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Lent 2010

The Apostles and the Priesthood ~ Part 4

“Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent Him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please [God]’ (Heb 11:16)” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 161). We receive our faith from the teaching of the Apostles, which has been handed down to us through Scripture and sacred Tradition. Embracing the faith implies the dedication of our whole lives to the object of our faith, the Blessed Trinity. For “faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals Himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through His deeds and words” (CCC, 176). We place our faith not in formulas, but in the realities (truths) which they express (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. II-II, 1, 2 ad 2), that is, we place our faith in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in all the mysteries of His life, death and resurrection which has been handed down to us by the Apostles. It is through the faith of the Apostles, and of their successors, that we have faith today.

As we enter the last quarter of this Year for Priests, we want to continue our meditation on the first priests of the New Covenant, the Twelve Apostles, precisely under the aspect of faith. “Christ the Lord, in whom the entire revelation of the Most High God is summed up, commanded the Apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which He fulfilled in His own Person and promulgated with His own lips. In preaching the Gospel, they were to communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline” (Vat. II, Dei Verbum, 7). Yet in order to pass on the faith, the Apostles themselves first needed to accept this faith, they needed to acknowledge Jesus as the Incarnate Word, as the divine revelation of the Father, and commit their lives to Him. It is thanks to their faith that the Church believes today; it is this same faith which was preached by the Apostles that has been handed down to us. But, as said above, faith is not only an act of the intellect; rather, by the obedience of faith “man commits his whole self freely to God” (Vat. II, DV, 1, 5) by an act of the will, such that God becomes the center of our life, from whom and towards whom all our thoughts, words and actions are ordered.

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Thomas is most remembered not for his faith, but for his moment of doubt. Nevertheless, in reality St. Thomas left us a very profound witness to and lesson of faith in Christ, both before and after the Resurrection. When Jesus had decided to return to Jerusalem after Lazarus had died and at a time when His life was openly sought by the Jews, St. Thomas urged the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (Jn 11:16). St. Thomas understood the implications of His faith in Jesus, even before he had been strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit. He wanted to share in the life of Jesus, even in His supreme trial of death. Though he did not have the strength from the Spirit and fled with the other disciples from the Cross of Christ, nevertheless, St. Thomas already understood that Christian life, the life of faith, is a life with Jesus, a participation in the life of Jesus, “being in His Heart, and He in ours” (Pope Benedict XVI, Apostles, p. 102). For the priest, who is sacramentally identified with Christ through Holy Orders, this sharing in the life of Christ must be even more radical. “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on My account, because they do not know Him who sent Me” (Jn 15:18-21). Because he is so intimately united to Christ, the priest has the grace and ministry to bear witness to Christ, to the reality and moral consequences of faith in Jesus.

We are all familiar with St. Thomas’ reluctance to believe after the Resurrection: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). These words find an echo in modern imperialistic science, which accepts only that which can be perceived by the senses. Not only did Thomas doubt the promise of Jesus that He would rise again, but he also doubted the testimony of the college of Apostles. This was no minor transgression (though perhaps less grave, since the Apostles had not yet received the promised Spirit). The Apostles were the chosen witnesses of Christ, the primary mediators of His revelation, and we are bound by the obedience of faith to submit our understanding to their word and the word of their successors, the college of Bishops in union with the Pope. Many today, especially Catholic politicians, think they have a “right” to dissent from Church teaching and still call themselves Catholic. Unlike many of them who choose to ignore every admonishment from their Bishop, St. Thomas’ doubt was retracted, as Pope Benedict points out, “with the most splendid profession of faith in the whole of the New Testament: ‘My Lord and my God’” (Apostles, p. 103). And St. Augustine commenting says, “He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched; but by means of what he saw and touched, he now put far away from him every doubt, and believed the other” (On John, 121, 5).

Jesus, nevertheless, points out to St. Thomas a more perfect way: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). St. Thomas Aquinas comments, “Those who believe without seeing are more meritorious than those who, seeing, believe” (On John, 20, 6). For faith without proofs is greater than a faith which rests on human evidence. As St. Paul says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). If we have a mature faith, then we will cling to Jesus despite the opposition and difficulties that arise along our journey with Him, and despite all the darkness that may surround us. The priest, who must himself be firmly rooted in faith, mediates to us this strength by counseling and giving us the light of Jesus to live out our faith in the midst of these trying situations. The holy angels can also bring us light and strengthen our faith, that we may learn to persevere without “seeing” the outcome. St. Thomas certainly attained this maturity in faith to the highest degree in that, after having ministered in Syria and Persia, and in Western and Southern India, he bore the ultimate witness by sacrificing his life for the faith. May he intercede for the many thousands in India today who are suffering violent persecution for the sake of Christ, that they may not waver in their faith, but hold strong to the testimony of the first Apostle to India.

