To The Priests

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Let us   start with a reading from the Book of Sirach:

‘Like a star shining among the clouds, like the full moon at the holiday season;

Like the sun shining upon the temple, like the rainbow appearing in the cloudy sky;

Like the blossoms on the branches in springtime, like a lily on the banks of a stream;

Like the trees of Lebanon in summer, like the fire of incense at the sacrifice; 

Like a vessel of beaten gold, studded with precious stones;

Like a luxuriant olive tree thick with fruit, like a cypress standing against the clouds;

Vested in his magnificent robes, and wearing his garments of splendor, 

As he ascended the glorious altar and lent majesty to the court of the sanctuary’ (Sir 50:6-11).

These  words of  praise are  written about  Simeon son of Onias who was   the high priest in his days. Priesthood is  something  that is valued very much  not only  here on earth but  in heaven as well. In the Church, every priest partakes in the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, who is the  high priest of the kingdom to come. At the  close of his  assignment on earth, Jesus  gave the great commission to his  disciples, that ‘they should  go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’. They were also given the power to cast out  demons in his name and to cure the sick  by laying their hands on them. They were also  given  power   above all forces of evil.

At the Last Supper, during the institution of  the Sacrament of  Eucharist,  Jesus told them to   do  it in  remembrance of him, whenever they came together. Elsewhere we  read that  the disciples were  also given the  power to forgive sins. Jesus was  grooming them to  become priests like him and to  serve the Father by emulating their Lord.  

Priesthood is something  so great that  the secular  society outside   fails miserably to understand it.  Out of ignorance they cast aspersions on priests.  They are  using the  lens of  this world to  look at  priests. But we know that priests are to be valued  using  a  different matrix. We  are sure to go wrong when we  apply the  same yardsticks used for earthly things to  priestly ministries. We  will definitely go wrong if we start  comparing  our  parish priest with  the gentleman  living next  door. Both of them are  similar in their  appearance and behavior. But they are different. As  ordinary human beings, priests are  also susceptible to  anything to which we are exposed to.  Their needs are similar to ours.  As far as the world is concerned, there is  nothing that  distinguishes a priest from  another  person.  

But  they are  different. Like Simeon the  high priest they are decorated with the symbols of  royal priesthood.  The Bible testifies that  priesthood is a gift  from God.  ‘And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was’ (Heb. 5:4). Catholic Church’s teachings  are a mere reiteration of the  already established  truth about  priesthood. ‘No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God. Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders. Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift ( CCC 1578).

Everything else in life depends on  our   decision and our choice. But priesthood is a call from God. Only when we  distinguish priestly vocation  from other vocations in this  way, we will be able to  appreciate  our priests. Secular world could not and cannot grasp this   difference. They  think that   priesthood is just another vocation  like medicine, architecture, carpentry, teaching or  business.

When  a priest  performs his priestly ministries, he is   standing in  the place of   Christ.  This is the source of his authority. Catechism of the  Catholic Church  summarises this  exalted role of  a priest  in these words.

‘In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis: It is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi). Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ’ (CCC 1548).

If a priest is  acting for and on behalf of Christ,  two things follow.  He should do all things  that  Christ  would have  done in the  given  circumstances and  he should have all the power to  act in the way   expected of him.  To put it briefly, he is  not  imitating Christ, but  by donning the priestly  robe of  Christ he is  acting as if Christ were present  here  and now.

Now imagine, what  Jesus Christ would do when a  sinner  comes  before him?  Gospels give us  examples of   Jesus   forgiving the  sins of  many. When the  sick were brought to him,  he  healed them.  When those possessed by  demons were  presented, he cast  out evil spirits  from them. When  people needed guidance, he  guided them.  When they needed teaching, he taught them. When he met people he preached the gospel to them.  When they deserved admonition, he never hesitated to admonish them. And finally when his time came, he  offered  his  body and blood as the price for their salvation, this being the  greatest sacrifice ever happened on earth.

A Priest, to be true to his  name, should  imitate Christ and do all these things.  But as we know, man is  weak by nature. We cannot find perfect persons who are  ‘holy, blameless, undefiled, seperated from sinners  and exalted  above the heavens’ (Heb 7:26)  so  as to  consecrate them as priests. Instead we select  ordinary men  with all  weaknesses and shortcomings  to be  priests for Christ. At the time  of  consecration, he is given a  share in Christ’s office  that is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily. 

