The Archangel's Voice February 2010
Catholics are certainly not afraid to be honest with their priests. We priests receive comments both positive and negative quite frequently about homilies, pastoral decisions, activities and teachings of the universal Church – even about the way we wear our clothes and cut our hair!
In the two and a half years that I have served at Saint Michael, a particular thread of commentary by parishioners has been the food of serious reflection. I have pondered at length the observations of two people in particular, both of whom know me slightly better than the average parishioner. The comments essentially boil down to a perceived dichotomy between the way they see me personally and the way they observe my priestly ministry. They say things like: “You’re a great person and I like you on a person level; but I don’t like the way you say Mass” or “You’re great one-on-one or in such-and-such setting but at Mass you’re a different person.” Granted, this is the commentary of two individuals out of 2,600 households in the parish, so I could easily dismiss what has been said. However, I chose to pray and reflect on it, as well as bounce my thoughts off a trusted friend, and see if in fact anything meaningful lies beneath the words. I reached the conclusion that the folks who shared their observations of me touched – perhaps unknowingly – on an important aspect of the priesthood. Priests are both real human persons and public men of the Church and at different times we are called to act and speak in particular ways. I have truly enjoyed the opportunity other’s comments have afforded me to reflect on these themes.
Priests are real people with human emotions and individual personalities, hobbies and interests, as well as weaknesses and sins. We relate to people on different levels and in different ways depending on how God made us. Some people naturally find any priest appealing on a personal level and invite him into their homes and families; others do not choose to do that. Every priest has his friends from among those who appreciate him and connect with him as a person. With friends we share our unique feelings and personal opinions. I am privileged to be part of the lives of many people. I have found the faithful to be incredibly generous in their love, prayers, and support. Personally, I enjoy reading, bicycling, good food and wine, outdoor work and gardening. I share these things with others and find fulfillment as a person. This is all a natural part of being human.
Priests are also public ministers, who must bring the Gospel to everyone. We represent something much bigger than ourselves: a Church founded, not by human persons, but by Jesus Christ; a Church with an almost 2,000 year tradition of sacraments, teachings, and laws; a Church guided by the Holy Spirit and not by the winds of worldly change. Therefore, in our ministry, priests are called to set ourselves aside and bring Christ to others. When we speak, we must represent the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium. Our lives must exemplify our belief in the teaching of Jesus and the tradition of the Church. Our ministry must be consistent. Among friends, even if it means a difference of opinion or a negative reaction, I represent the teaching of Christ and the Church and hold to the same values and standards as with everyone else. Without integrity, without being true to the fullness of the priesthood and the Church, a priest risks doing a great disservice to the faithful by representing himself rather than Christ. It is Christ who saves. It is Christ’s message that priests are called to deliver.
When called upon to minister to someone in need – confession, spiritual counsel, anointing of the sick, serving basic human needs – a priest is called to lay aside himself aside. It matters not whether we might relate to them on a personal level, or what we might have in mind to do at that moment. What matter is that someone needs a priest, needs the Church, and ultimately needs Jesus. The priest stands in a privileged place: equipped, ordained and available to bring Jesus into the lives of those in need.
Above all, when entering into the Mass, the priest leaves himself behind. The prayers that accompany the priest’s putting on the vestments for Mass speak of his clothing himself in the garments of another world: the helmet of salvation (the amice); the baptismal garment of purity (the alb); the belt of chastity (the cincture); the stole of immortality (the stole); and, over all, the yoke of pastoral charity (the chasuble). The priest enters the Mass with the world behind him and focused on the worship of God. The Mass is where heaven unites with earth. We leave the cares of this world behind as we abandon our lives and real human needs into the Father’s hands in prayer. We enter for a while into union with Jesus as we adore and receive Him. God strengthens and nourishes us through the Sacred Liturgy, through word and sacrament, so that we can return to our often complicated and difficult daily lives filled with divine life. Therefore, the Mass (and the other liturgies of the Church) is not a casual event; it is not celebrated in the same way in which we observe anything else in our life experience. The Mass, the source and summit of the life of the Church, is unique among everything we do. The manner in which we celebrate it ought to reflect that uniqueness. For the priest, this means that his posture, articulation or chanting of prayers, and of ritual actions are different from the way he speaks and acts in personal conversation. In the Mass, Jesus Christ the Son of God is present and active. The divine presence necessarily demands a basic attitude of reverence, which manifests itself in careful celebration of the liturgy, according to the rubrics of the liturgical books. Attention is given to reverent reading of the Scriptures. The words of the consecration – the pinnacle and central reality of the whole celebration – are (according to the rubrics) meant to be spoken slowly and deliberately. In the Mass, we celebrate and enter into divine realities. The way we speak and act at Mass should convey our love, belief, and awe before God and the Eucharist, in the midst the Church’s prayer. I invite everyone to open their hearts to see beyond this world when we enter together into the
My personal reflections have led me to one word: passion. I can be passionate about my personal interests, my beliefs, my love for family and friends. Above all, my greatest passion is the priesthood, God’s greatest gift to me, and within my priestly life the Mass holds first priority. Therefore, the dichotomy some have (I believe incorrectly) perceived between my personality and my ministry is easily reconciled. The sense of humor and personal interests that people say they appreciate about me is authentically “me” as I relate to them. My passion for the ritual of the Mass, revealed in the way I celebrate Mass, is equally authentic and flows naturally from my love for the God and the Eucharist. I enjoy relating to people personally and sharing the joys and challenges of life with them. I have always loved the liturgy; it was one of my early attractions to the priesthood; and I strive every time I celebrate it to do so with ever-greater love and devotion. All of this is authentically “me.” I can’t switch off my appetite for steak and cabernet. On a more profound level, I cannot be any less in love with the Mass and less outwardly reverent, even if I tried.
When I enter into the Mass, I am captivated by what I am privileged to do as the instrument of the consecration. I leave the world behind, enter into rubrics of the Church’s prayer and strive to celebrate them with reverent devotion, so that, nourished by the Eucharist and inspired by the uniqueness of what we celebrate, we might love and serve each other more faithfully in our daily lives together, as we journey in faith toward our heavenly home.