Saints Simon and Jude

Very little is known from the Gospels of Saints Simon and Jude. Simon, known as the “zealot”, was probably of the political party by that name, or at least passionately attached to his Jewish identity, that is, to God, his People and the divine law. In this, as Pope Benedict points out, he was very different from St. Matthew, the tax collector who had abandoned his Jewish roots for the sake of profit. We see here that Jesus chose His Apostles from all social classes and temperaments, and they had to get along with one another. The only thing that held them together was Jesus Himself. We see this in the priesthood today. Some are called from early childhood and have always lived very devout lives. Others are called after having lived sometime in the world, or even in a very worldly manner. Yet once a man has embraced his vocation and has reached Holy Orders, he is equally configured to Christ and becomes Christ in the world. It is not “his” priesthood that the priest lives out, but the priesthood of Christ; it is Christ who lives in every priest, and the actions of the priest in the Sacraments are the actions of Christ.

Of St. Jude Thaddeus we have only one recorded word in the Gospels. At the Last Supper he asked, “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us and not to the world?” (Jn 14:22). Today we also ask the Lord, why do You not manifest Your glory and power over the enemies of the Church and show them now the definitive victory of the Resurrection? Jesus answers somewhat enigmatically, “If a man love Me, he will keep My word and My Father will love him and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (Jn 14:23). God reveals Himself in order to enter into a loving communion with us. Therefore, He only manifests Himself to those who have faith, to those who seek Him and long for Him with love. And for this same reason, He does not manifest Himself to the world. We can only perceive Him if we have ready and open hearts, hearts filled with faith and love.

The priest must live out this mystery of the meekness of Christ in his daily life. He goes out as a lamb among wolves, not threatening or using force, but “speaking the truth in love” in order to draw as many as possible into communion with Christ. He speaks out for life in a world that prefers its own ease to the child in the womb. He upholds the sanctity of marriage in a world immersed in a mentality of contraception, divorce and same sex unions. He speaks out for purity and human dignity in a world saturated with sensuality. And like Christ, he becomes the victim of slander, discrimination and even persecution. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn 15:18-19). We must pray for our priests that they have the courage and strength to live out their increasingly difficult vocation in today’s world with the pastoral charity of Christ. Pope Benedict comments that St. Jude can “help us to rediscover the beauty of the Christian faith ever anew and to live it without tiring, knowing how to bear a strong and at the same time peaceful witness to it” (Apostles, p. 115).

Judas Iscariot and St. Matthias

Not all the faithful, nor all priests, are successful in being true to their faith in the midst of the many trials and temptations of this life. “In effect, the possibilities to pervert the human heart are truly many. The only way to prevent it consists in not cultivating an individualistic, autonomous vision of things, but on the contrary, by putting oneself always on the side of Jesus, assuming His point of view. We must daily seek to build full communion with Him” (Apostles, p. 120). If we do not daily pray and strive to grow closer to Christ, we will begin to seek ourselves and all the more easily fall back into the traps of this world and of the flesh. Judas had one of the highest callings in the Church, and was given many graces and natural gifts to help him fulfill his ministry. He was drawn by the greatest bonds of love to Jesus, who even immediately before the betrayal called out to him, “Friend.” Yet even so, Judas betrayed Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver. St. Peter, he who was called to be the first Pope, also wanted to oppose Jesus and His message of the Cross, and was rebuked by Him. He even denied Jesus in the moment of His Passion. But after his fall, unlike Judas, St. Peter repented. Judas’ remorse, on the other hand, degenerated into despair.

It is easy to forget that priests are human; we expect them to be saints, and rightly so. They have dedicated their lives to Christ and to the service of the Church, and are obliged to cultivate a very deep union with Christ in order to effectively fulfill their ministry. They are called to be other Christs. But despite their sublime vocation, like us they suffer all the temptations and trials of human frailty. We learn from the fall of Judas two very profound lessons. First of all, we know that Jesus respects our freedom. Our actions, even the least of them, have consequences. We act either for or against God. We make that choice many times a day. The angel admonishes us, he prays for us and tries to lead us towards God. But there is also the enemy, the fallen angel and his minions, who lead us away from God. Moreover, there is the tendency of our own fallen nature to seek continually our own selves and the gratification of the passions. And this is the first lesson, that we must always be on guard, always discern the motives for our actions and consider their consequences. Is it for the sake of God, will it lead me closer to God or am I seeking myself?

