Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Reflections on priesthood in the year dedicated to priests.

The aim of this special year dedicated to priests was given by Pope Benedict XVI when he spoke to the Congregation for the Clergy on 16 March 2009. He said: “ encourage priests in (the) striving for spiritual perfection on which, above all, the effectiveness of their ministry depends...”

There seems to be a crisis of identity among priests. This special year will enable priests and people to recapture something of the beauty of the priesthood and its importance.

I was surprised by the joyful duty that befell me last June to preach at a first Mass. The ordination of Fr Dimitry by Cardinal Schönborn OP took place in the cathedral church of Vienna on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the opening of the Year of Priests. His first Mass was celebrated the following day in Sankt Andreas, the chapel at the Palace of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna. This gave me scope to reflect about the nature of Priesthood and the result of which, which I preached on that memorable occasion, can be found in the June 2009 archive of this blog.
Since then those words kept echoing inside me and the reflection of these past five months I am committing in this post. I share this in the hope that they would be helpful to brother priests and for the laity as they support us by their prayers and in their relationships with us.

It is meaningful that the opening and closing day of this year take place on the feast of the Sacred Heart, traditionally a day set apart for the sanctification of priests. It is in that heart that the priest can find his identity. Like the holy Cure` of Ars, whose sesquicentenary from his birth to heaven we celebrate, the priest needs to learn how to depend entirely on the treasures of grace that are only found in that heart. This is the spirituality of the priest: complete dependence on the love of Christ and total consecration towards this love made man.

Christ is faithful, in him there was no compromise; his response to the Father was always an open and obedient one. Like him the priest cannot compromise his life of prayer and intimacy with Christ, he cannot compromise in his faithfulness to the Church: the bride of Christ.
Faithfulness towards the Church is manifest above all in preaching. However the priest does well to remember that preaching is not merely the imparting of words; that is just like the tip of an iceberg. The speaking of words has to be supported by a much bigger time of silence, silence that is nourished by listening attentively. We as priests need to recapture the spiritual discipline of “being” which subsequently leads to “doing”. It is to our gravest peril if we reverse the order of these two verbs. We cannot give what we do not have, and we have what we receive in silent, attentive listening. Here comes to mind the Dominican motto: “Contemplari, et contemplate aliis trader.” (We contemplate, and what we contemplate we pass on to others.) Contemplation is that mystic moment when we are caught up in the eternal moment of the laying on of hands – the moment in which we are caught by Christ (Philippians 3:12) and become completely one with him.
A priest who does not fully grasp this reality of being caught up with and in Christ cannot understand himself and others cannot understand him.

Calling us, Jesus looked at us with great love (Mk10:21). Our response is a response and a total embrace of such love, this reciprocal love is what I understand by Christ’s faithfulness to us, and our faithfulness to him.
This mutual faithfulness is the being of the priesthood. Living this being joyfully leads us to the doing of the priesthood; faithfulness is the interior life which makes possible and energises the exterior life of the priest. This exterior life can be divided into four parts.

I. The priest is the one who offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and administers the sacraments. The priest stands at the altar instead of Christ; in fact it is Christ who celebrates as all priests have a share in his one priesthood. The inner communion with Christ enables the priest to stand with integrity at the altar: the threshold of heaven; and as Aquinas says: “Missa melioris sacerdotis magis est fructuosa.” (S.Th. IIIa, q.82, a.6) The Mass of the better priest is the more fruitful.

II. The priest is the ascetic who through his consecration (his intimacy and oneness in Christ) continues the mission of the Word here on earth, and this mission is essentially one of adoration and redemption. This insight which originates in the 17th century French School (especially Charles de Condern 1588-1641 ) puts forward the priest as man of God showing the essential intimacy with Christ as the essence of the spirituality of the priesthood.

III. The priest is sign. He is the sign of Christ the head of the Church for the service of the Church. This proposition that originates with Karl Rahner shows that the priest represents Christ the Head of the Church in the service of the People of God. Intimacy with Christ (the being of the priest) enables this ministry of being sign to evolve and mature within the priest. Christ is the bridegroom of the Church who is the bride. The imagery of bridegroom and bride is completely destroyed by admitting women to Holy Orders.

IV. The Priest is Mediator between God and man precisely because he is captured by Christ and through the ontological change of ordination becomes “alter Christus”. This mediation is twofold; it is both ascending and descending. Ascending in the sense of bringing to God the prayers and aspirations of the people; descending as it brings Divine Grace to the people of God. This is supported by Scripture, Reason and Tradition as it includes the three gifts of Christ as Shepherd, Prophet and Priest through the proclamation of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and the service in generous love. This is how the priest participates in full in the ministry of Christ. This does not exclude the truth of Christ as unique mediator but complements it as the priest and people share in the unique mediation of Christ.

Therefore, the question is what are the basic aspects of the inner life of the priest? The answer is fivefold:

a) The ascending spiritual discipline of the priest brings to the fore the contemplative dimension of the priests life. Yves Congar OP says that mental prayer must be the oxygen of the priest. Cardinal Basil Hume OSB teaches that the priest can never be at ease in the world of apostolate if he is not at ease in the desert, the place of his contemplative prayer. Archbishop Michael Ramsey explains that the priest is teacher, minister of reconciliation, man of prayer and Eucharistic being. Without the last two the first cannot happen. All Christians are called to pray but for the priest this is utmost, that is what people know too and that is why they come to us asking for our prayers.

b) The descending spiritual discipline of the priest underlines his ministerial role. Priests, like and in and with Christ, serve in love and joy the people bought by such high price on Good Friday. The Priest must defend the widow and orphan, defend life and fight injustice and ignorance, and he can only do this when he is on his knees washing feet.

c) The above two aspects remind us of two virtues that alas are not popular today: generosity and humility. The priest’s life is a constant battle against mediocrity and pride. I can do all things (generosity) in him who strengthens me (humility). (Philippians 4:13) Being humble is being dependant totally on Christ accepting the will of the Father so that “Christ lives in me”. Pride drives one to be self-sufficient in the sense of not needing God and living in his light, this is the sin of Adam and Eve. The priest always ponders that the road to Joy is the road of Humility, with all his trust on God – in the Domini speravi non confundar in aeternum.

d) The responsibility of priests is great. People have the right to expect to see in us a genuine model of faith, prayer, humility and love. This is indeed a heavy but joyful expectation; it is like the silent expectation that bridged the question of the archangel to the answer of the Blessed Virgin. It is the expectation which brought Jesus to the dark Gethsemane and bridged the question of the comforting angels with his response that was the point where resurrection became tangible. It is the expectation of accepting limitations with that humility that makes all things possible through the generosity of God.

e) The Lord has called us to capture us in his love as we embrace his love with our total self-emptying. The priest is consecrated and becomes Christ in both the ascending and descending qualities mentioned above. Consecration and mission are inter-dependent. Our mission is always in the name of Christ. Our life needs to totally reflect that of Christ who came to fulfil the will of the Father; to serve and not to be served and to give his own life for his flock.

So the priest is the mystery of Incarnation at work and present in the here and now. The first and essential phase of Incarnation happened in the silence of the womb of the Virgin Mary. Running to her and learning from her silence is the route that leads to Christ.

This is the priest no more and no less. With what joy and fear do we answer this call!

I was not intending to publish these, but I am doing so today to thank Fr Dimitry who through his kind and generous invitation to preach for his first Mass enabled me to put these thoughts on paper and has enriched my inner life as priest no end. Tomorrow he visits Sevenoaks for a week. To him I dedicate these thoughts in friendship and love.

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