age when youth were eager to copy the dress and customs of adults, and not vice versa as unfortunately we see today.
How refreshing to see the interaction of these children with their spiritual father! How different they are from children today who are enslaved by cell phones, television, computers, and game boxes! Without having any of these gadgets, the children in the painting are, however, much freer to communicate with and learn from Our Lord's representative in their small town. We see that if today’s youth were unencumbered by all these technological devices and if they had a better clergy to admire, their road to salvation would be a straighter path.
By way of contrast, here is another photo. This one portrays a modern priest, who poses with a group of youth from his parish. They are on the steps of the stripped altar of a Vatican II church, gathering in a WYD atmosphere.
Immodest youth showing their feet as the prosaic symbol of a new society
that is being implanted under the lead of the Conciliar Church
Like the priest of the first picture who is wearing his cassock, surplice and stole, this one is also wearing vestments, showing that he just said a Mass or is preparing to say one. Instead of the gravity proper to one who renews the sacrifice of the Calvary, this priest, disregarding his dignity, imagines he can attract the youth by being their “buddy.”
The boys and girls grouped around him are dressed immodestly, unembarrassed to show their bare feet to the camera, as if to prove that they are completely “liberated” from any social protocol.
Instead of reprimanding them for their completely inappropriate dress and postures, particulary when inside of a church and before the altar, the priest joins them, removing his shoes and laughing along with them at their foolish antics.
Again, we recall the words of St. Pius X who warns the priest that if he forgets the holiness of the sacred character that is indelibly impressed on his soul and fails to show in his outward conduct a superior gravity and dignity, then he causes his ministry and religion itself to be despised. For, he cautions, “when gravity is wanting in the Church’s leaders, the people lose respect and veneration for them.” (2)
One thing of which we are certain: Our village priest in the first picture could never have imagined that, a century later, a priest could be reduced to such a clownish figure as the one in the second picture.
1. Recipe for Holiness: St. Pius X and the Priest, Lumen Christi Press, Houston: 1970, pp.81-82
Posted July 23, 2012