But even if we do fall, we must also always remember that “Jesus awaits our openness to repentance and conversion; He is rich in mercy and forgiveness” (Apostles, p.120). And this is the second lesson we learn from Judas. We can remain fixed on ourselves, too proud or too cowardly to confess our failings and start afresh, lingering in our darkness, anxiety and loneliness—apart from Christ. Or, we can make a good, heartfelt confession like St. Peter that will lead us back to that joyful communion with the Lord, and in which we find great peace and contentment. There is always hope, always a way back. It may require great effort, but Christ is leading us and the angels are rejoicing with us and over us. As St. Therese says, God can make up for our faults, making things even better than if we had fulfilled all our duties. Seeing that all the Apostles had abandoned Jesus in His moment of trial, we recognize the very great need to pray for our priests, not to judge them. They need the mercy of God as much as any of us, and even more than us because of their very great responsibility. If we live the mercy of Christ, therefore, we will pray and support our priests, our fathers in the faith, just as we would defend and support our own natural fathers despite their human weakness.

By election of the Apostles and calling upon the Holy Spirit, St. Matthias was chosen to assume the ministry abandoned by Judas. Very little is known of St. Matthias, but he must certainly have lived a life of great penance to expiate the grievous sin of Judas. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote about him, “He exhausted his body by mortification to make his spirit subject to the Crucified.” Pope Benedict comments saying, “While there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church, it is up to each of us to counterbalance the evil done by them with our clear witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior” (Apostles, p.121). We want to pray and offer reparation especially for priests. Though there are many good and faithful, heroic witnesses to the faith, some priests have betrayed their high calling and have become the trophy of the devil. We want to gain these souls back for God, we want to offer our sacrifices and prayers, pleading God for His pardon and mercy, that He may draw them back before it is too late.

St. Paul and the Total Gift of Self

Though he is not technically one of the original “Twelve”, St. Paul is rightly numbered among them, for he was a true Apostle and witness to the Risen Christ everywhere, even to the then known ends of the earth. He is for us one of the greatest examples of faith and untiring service in the face of great difficulties: beatings, stoning, shipwreck, betrayals, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst. His conversion was not the development of a thought or reflection, but a direct intervention by Jesus Christ, an unforeseeable grace. But once he had embraced the true faith, from that moment onwards, all else for him had lost its value and was seen as refuse. He dedicated himself entirely to Jesus Christ and the service of the Gospel. What a great Apostle he was! He is an example for every Christian, but especially for priests and those called to preach the word and shepherd the flock of Christ. “The love of Christ impels us…so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15). This desire to give oneself totally to Christ is the natural consequence of a true and deeply rooted faith; if we believe with all our heart, then we will place Jesus at the center of our lives, so that we are essentially marked by our encounter and communion with Christ (cf. Apostles, p. 125).

For St. Paul, an essential element of our Christian existence consists in the reality of our personal participation “in the life of Christ Himself to the point of identifying with Him and sharing both His death and life” (Apostles, p. 129). This mystical identification with Christ and of Christ with us begins with Baptism: “All of us…were baptized into His death…we were buried therefore with Him… So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:3-5, 11). Not only are we in Christ, but also “do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor 13:5). St. Paul first learned of this identification of Christ with the believer at his own conversion, when, in reference to the Christians whom Paul persecuted, Jesus calls out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). It is Jesus Himself who suffered in those who were suffering, and He suffers even today in the trials of those who believe and are united with Him in Baptism and Confirmation.

While every Christian is called to live for and in Christ, in an even more radical way, the priest is called to abandon his own life in order to “put on Christ.” St. Paul lived this identification with Christ to an extraordinary degree: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). The priest must allow Christ to work in him and through him, to transform him in such a way that all his words and actions become the words and actions of Christ. In the Liturgy and the Sacraments, this ontological identification with Christ is lived out in virtue of the Sacrament of Orders. The priest acts in persona Christi, such that it is Jesus Himself who says, “This is My Body…this is My Blood” and “I absolve your from your sins”. But even in daily life, in counseling and encouraging others, the priest must allow Jesus to shine through him. This capacity to allow Jesus to work in him, though founded on Holy Orders, goes beyond the mere administration of the Sacraments, and thus also depends upon the personal sanctity of the priest himself, on the depth of his union with Christ. And for this reason as well, we need to pray for priests, that they may be holy and effective instruments of Christ, that through them Christ may reach out to us in all our needs, that Christ in them may be a father to us, a consoler and support throughout our lives, and that Christ through them, will strengthen us at our death.

As this Year for Priests draws to an end, we want to thank God for the lives of the Holy Apostles upon whose faith the Church was founded. We want to thank God for the gift of the priesthood, which is handed down from the Apostles to the Bishops and priests of our own day. In this Lenten season, there are certainly many prayers and sacrifices that we can offer up for priests, as they, like Jesus, journey to their own Calvary. We want to entrust all priests to Mary, who from the Annunciation to the foot of the Cross never wavered in her faith and so became the Mother of us all, and especially, the Mother of Priests. May the holy angels protect and defend, enlighten and strengthen all priests, that they may live their vocation to the full, for the good of the Church and the salvation of many souls.