Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
The warning of the Lord to His disciples is comprehensive: “He who loves father or mother…son or daughter more than Me…and he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37-38). Jesus is truly the Lord, the eternal Son of the Father, God from God, and therefore has all authority to demand such a complete surrender and abandonment. The greater the demands, the easier it is to recognize how often we fail to fulfill God’s expectations. But, the great St. Paul suggests the remedy for our sins. He teaches: “Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). The first of all these graces is forgiveness. God especially grants it through the priest with the help of the angels as St. Thomas explains: “What men do in a less perfect manner, i.e. by sensible sacraments, which are proportionate to their nature, angels also do, as ministers of a higher degree, in a more perfect manner, i.e. invisibly—by cleansing, enlightening, and perfecting” (Summa Theologiae III, 64,7,1m).
1. God among man as help in helplessness
We reflected on the call to serve. Jesus gave us the example and the real interpretation of what He meant by it.
a) Priestly failures. Every priest finds himself failing before such an example. Failures he finds on three levels:
1) The servant has to empty himself completely, lest he (subtly) subvert the position of God by leading souls to himself or into error instead of to God.
2) Daily imperfections burden his soul. The evangelical counsels show the way towards real openness to God by means of freedom from creatures through poverty, from earthly pleasures through chastity, and from one’s “self” through obedience. Our daily failings manifest clearly how much we are lacking in transparency before God’s holy will.
3) Beyond that: the incapacity to correspond to all the requirements of priestly ministry form the heavy “cross” of the “too little”. The difficulty to find the will of God in every moment, for so often it appears that if he speaks he offends, and if he keeps silence he may fail by omission.
b) The angels and the priestly cross. We may wonder and ask: Does this cross become easier by the presence and with the help of the holy angels?
It was a great help and encouragement for Moses as the leader of the people of Israel when the Lord assured him: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” (Ex 23:20). However, God continued: “Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him” (Ex 23:21). Does the angel come to help or to punish? How should we understand “he will not pardon”? With a little reflection, we recognize that he cannot pardon us, because we do not offend him in the first place, but God. Therefore, God has to be the judge; He is the One we offend, and He must forgive. Nevertheless, we have to admit a personal “difficulty” of the angel: He has already a deep understanding of God’s holiness and beauty, goodness and love.
Consequently, it is repugnant for him to “stand by” and watch when creatures fail to correspond to God’s will. But when some one makes an effort or shows good will, the angels are ready to help: “But if you hearken attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies” (Ex 23:22). Therefore we can be assured that the angel is interested, for God’s sake, in the purity of all who approach God. Because “God is holy” (Jos 24:19; cf. Lev 21:7) “nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev 21:27). The angels want to help sinners convert to God. It should be a great consolation in the sorrowful experiences of priestly failures to hear from our Lord Himself that there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10).
2. The purification with the angels’ guidance
Let’s look closer at two texts, which refer expressly to the purity of the ministers of God.
a) The vocation of the prophet Isaiah. There is first the vocation of the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is 6:1-13). The prophet “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne…and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the Seraphim…one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.’” The angels contemplated God and turned to adore Him! They stand before God like the Son before the Father. Man’s reaction went in another direction. “I said: ‘Woe is me! …I am a man of unclean lips...for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” Deeper knowledge of God leads man to a deeper self-knowledge and the recognition of his unworthiness before God. Peter’s reaction before the power of Jesus was similar. When He saw the boat full of fishes after a night without any catch, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Lk 5:8).
“Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’” Here the angel acts as mediator of forgiveness which comes from the fire of the altar of God. “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ And He said, ‘Go, and say…’” (cf. Is 6:1-13).
God manifests here His holiness to His creatures. This contemplation leads the angels to adoration, man to confess his sinfulness and, after the purification by the angels, to serve God. This happens today in the “liturgy”: “Every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are tied together with the Eucharist” for it “shows itself as the source and the summit of the whole work of preaching the Gospel” (Vatican II, On the ministry and life of priests, 5). The Church asks the celebrant at Mass to place himself before God like the Prophet Isaiah and to pray before proclaiming the Gospel: “Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips that I may worthily proclaim your Gospel.” The closer we come to God in the presence of the angels, the deeper becomes our repentance and the purer our heart. With the angels’ help, we will celebrate the Liturgy with a greater awareness of God’s presence and “set the believers an example…in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
b) To clothe with rich apparel instead of filthy garments. The holy angels not only help in the vocation to purity, but also to purity in the priestly life. Sacred Scripture reports “Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him” (cf. Zech 3:1-10). We know that Satan seeks especially to accuse priests of their un-holiness (cf. Lk 22:31), because then the people might also excuse themselves of their sinfulness. The angel turned directly against Satan and said: “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!”
“Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments”. It seems that Satan had found motives for accusation. However, the angel acted in the priest’s favor: “The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ And to him he said, ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel’.” It is the angel acting in union with God or with God’s “name in him” (Ex 23:21). The angel “enjoined Joshua, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in My ways…I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.” It is interpreted, that the priests are placed in the rows of the angels. What a beautiful description and prophesy of the grace which God grants His priests through the angels’ mediation.
3. An example in purity
The call to be a friend of Jesus should be a constant encouragement for the priest who is “chosen from among men” (Heb 5:1).
a) The need for Confession. The priest can trust in God’s love for him, for He called him while he was still “far away”. God drew him closer to Himself through the manifestations of His glory, as in the case of Isaiah. Then God schooled him in the seminary. During that time he was supposed to grow more familiar with God’s holiness and the purity demanded of priests. Then, notwithstanding all the effort and grace of his first love, through the years in ministry a layer of dust settles upon and dirties the soul. This threatens to stifle the priest’s enthusiasm and his generous disposition to serve anyone at any time for God’s sake. The priest’s weaknesses and limitations, his failures and sins, weigh heavily upon his soul. It is all the more painful in view of his obligation to have responded better to the special love of God for him. And what of the faithfull’s rightful expectation of a better example? Therefore, priests themselves stand in constant need of the purification that is offered through the Sacrament of Confession.
b) The invitation of Jesus. Surely, the heavier the burden, the more the words of His Lord should echo in his mind: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). And, “Who comes to Me I will not cast out” (Jn 6:37). More than any one else, the priest can and should go to His Master and confide his pains and sins. The Lord waits for him as the father waited for his prodigal son. Through each Confession Jesus’ friendship with His disciples will be renewed and even deepened. Few things open the heart more for God’s love than repentance. How deep is the union with God achieved through repentance (cf. Lk 7:47). A priest recalls his encouraging encounter with St. Padre Pio. The Saint asked him in his determined way, “How can you dare to approach the altar daily?!” The priest gave the humble answer, “I make a perfect act of contrition and go up the steps.” “All right,” was the answer of the Saint.
4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
It is almost impossible to describe the fruits and blessings which God grants to poor sinners, especially to his poor priestly friends through the Sacrament of forgiveness. May we reflect about the immense graces described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1468-1470 and 1496; and by Pope John Paul II in his Post Apostolic Letters Reconciliatio et Poenitentia, 31, and Pastores dabo vobis, 26, 5 and 48,4. Further, in the Directory for the ministry and life of priests, 51-54. The joy found and constantly renewed in the personal sacramental reconciliation with Christ is the secret of the blessings of the priestly ministry and of our dedication to it.