S. Donato, Episcopo et Martyre
Continuing my reflections from my retreat… Yesterday I reflected on how the invitation by Christ to the Apostles, “…Are you able to drink the cup that I drink…?” [Mark 10:35-40; Matthew 20:20-23] is shared by bishops in the continuation of that same Apostolic ministry, and in turn is asked by them of those about to be ordained priests. Then I remarked how the true nature of priesthood is masked today by a lack of understanding generally about its character and purpose, such that many are in fact emasculating it and in so doing distorting God’s will and purpose for many in the realisation of other vocations.
The first question I ask most candidates for priesthood is, “What is the first duty of the priest?” By which I mean, what is his purpose, what is his first obligation? The answer is always “to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass” often accompanied with a smile or sometimes a quizzical look as if the question is odd! “No,” I always reply, “the first duty of the priest is to pray. It is the same for any Christian.” For a priest is a “mediator” between God and human beings, he is one who offers sacrifices and intercedes for the people. The first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me” [Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7] and of the Summary of the Law, Our Lord says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” [Mark 12:30; Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27] So it is then that the priest in fulfilment of the Law needs must express obedience to this command if he is to be an effective mediator with God, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” [Heb 11:6] The priest must offer in true charity first that worship of almighty God that is the chief expression of recognising God as the source and summit of all our being, a sacrifice of prayer and praise to the Divine, to Him “from whom all good things come.” [cf James 1:17]
Now notice the statement “must believe that He is” it means of a stronger faith than the mere assent to God’s existence. This statement in verse 6 follows on the heels of an illustration in Genesis regarding Enoch. Only a short sentence, “Enoch walked faithfully with God,” in Genesis 5:22 and repeated in Genesis 5:24 reveals why he was so special to his God. For God was an every day reality to him. It is the kind of faith that those who have it will seek God out. That is the kind of faith that Enoch had. People who really believe that “God is”, they seek Him out. They search Him out. That has to include talking to Him. The priest has to truly believe in and walk with, God.
So “seeking God” means that one approaches nearer to God, seeks Him, or he walks with Him. It signifies fellowship with Him. The Bible shows three stages of coming to God. The first is at God’s calling when one begins to draw near. It results in justification and the imputing of Christ’s righteousness. It occurs when one discerns and answers both the general call of God i.e. to humanity to have a relationship with Him, and the particular calling of God i.e. the fulfilment of His will and purpose and the raison d’être of the specific individual. The second is more continuous, occurring during sanctification, as a person seeks to be like God, conform to His image, and have His laws written, engraved, into his character. This is expressed by the committing of oneself to the ongoing discernment of His will and purpose. The third stage occurs at the general resurrection of the dead when the individual is glorified. The whole point of the preceding process, i.e. to become holy, to become transfigured, to become worthy of eternal life with God.
It is for this reason that the Church binds upon all her Sacred Ministers in major Orders the obligation to recite the Divine Office or “Prayer of the Church” to sanctify the day and all human activity. Why? From all eternity the Godhead was praised with ineffable praise by the Trinity itself, the three divine Persons as an expression of true and Divine Charity. From the first moment of creation the choirs of angels sang God’s praises, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” [Isaias 6: 3]. Adam and Eve had “created in them the knowledge of the Spirit of God that they might praise the name which He has sanctified and glory in His wondrous acts” [Ecclesiasticus 17: 6-8] So then, a priest who loves God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength will be first and foremost a man of prayer, he will walk daily with God, he will offer prayer not only for himself as an expression of his own faith but also on behalf of those he is called to serve in emulation of Christ Himself.
As Fr E Quigley writes in his study of the Roman Breviary, “The Divine Office”: ‘In the New Law our Saviour is the model of prayer, the true adorer of His Father. He alone can truly worthily adore and praise because He alone has the necessary perfection. Night and day He set example to His followers. He warned them to watch and pray; He taught them how to pray; He gave them a form of prayer; He prayed in life and at death. His apostles, trained in the practices of the synagogue, were perfected by the example and the exhortations of Christ. This teaching and example are shown in effect when the assembled apostles were “at the third hour of the day” praying [Acts 2: 15]; when about the sixth hour Peter went to pray [Acts 10: 9]. In the Acts of Apostles we see how Peter and John went at the ninth hour to the temple to pray. St. Paul in prison sang God’s praises at midnight, and he insists on his converts singing in their assembly psalms and hymns [Eph 5: 19; Col. 3: 16; I Cor. 14: 26].’
