Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
What is a Priest?
(by Catherine Doherty)
A priest is a lover of God.
A priest is a lover of men.
A priest is a holy man.
A priest understands all things.
A priest forgives all things.
A priest encompasses all things.
The heart of a priest is pierced, like Christ's, with the lance of love.
The heart of a priest is open, like Christ's, for the whole world to walk through.
The heart of a priest is a vessel of compassion.
The heart of a priest is a chalice of love.
The heart of a priest is the trysting place of human and divine love.
A priest is a man whose goal is to be another Christ; a priest is a man who lives to serve.
A priest is a man who has crucified himself so that he too may be lifted up and draw all things to Christ.
A priest is a man in love with God.
A priest is the gift of God to man and of man to God.
A priest is the symbol of the Word made flesh.
A priest is the naked sword of God's justice.
A priest is the hand of God's mercy.
A priest is the reflection of God's love.
Nothing can be greater in this world than a priest, nothing but God himself.
|At Madonna House's Retreat House for Priests|
In recent weeks I’ve experienced a number of things that have made me reflect much more on this question of ‘What is a priest?’ It began with the celebration of Christmas and my first experience of being the pastor of a parish in one of the most important feasts of the year. The ability to be part of so many lives and families was incredible and I can’t thank you all enough for the joy of this first of hopefully many Christmases here. Following that was Msgr. Berggreen’s 50th Anniversary Mass over in New Roads. The Church was full of people representing 50 years of his priestly ministry, barely an empty spot to stand. The following weekend we regrettably celebrated Fr. Clarence Waguespack’s funeral Mass in Pierre Part and there too encountered a church full of people present to give thanks to God for Fr. Waguespacks’ 51 years of priestly ministry. And this Saturday we celebrated the funeral Mass of our own Vicar General, Fr. Than Vu, who, though only 56 years of age, had a profound impact upon many souls. Once again, it was a church full of people with not an extra spot to stand. These events drove home to me the meaning and truth of the words of Catherine Doherty: “The heart of a priest is open, like Christ’s, for the whole world to walk through.”
In our baptism, each of us was anointing with Sacred Chrism Oil and were united to the mission of Jesus as priest, prophet, and king. Each of us is called to serve in a priestly manner by our prayers and sacrifice of self for the good of others. We serve as prophets by speaking the Word of God and teaching other about the faith. And we serve in a kingly manner by guiding others in the path of holiness, particularly those entrusted to our care as children, grandchildren, godchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. Every Christian must carry out these three aspects in some way, but the ordained priest is called to do so in a unique way, a way that is more intimately connected with the mission of Christ by virtue of the priest’s own consecration. He fulfills these obligations not simply as a member of the flock but as a shepherd.
The first reading shows us the prophetic office of the priest. The ancient prophets were understood to be direct mouthpieces of the Lord, which we see indicated by their frequent use of the phrase ‘Thus says the Lord’ and the explicit reference today of “whoever doesn’t listen to my words which he speaks…” [emphasis mine]. The priest, too, is called to be a mouthpiece of the Lord in his preaching, teaching, and guidance of the community, preaching not his own gospel but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the reason that priests’ preaching has power and authority and that it should be followed: precisely because it is not his personal teaching but the teaching of Jesus. And whoa to me if I do not preach the Gospel, as St. Paul says in his letter, because if you caught that last line of the reading, you know that if a priest preaches his own word instead of the Word of God… he dies. Maybe not physically but certainly spiritually. If I ever start preaching something other than the teaching of Jesus and the Church, you should call the bishop ASAP and let him know he has a dead priest on his hands and you need a new shepherd!
The Gospel speaks to us clearly of the authority that Jesus had (and still has!); how He cast out demons and they listened, unlike anything they had ever seen before. Jesus’ power was something to behold and that same power was given to His Apostles, His priests. Often times when we hear about power we think about it in a heavy-handed sort of way, but the authority that Christ gives His priests is one of service. The power and authority of Christ was given to the Apostles to work ‘in persona Christi capitis’ (in the person of Christ the head) in order to bring healing to people. In the celebration of the sacraments, a priest always wears a stole - an ancient sign of the authority – to show that he is acting in the person of Christ and that it is truly Christ Who works. In reconciliation it is Christ who absolves us. In baptism, it is Christ who cleanses us. In the anointing of the sick, it is Christ who anoints us. And when the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, it is Christ who says “This is My Body.” If you think about it, the priest doesn’t really get anything out of his actions of authority other than the ability to serve others and bring them into an encounter with the God of Creation.
|Litany of Supplication for my ordination|
The priestly piece comes in our second reading from the letter to the Corinthians. There it speaks of the unmarried man and woman being anxious only about the things of the Lord. A married man or woman is necessarily divided between their obligations to family and to the Lord. That’s not a bad thing at all; in fact, it’s the will of God! What parent would spend their day in prayer and neglect the needs of their family for food, medical care, or means for education? But this is the reason for the celibate vocation of the priest, as well as the religious brother or sister. I’ve often had people express a desire for priests to be able to marry and for many good reasons and not with any ill intentions, but the religious and priest is called to be free of marriage in order to give everything to Christ. When the bishop calls and assigned me here, I didn’t have to worry about my wife’s job or kids’ schooling. I was able simply to pack up and come. When the bishops sends a man for further studies in Rome for a couple of years, he need not be concerned with providing for a family left behind. And in the midst of regular life as a priest, I need not be concerned with providing for a single family as a married man would. Instead, I am called simply to give everything that I have to Jesus Christ and to open my heart to whoever happens to be in front of me in the moment and permit them to walk through my heart and there to find their Lord. My mission and the mission of every priest is simply to be the living presence of the loving Lord Jesus in their own community. Admittedly we fail often in that, but the mission is still entrusted to us the same.
This last word is what brings me to the point of this homily: a plea for prayer. Please pray for me and my brother priests. We need your prayers and without them we will surely be lost. All through my time in seminary I struggled to respond to the call to priestly ministry. It seemed every few weeks my spiritual director had to re-convince me that I was indeed still called. I had a whole host of concerns, but the biggest was the fear of loving others. I was watching one of those home renovation shows on HGTV the other day and the new homeowner walked into a home with carpet right in the front entryway and she remarked “Why would they have carpet here? It’s just going to get dirty when we come in!” And those words about simple carpet could well have applied to my heart. There was a fear that if I let the whole world walk into my heart with no reservation and no limits that it would surely get a bit messy. Every one of us who has ever taken the risk of loving someone else knows that sometimes that risk bites us when the one we love hurts us. I was scared and, honestly, still am at times, to open myself up to that sort of risk. And yet the Lord kept calling me to walk forward and open wide my heart. That is possible only with the help of prayers and I say the same for my brothers in the ministry. We are men of the Church. We are men for the Church. But we cannot be men without the Church. So I ask you to join me in a brief litany of saints to pray for priests throughout the world.
Good St. Joseph, pray for them.
St. Jean Vianney, pray for them.
St. Alphonsus Liguouri, pray for them.
St. Francis de Sales, pray for them.
St. Ann, pray for them.
St. Vincent de Paul, pray for them.
Mary, mother of priests, pray for them.