Priesthood: March 2008 Archives

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A huge thank you to Sandro Magister for providing readers with the Holy Father's six Holy Week homilies. His homily at the Mass of Chrism on Holy Thursday captivated me. My own comments are in italics.

The Essence of the Priestly Ministry

At the same time, Holy Thursday is for us an opportunity to ask ourselves again: To what did we say "yes"? What is this "being a priest of Jesus Christ"? Canon II of our missal, which was probably composed in Rome before the end of the second century, describes the essence of the priestly ministry with the words that, in the book of Deuteronomy (18:5,7), described the essence of the Old Testament priesthood: astare coram te et tibi ministrare.

Pope Benedict XVI goes to the heart of the question. What is the essence of the priestly ministry? He answers it with words drawn from the Sacred Liturgy itself: "astare coram te et tibi ministrare" — to stand before Thee and worship in Thy presence. The priest is one who faces God and waits upon Him. The priest is the eyes of the world fixed upon God, and the hands of the world lifted up in worship before Him. The priest lives his priesthood most intensely when standing before the altar.

Standing Before the Lord

Two functions, therefore, define the essence of the ministerial priesthood: in the first place, "standing before the Lord." In the book of Deuteronomy, this should be interpreted in the context of the previous dispensation, according to which the priests did not receive any portion of the Holy Land – they lived by God, and for God. They did not attend to the usual work necessary for sustaining daily life. Their profession was "to stand before the Lord" – looking to Him, living for Him. Thus, all told, the word indicated a life lived in the presence of God, and thus also a ministry in representation of others.

The priest lives by God, and for God. A young disciple of Blessed Abbot Marmion, Dom Pie de Hemptinne, O.S.B., said something similar; reflecting on his own priesthood, the young Benedictine said that he lived "by the altar, and for the altar." Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the mediatorship of the priest. The priest lives in the presence of God as the representative of all his brothers; he serves in the sanctuary on behalf of all who, in some sense, stand behind him.

To Keep the World Open to God

Just as the others cultivated the land, from which the priest also lived, so he kept the world open to God, he had to live with his gaze turned to Him. If these words are now found in the Canon of the Mass immediately after the consecration of the gifts, after the entry of the Lord among the assembly gathered in prayer, then they indicate for us the standing before the Lord who is present; it indicates, that is, the Eucharist as the center of the priestly life.

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This is brilliant. The priest is a man who "keeps the world open to God." The priest lives "with his gaze turned to God." Underlying these observations is the Holy Father's desire to see restored the traditional position of the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer. The "closed circle" of "versus populum" celebrations is, I think, directly linked to the current crisis in priestly spirituality. When the priest, standing at the altar, faces the crucifix, he offers his own body to "keep the world open to God." By not looking at the people during the Holy Mysteries, the priest exemplifies for them that, "being risen with Christ," they are called to "lift their thoughts above, where Christ now seats at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1).

One Who Watches

But even here its impact goes further. In the hymn of the liturgy of the hours that, during Lent, introduces the office of readings – the office that the monks used to pray during the hour of the nocturnal vigil before God, and for the sake of men – one of the tasks of Lent is described in the imperative: arctius perstemus in custodia – let us be watchful with greater intensity. In the tradition of Syriac monasticism, the monks were described as "those who stand on their feet"; standing on one's feet was an expression of vigilance. What was here considered as the task of the monks, we can reasonably view as being also an expression of the priestly mission, and as a correct interpretation of the words of Deuteronomy: the priest must be one who watches.

Pope Benedict XVI understands that there is no opposition between the monastic vocation and the priestly one. He goes so far as to say that "what was here considered as the task of monks, we can reasonably view as being also an expression of the priestly mission." "The priest," he says, "must be one who watches." How can we not recall the vigils of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney before the altar of the parish church of Ars, the prolonged adorations of Saint Peter Julian Eymard before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance, and the passion of Saint Gaetano Catanoso (photo above) for keeping watch before the Eucharistic Face of Christ?

Last October 16th, for the feast of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, I had the privilege of being in Paray-le-Monial. While there I encountered a brother priest who shared with me something of his own experience of keeping watch in prayer during the night. This priest found in nocturnal adoration a spiritual refreshment and an intimacy with Christ that he found at no other time. The priest, like the monk, is a watchman, for the sake of the people entrusted to his care.

Standing Upright

He must stand guard before the relentless powers of evil. He must keep the world awake to God. He must be one who stands on his feet: upright in the face of the currents of the time. Upright in the truth. Upright in his commitment to goodness. Standing before the Lord must always be, in its inmost depths, also a lifting up of men to the Lord, who, in turn, lifts all of us up to the Father. And it must be a lifting up of Him, of Christ, of his word, of his truth, of his love. The priest must be upright, unwavering and ready even to suffer outrage for the sake of the Lord, as shown in the Acts of the Apostles: they "[rejoiced] that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name" (5:41).

The Holy Father is lucid when it comes to the reality of spiritual combat with the powers of darkness. I find the suppression of the Short Lesson at the beginning of Compline in the reformed Liturgy of the Hours most unfortunate. It is a text that every priest needs to repeat and hear nightly: "Brethren, be sober, and watch well; the devil, who is your enemy, goes about roaring like a lion, to find his prey, but you, grounded in the faith, must face him boldly" (1 P 5:8-9).

