My dear brothers and sister in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ who sent his Holy Spirit to fill us with his grace. This year, Pope Benedict asked all the faithful to pray for priests. As a priest, I really haven’t done much about this. I’ve felt encouraged by people who tell me that they are praying for me and thinking about me. And, as a priest, I can be honest enough to admit that it is always a joy to come here and celebrate with you because so many of you are complimentary of me and my ministry. Nonetheless, I have struggled to preach about the year of the priest because it seems like it would, in some ways, only affect me. Yet, in the past week, I’ve been paying close attention to the unfolding events in Europe regarding clergy sexual abuse. It’s been very interesting to find that our older brother in the faith is just now dealing with the same problems that we started dealing with eight years ago. In this light, I think it’s important to preach about priests on this Holy Thursday, this day that is considered the Institution of the Priesthood.
When the Pope asked us to reflect on priests, he told us to do so through the lens of St. John Vianney so I looked up what he taught on the matter. I found a really great passage from his writing entitled Catechetical Instruction. The Saint says, “(Holy Orders) raises man up to God. What is a priest! A man who holds the place of God - a man who is invested with all the powers of God. "Go, " said Our Lord to the priest; "as My Father sent Me, I send you. All power has been given Me in Heaven and on earth. Go then, teach all nations. . . . He who listens to you, listens to Me; he who despises you despises Me. " When the priest remits sins, he does not say, "God pardons you"; he says, "I absolve you. " At the Consecration, he does not say, "This is the Body of Our Lord;" he says, "This is My Body.”
This is an interesting point about being a priest: We don’t speak on behalf of ourselves. We speak on behalf of God. For me, this has two ramifications: it means that priests need to be cautious about what we say because people will take it as authoritative. And, I ask for your prayers for the priests who have decided to misstate church teaching because it better suits their disposition or beliefs. We should not do that. St. John Vianney says that we must be willing to speak the truth of the gospel even if it means receiving the contempt of the people and, as he says, being shot upon leaving the pulpit.
The other reality is that the priest must be the leader and model in holiness. St. John Vianney says it in the negative, “Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts. If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, "What can we do in this church? there is no Mass; Our Lord is no longer there: we may as well pray at home." When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion.” In other words, the priest reminds people of God’s presence and makes God present. One of my favorite things to do as a priest is to wear my clerical clothes to things like sporting events, plays, and even a bar or two. The priest should be a reminder that God doesn’t just want us for an hour each week but wants to be in relationship with us in all aspects of our life. Since the Second Vatican Council, I’ve think this aspect of priesthood has been on the decline. Many of my brother priests say that the document on the church said that not only the priests should be holy but that all the people should be holy. And, while I agree with them on this point, it did say that we are all to be HOLY, not that we are allowed to be as unholy as we think our people are being. We are to model holiness for our people so that they will likewise want to be holy.
As a priest, I have to admit that I’m not perfect about this. I give in far too often to secular concerns and find it way too easy to allow my tongue to slip towards unkind speech. In this year of the priest, perhaps what we priests need most is for our lay people to remind us of your need for us to model God’s love and mercy. Remind us that you don’t need an entertainer or a best friend, you need someone to bring the grace of Christ into your life in the sacraments. Continue to support and love us but also call us to be the image of the Father that you want us to be.