Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
An Archbishop recently confessed to priests at a retreat, “I am very happy!” Repeating it he added, “If you would live one day with me, you may wonder: How can it be? The secret is,” he explained, “I found my place in life, my identity: I am a priest of Christ!”
Recent researches have shown that the happiest persons in their profession are the priests—and this remains true, notwithstanding the publication of the scandals, notwithstanding the constant lamentation about the law of celibacy, notwithstanding the growing amount of work, etc.! Is there an explanation for this? Can this be applied to all priests?
1. “You will be catching men.”
At the beginning of a vocation stands the light of the call which includes the knowledge of the grandeur of the vocation. This light of grace, by comparison, also brings the recognition of one’s failure and sinfulness. We considered this side of our life in the last letter. It is necessary to show now the fruit of it.
a) The real basis. The prophet Isaiah saw the majesty of God, surrounded by the adoring Seraphim and said: “‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips.’” But, purified by the angel, he heard the Lord’s call and said, “Here am I! Send me.” And the Lord sent him (cf. Is 6:1-8). Similarly we see how St. Peter, when he recognized the power of Christ, “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!’” Precisely in this state of humble recognition, it seems, he was ready to be made a priest. For Jesus said to him now: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men” (cf. Lk 5:4-10).
The psychological and religious awareness of sin may be broken today, or, according to the different degrees in individuals, even be lost. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Is 5:20). But its essence remains the same: sin is evil, it hinders and rejects love, refuses life. Sin isolates, leads into darkness. Sin consists always in this, that we love ourselves more than God (cf. St. Thomas Aq., Summa Theol., I-II, 88, 2 ad 1). When anyone, like Isaiah or Peter, recognizes his own sinfulness before the Majesty of God, then he can receive God’s forgiveness. And grace makes him free for God and His call. Did not “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27)?!
Almost all the narrations of vocations in Scripture confirm this foundation for God’s work. The candidate sees only the impossibility or incapacity, by nature or by sin – “They will not believe me… I am not eloquent” (Ex 4:1 and 10). “I am only a youth” (Jer 1:6). But God says: “I am with you” (Jer 1:19).
b) Free like the angels. In his interview “Salt of the Earth” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger referred to “monastic theology” saying, “To believe means that we become like angels, they say. We can fly, because we no longer weigh so heavy in our own estimation. To become a believer means to become light, to escape our own gravity” (Ignatius Press, 1997, p. 28). The holy angels can fly, because they are not only free from sin and all its isolating and burdening effects, but also free from any link to creatures.
We considered the freedom of priests through the guidance by the evangelical counsels. Three times Our Lord asked Peter: “Do you love Me?” Peter said to Him, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You” (Jn 21:15). Yes, Jesus asked thrice to make good the three denials, and and perhaps also on account of some ceremonial requirement for a commission of authority: “Feed… feed… feed My lambs” (Jn 21:15-17). Beyond these, the triple question may also be related to the three goods the follower of Christ renounces out of greater love for Christ: personal goods and possessions, family life, and finally one’s own freedom (cf. Saint Paul “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).
2. The Priest the Lord wants.
The regular and even frequent sacramental absolution (cf. Can 246 § 4) and the daily repentance at Night Prayer make it easy for the priest to keep himself free from sin and attachment to creatures, and to make space for God (cf. Rom 15:23; Eph 5:13).
a) Marked by God. From here we approach correctly the mystery of the priesthood. In the opening conference to the Synod of 1990, Benedict XVI (then as Cardinal Ratzinger) characterized the priest as one who gives what he himself can not give! (cf. “The essence of the Priesthood” in Called to Community, ch. IV) Because of his nothingness, all that the priests have and give is of God. As Jesus “reflects the glory of God (the Father) and bears the very stamp of His nature” (Heb 1:3), so we may say, the priest “reflects the glory of God” (the Son) and bears His very stamp. Similarly we may say that as Jesus said of Himself, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”, so also can it be said of the priests, “Who sees the priest sees the Son.” For as the faith teaches us, we believe that the priest is united with the Son, as He is one with the Father: “I am in the Father and the Father in Me.” And, if we do not always see in the priest the face of Jesus, it nevertheless remains true what Jesus said to those who did not believe in Him: “Believe Me for the sake of the works themselves” (Jn 14: 9-11). The priests, by the Sacrament of Orders, are “signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis 2). On this basic truth, the priest is so strictly and forever united with Christ that he can act in His name, e.g. when he says, “I absolve you from your sins” or “This is My Body”.