Pope Benedict XVI dares to close the gap between the so called "monastic" and "priestly" spiritualities. The "monastic" dimension of the diocesan priesthood becomes apparent to all who take the Holy Father's teaching to heart. It was, I think, precisely the evacuation of "monastic" values from priestly spirituality that contributed in no small measure to the present crisis in priestly life and in vocations. "Listen, you that have ears, to the message the Spirit has for the churches" (Ap 2:7).

The Most Precious Blood

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One cannot enter into Holy Week without contemplating the adorable mystery of the Precious Blood. I am completely smitten by Bernini's little known depiction of the Blood of Christ. The Eternal Father contemplates the outpouring of the Blood of the Son. The Angels are awestruck by what they see. Blood pours out of the hands, and feet, and open side of the Crucified.

The Mother of Jesus, she who is the perfect image of the Church, raises her hands to receive the crimson torrent gushing from the inner sanctuary of His Sacred Heart. Beneath the Cross there is an ocean of Blood: Blood to cleanse the world of every stain of sin, of every crime, of every defilement. If you would know the value of the Precious Blood, ask the Mother of the Lamb.

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Priests and the Precious Blood

"My maternal heart yearns to lead all my priest sons into the presence of my Jesus, the Lamb by Whose Blood the world is saved and purified of sin. My priest sons must be the first to experience the healing power of the Blood of the Lamb of God. I ask all my priest sons to bear witness to the Precious Blood of Jesus. They are the ministers of His Blood. His Blood is in their hands to purify and refresh the living and the dead.

Apply It to Your Wounds

I desire that all priests should become aware of the infinite value and power of but a single drop of the Blood of my Son. . . . Adore His Precious Blood in the Sacrament of His Love. His Blood mixed with water flows ceaselessly from His Eucharistic Heart, His Heart pierced by the soldier’s lance to purify and vivify the whole Church, but in the first place, to purify and vivify His priests. When you come into His Eucharistic presence, be aware of His Precious Blood streaming from His Open Heart. Adore His Blood and apply it to your wounds and to the wounds of souls.

Purity Wherever It Flows

The Blood of my Son brings purity and healing and new life wherever it flows. Implore the power of the Precious Blood over yourself and over all priests. Whenever you are asked to intercede for souls, invoke the power of the Precious Blood over them, and present them to the Father covered with the Blood of the Lamb."

When Priests Find A Bethany

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I thank my friend Lisa for her wise and compassionate words to Sotto Voce, the Irish priest so many of us are carrying in prayer. Lisa wrote:

"Dear Father, you describe so poignantly the sorrow in your life and the weariness you feel from the service you give to the Lord and to others. You are grieving and weary - you need rest and the opportunity to grieve supported by friends who can give that tangible touch so meaningful to healing. Christ healed with touch, it is an essential human expression. Know that Christ will comfort you when you go before Him - a hour of companionship means telling him everything. And He will give you peace. Peace which family members and friends do not possess. Christ also shared time with friends - you can be friends with married couples and families - you may be suprised how willing they are to invite you into their homes and lives. Like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, there are people waiting to befriend you and support your vocation. And perhaps help you grieve all those tragic deaths you are still carrying in your heart."

Thank you, Lisa, for speaking to a brother priest out of your experience.

An Hour of Companionship

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When Fulton J. Sheen was ordained a priest, he promised Our Lord to make a Holy Hour daily before the Blessed Sacrament. He remained faithful to that promise for the entire sixty years of priest. It was during his daily Holy Hour that he learned to listen to the Heart of Jesus and accept the gift of Divine Friendship. Archbishop Sheen preached the benefit of Eucharistic adoration to all people but, first of all, to his brother priests. Here are a a few of this thoughts on the Holy Hour:

"I keep up the Holy Hour to grow more and more into His likeness... Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain.

The Holy Hour is not a devotion; it is a sharing in the work of redemption. 'Could you not watch one hour with Me?' Not for an hour of activity did He plead, but for an hour of companionship.

The purpose of the Holy Hour is to encourage deep personal encounter with Christ. The holy and glorious God is constantly inviting us to come to Him, to hold converse with Him and to ask such things as we need and to experience what a blessing there is in fellowship with Him. One of the by-products of the Holy Hour was the sensitiveness to the Eucharistic Presence of Our Divine Lord."

(Treasure in Clay, The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen)

Seeking Solace

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The reflections of an Irish Catholic priest on his experience of loneliness moved me deeply, and confirmed me in own calling to adore and intercede for my brother priests. Among other things, this brother of mine in the priesthood wrote:

On a very personal level, when I go through the front door of the house, I sense the lack of another person in the house, in my life and in my arms. My vow of celibacy asks me to refrain from being emotionally involved (and indeed sexually involved) which is not easy by any means, and certainly I can understand why some of my colleagues would seek solace in the end of a bottle.

This week, I found myself in the arms of those friends who care a lot for me, and indeed I care as much in return. I would certainly wish that I could be with their company on a more constant basis, but distance prevents this from being a reality. We hugged as they came in my door, sat down for dinner and talked, then went to the local pub for a few drinks and walked home. When we got there, we sat down for a drink or two before another hug and adjourned to our separate beds.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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