Now most people appreciate that a priest therefore should be “a man of prayer” but key to understanding the particular role and purpose of the priesthood requires us to be familiar with the Old Covenant, for Our Lord says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” [Matt 5:17] Now remember that we lost our corporeal immortality which God had first intended for us when He made the world, through the disobedience of Adam and Eve and so sin necessitates our salvation and affects our reconciliation with God. When we say “the resurrection of the body” in the Creed we are expressing the desire for complete reconciliation with God, the restoration of creation with Him, so that we may regain that corporeal immortality originally intended for us.
In the Old Testament, God institutes both a general priesthood and a ministerial priesthood; God made his people “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” [Ex 19:6; cf. Isa 61:6] and within the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was chosen to be set apart for the liturgical service of offering sacrifice as priests [cf. Num 1:48-53; Josh 13:33]. The ancient Jewish priesthood which functioned at the temple in Jerusalem offered animal sacrifices at various times throughout the year for a variety of reasons, but in every generation, one priest would be singled out to perform the functions of the high priest (Hebrew kohen gadol). His primary task was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) service, its central themes are atonement and repentance. The Other unique task of the high priest included the offering of a daily meal sacrifice.
God promised on the Day of Atonement to cleanse His people from all of their sins. It is this distinguishing feature that made this Day unique. “For on this Day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD” [Leviticus 16:30]. God had redeemed His people; He subsequently required them to be cleansed from their sin. Leviticus 16 describes the most complex yearly ritual for the purification and riddance of sin in all of Scripture. On this day referred to in Leviticus 16:30 God permitted Israel’s high priest to enter into the Holy of Holies. He allowed entrance into His holy presence only one day during the calendar year. If anyone other than the high priest entered, or if anyone attempted to enter His immediate presence at any other time, they were killed as in the case of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. [Leviticus 16:1 refers to the incident in Leviticus 10:1-7]
In the New Testament, we find Peter referring to a priesthood of all believers, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” [1 Peter 2:9] We also find Paul describes those enjoined in the Apostles’ ministry, “… as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” [1 Cor 4:1] So here we see by comparison the fulfilment of the old Law of the Old Covenant in the New… So what of the high priest and the “Day of Atonement”? Here of course we come to the very crux of our faith, Our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who is the Eternal High Priest who offered Himself on the Cross as the true Paschal Lamb and Unblemished Victim for our redemption in one atoning sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross; on “The” Day of Atonement. The New Testament depicts Jesus as the “great high priest” of the New Covenant who, instead of offering the ritual animal sacrifices prescribed by the Jewish Law, offers Himself on the cross as the true and perfect atoning sacrifice.
So then, the New Testament says that as high priest, Jesus has made the Church “a kingdom of priests for his God and Father.” [Rev 1:6; cf. Rev 5:9-10; 1 Pet 2:5,9] All who are baptised are given a share in the priesthood of Christ; that is, they are conformed to Christ and made capable of offering true worship and praise to God as Christians “to offer up spiritual sacrifices” [1 Peter 2:5]. “The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church #1546] So then the ministerial priesthood is properly understood to be at the service of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. As St Gregory the Great might put it, speaking as he was of his own ministry as a bishop, to be a “servant of the servants of God”. To be “stewards of the mysteries” and ultimately to both represent Christ and re-present Him in His atoning sacrifice, the Eucharist.
Remembering then that our faith is ultimately about the forgiveness of sin, so that we might have eternal life with God, let us recall how the fruits of Christ’s redemption are to be realised. How are we to receive the eternal life, won for us by Him? How, especially when our high priest has “passed into the heavens” Hebrews [4:14]? It is of course at this point that the need for a ministerial priesthood becomes evident. “So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” [John 6:53-54] The ultimate benefit of our salvation in Christ is the restoration of creation with God – the regaining of our corporeal immortality as God had originally intended. We see how our faith is “incarnational” – God made Man in Christ restores the physical material creation to the Creator by atoning completely for sin which had prevented the realisation of God’s desire for us, to be with Him for eternity. How then are we to receive eternal life except by incarnational means!
So it is then that, that as before, God uses His creation to effect His supreme love for us and desire for us to be with Him forever. Here then is where the ministerial priesthood of the New Covenant comes in. In order for the words of Christ to be made true [cf John 6:53] we need to receive as physical persons that physical reality of the Eucharist, of the flesh and blood of the Son of Man. The Catholic priesthood then is a share in the priesthood of Christ and traces its historical origins to the Twelve Apostles appointed by Christ at the Last Supper who were commanded to “do this in memory of me.”
Tomorrow is the feast of St John Vianney, a more perfect example of priestly dedication and service by a man we would be hard pushed to find, one who understood intimately this incarnational need for the ministerial priesthood…
Oremus pro invicem