b) The first to thirst. In the light of the beatific vision the angels receive and behold their ministry; they are most interested in the presence of God in all men, especially in the priests. They certainly rejoice when they look down to the nothingness of the nations (cf. Is 40:17), and find how to administer grace and stimulate the love of God which brings forgiveness and builds up. All good found in the priests, points up to God because it comes from God. God fills his heart: God the almighty, God the infinite, in His majesty and greatness, God in His fullness of Being, in His perfection, in His eternal unchangeable “Yes” to creatures, God who is loving Goodness and attracting Beauty, has chosen him “from among men [and has] appointed [him] to act on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb 5:1). In virtue of this call to be a mediator, men and angels want to see God in him, the priest.
Consequently, he should be the first to join the angels’ thirst and pray: “My heart says to Thee, ‘Thy face, O Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not Thy face from me” (Ps 27:8-9; cf. Ps 62:1-2). He may even enter in deep darkness and say with His Lord: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour?’” But, even then he will realize, like Jesus: “‘No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify Thy name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’” (Jn 12:27-28). I filled your mortality with eternity, you are Mine for ever. Your ministering saves souls, and I will be glorified through you. “Beloved, through ordination, you have received the same Spirit of Christ, who makes you like Him, so that you can act in His name and so that His very mind and heart might live in you. …This intimate communion with the Spirit of Christ …expressed in fervent prayer, in integrity of life, in the pastoral charity of a ministry tirelessly spending itself for the salvation of the brethren” (John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, 33).
3. The priest – another Christ
This union with Christ in the priestly soul and life is a mystery of grace and love, one of the greatest outpouring of God’s love upon creatures. The presence of God will extend itself from the soul to the body, from the sacrament to the entire priestly life, from the liturgical ceremonies to the conduct in daily life, always marked by God. Freed from the creatures he joins in the characteristics of divine life, in peace and joy.
a) Peace. The freedom gained through the threefold renunciation, restored and enlarged at every absolution received, leads the priest each time back to the Upper Room, where the Lord, just risen from the dead, appeared to the Apostles and said “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). Peace in the heart and soul is the first and most important fruit of the conversion to and union with the Lord. Peace comes from the correct order, that is, where God is at the center and everything is in its place and ordered towards Him. Then alone does one have peace, when one’s desires are both properly ordered and satisfied. This makes peace the strongest wall against temptations from the world, the flesh or the devil. Peace makes for a contented soul, and he who is contented, can hardly be moved from his place and be drawn somewhere else. The words of Jesus are true: “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (Jn 4:14), and “He who comes to Me shall not hunger” (Jn 6:35).
b) Joy. With freedom and peace deep joy is also given: “The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (Jn 20:20). This joy is based in God’s presence. Consequently, no loss of a creature will make an apostle sad. The apostle of Christ is not happy because of possessions, because of money, success or honors from man, but because of the presence of the Risen Lord. The measure of joy is given by the goodness of its cause, and this is here the infinite God, present in man’s soul. Already David perceived it when he said: “There is nothing upon earth that I desire besides Thee” (Ps 73:25). The only danger of losing the joy, peace and freedom is sin, the direct separation from God Himself.
4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
I hope we can count ourselves among those who can confess with the Archbishop and many other brothers in the priesthood, “I am very happy – because I found my place, my vocation, I am a priest of Christ.” May gratitude fill our hearts and find its expression in faithfulness till the end. Let us always praise the Lord with David, our holy Guardian angel and the many other angels who surround our life ministry and exclaim:
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the God of Israel our Father, for ever and ever. Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, power, glory, victory, majesty; for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is Thine.” (1 Chron 29:10-15)