By Cardinal Justin Rigali
This is the traditional weekend for priestly ordinations and First Masses and also a time of year when many of our priests celebrate their anniversaries of ordination. This week, let us reflect on the gift of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Always a mystery
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) spent a great deal of his time in the last years of his life preaching retreats to priests. A few years before his death, he wrote a book entitled “Those Mysterious Priests.” The title is most appropriate because the Catholic priesthood will always have a certain air of mystery about it, both for those who are called to live it and for those who are touched by it or wish to learn more about it. The basic mystery is that God calls imperfect men to carry on His work. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19); “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15); “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20); “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19); “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23); “Whoever listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16). These are some of the words that Jesus speaks to the apostles and to their successors in the priesthood. With God speaking to imperfect men in such words, it is no wonder that the priesthood is mysterious!
How did you know?
One of the questions which priests are often asked is: “How did you know that you wanted to be a priest?” It is important to remember that the priesthood is not a “career choice.” It is not a question of someone “wanting” to be a priest and so pursuing that course by his own decision alone. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts a vocation to the priesthood in its proper context when he writes: “No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4).
However, since we are dealing with a human person, there must be some means that God makes use of in order to make His invitation known. Those means can take many forms and they can be a combination of several of these forms. A Catholic home in which the priesthood is held in esteem has often been the source of recognizing a vocation. Many priests tell of other priests who influenced them in their youth by giving witness to a joyful and dedicated priestly life. Frequently today, we see young men who rediscover their faith and discern a vocation during their college years. We must pay tribute to the many Religious Sisters and Brothers who, especially when they were more numerous, were the human instruments God used to lead many to recognize and respond generously to a vocation to the priesthood.
All of these possible instruments may change over time but the invitation is ultimately from God and the response must ultimately arise from the free will of the one whom God is calling.
Celebrating a moment
Recently, a Congregation of Religious Sisters in the United States celebrated an interesting anniversary. It was not the usual anniversary of the founding of a Religious Congregation. Rather, they had the idea of celebrating the anniversary of their Foundress’ recognizing the concept of the Congregation she would found. In other words, the moment when the idea was conceived, which later came to fruition through her zeal.
Although it is difficult to point to a precise moment when a man recognizes a call to the priesthood, there is the maturing of an idea and a generous acceptance of God’s invitation if the young man chooses to respond to this call. Indeed, for all of us, priests and bishops alike, we strive to maintain and build upon the zeal and generosity which we recognized at a moment in our youth, when we responded to God’s call. This is one of the reasons why our Blessed Mother is the particular Mother and model of priests. Her Immaculate Heart maintained a constant generosity and “yes” to God and, in this way, perpetuated the “yes” with which she responded to the angel Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation.
Different ministries of our priests
In a recent issue of the “Catholic Standard and Times,” you may have seen the special coverage of the Ordination of our new priests and the significant anniversaries of many others. Indeed, in that issue you were able to read about our oldest diocesan priest, Father Daniel J. Kehoe, who has been a priest for seventy years, as well as those newest members of Christ’s priesthood in this Archdiocese, who are ordained this weekend. These priests will be and have been engaged in a wide variety of ministries and I am so grateful to all of them. They are the extension of my role as the Chief Shepherd of this diocese and I could not fulfill that responsibility without them.
The great majority are engaged in parish work, which is the particular joy of the priest. Others, both diocesan priests and those who are members of Religious Orders or Congregations present in the Archdiocese, are engaged in the work of Catholic education. Some have a specialized apostolate, which can range from those who care for the physically and mentally challenged to those who work in the administration of the Archdiocese and that of the various Religious Orders and Congregations. Priests who are sick or retired or engaged in lives of prayer and penance also build up the work of our local Church by their particular role of praying and suffering, in union with Jesus.
All priests exercise the same basic role: to be configured to the person of the one High Priest, Jesus Christ and, when possible, to make His Kingdom present in the world by offering His Sacrifice and preaching His Word. God has willed that they bring their inspanidual talents and unique characteristics to their work but it is always the work of Jesus.
A famous theologian, Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, points out a beautiful truth in one of his books on the priesthood. He writes that since all priests are doing the work of Jesus in offering sacrifice, administering the sacraments and preaching the Gospel, they also affect the work of one another, even if they do not know it. So he points out that the priest who is suffering in union with Jesus is mysteriously working to build up the Kingdom by helping, through suffering, a priest whom he will never know, so that the work of that other priest may be fruitful.
A person may need to hear a homily that may cause him or her to make a conversion in their lives. The priest whom he or she hears on a particular day may not be particularly talented as a preacher. However, the merits of the far-away, suffering priest will help the person in the pew to be mysteriously touched by grace through the words of the imperfect preacher.
Always a tension
There will always be a certain tension in the life of a priest striving to be faithful and desiring to grow in holiness. Each day, he comes so very close to the things of God, indeed to God Himself who comes down upon the Altar at his word, and yet he is only too aware of his own imperfections.
In every age, the priesthood has been faced with its own particular challenges. There have been times of persecution that have produced priests who were martyrs, and times of trial that have produced great models of priestly charity. The priest does not live in a vacuum and so he is also challenged by the weaknesses of the world in which he lives and works. There have also been sins and scandals that affect all who share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
For all these reasons, I ask you to pray in a particular way for your priests. Pray also for an increase in the number of generous young men in our own Archdiocese who will answer the call of Jesus with a willing heart. So many of our priests tell me how you encourage them and support them in so many ways. They need this so much and I ask you to continue it. If you have been putting off saying a kind word or sending a note of gratitude to a priest who has touched you in a special way and has brought you closer to Jesus, do not put it off any longer. They need and appreciate your prayers, support and encouragement.
Finally, as the Shepherd of this Archdiocese, who is assisted in fulfilling his task by so many faithful priests, I say of them what I have said before: “They mean everything to me.”
14 May 2009