Whenever we think of  a priest, the  first  thing that comes to our mind is the Holy Mass celebrated by him. Next comes Confession and  other  sacraments  performed through him. Each Eucharsitic celebration is the reenactment of  Christ’s  sacrifice  in Calvary. If the whole of humanity could be  assured of salvation  through this  single act of  sacrifice in cross,  let every  priest  celebrating  Holy Mass know  that  what  he celebrates in the  altar is  also having the same  value. It is   such a noble, precious and  sublime act  which only a priest can  do.  ‘If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die: not of fear, but of love’, says  St John Maria Vianney. St Padre Pio adds;  “If men only appreciated the value of a holy Mass they would need traffic officers at church doors every day to keep the crowds in order.”

We will be able to carry out any  work only when  we are  convinced about its efficacy and  usefulness. Nothing is more  irritating than doing something  without  employing  our  full concentration.  If a priest  does not  get  the real feeling  of what  a Holy Mass should give  him, I would say, the  major reason behind it is that  he is not convinced about the great value of the  great act being performed  through his hands.   St Ambrose  says that  from the  first  moment of    receiving  the Holy Orders,  a priest  ceases to be his own; he becomes God’s own.

 St John Chrysostom emphasises the  union of  the celebrant with Christ  by saying that  the soul of  the  priest  gets united with  Jesus when  he  celebrates the  Holy Mass.  In Lawrence Justinian’s opinion every priest going to the altar to celebrate  Holy Mass should know  that  he is  doing so to intercede for  all sinners. Its reflection can be seen in the words of  Padre Pio when he said about  Holy Mass; “I want to expiate the sins of all, like Jesus did on the cross.”

There  are saints like  Francis de Sales who used to get totally detached from this  world the  moment they entered the altar to  celebrate Holy Mass.

O Priests, understand and appreciate  the  exalted position you   are placed in. Accept with  all humility, the  higher responsibilities  God has given you.  Know  that  your flock looks at you for their spiritual nourishment.  A Holy Mass, celebrated after due preparation and performed with devotion, uniting yourself with Jesus in his passion will  benefit your people more than anything else. It is  more efficient  than a hundred homilies. Its value is infinite.  Your first and foremost duty is to celebrate the mysteries of Jesus Christ, the eternal priest.  Prepare yourself before it, celebrate it with  due reverence, and give  thanks to the  Lord after it. When the  people see a priest  celebrating  the Holy Mass in the right way, they also will be inspired to  see the Eucharistic   celebration as  something to be   esteemed.

We read that  Jesus gave his  disciples the  authority to  forgive sins.  Through the uninterrupted apostolic lineage continuing  till date,  priests receive the  authority to forgive sins. As far as a Christian is  considered,  Confession or  the Sacrament of  reconciliation is one  of great value. If there  are no priests, there cannot be confession.  From our experience  we  know a simple way to distinguish good priests. They spend more time  in the confessional.  St John Maria Vianney is the best example.  He used to spend  most of his time in the confessional. Often  it went up to   sixteen hours. But  for the  prolonged  hours he used to  sit in the  confessional, he was like any other  priest. Yet there was something  more interesting  in  the  way he engaged in this  sacred duty. It will be  better to  narrate it in his own words . Once he told his  confreres; “I will tell you my recipe. I give sinners a small penance, and the rest I do in their place”.  He used to  keep vigils and fast to assist the expiation of the sins of the faithful. This act of charity  towards a penitent is what  makes a priest  entitled to share in the glory of Christ.  Because, Jesus  himself did the  penance for  all sinners.

Many of us, I mean Catholics, are  ignorant about the  graces that flow from a good  confession. It is  the best medicine for a  wounded soul. Ars, the little parish of John Vianney was rightly  called ‘the great hospital of souls.’  When  Holy Mass and Confession are  becoming more and more difficult to  access, we start feeling the  heat. Those days  are not too far, when we will frantically run  to  get a  priest for  confession.  It is a wake up call, not to the priests, but to us  who often deride our  priests for no reason. We  take pleasure in  insulting, humiliating and mocking our  priests.  When  one   among them   falls into temptations, we forget  the remaining ninety nine who  stand in faith and  start equating every  priest with the  fallen one.  Dear brothers and sisters, we are  called to pray for our priests, not to judge them. Their judge is their Lord and  do not forget that  he is our judge too. If  a priest stands, it is before  his Lord and if he falls, it is also before  his Lord.  We have no business in what  transpires between   Jesus and  his priests.

To get the  maximum out of anything,  preparation is a must. It  is applicable to a priest’s ministries too. As mortals, they are  weak and unworthy to celebrate the great mysteries entrusted to them. It is in the fitness of things that before entering the  altar, priests should prepare themselves with prayer and meditation.  Padre Pio used to say thirty rosaries before  celebrating  Holy Mass in the morning. Asked how he was getting  time for it, he replied; “What else should I  do  at night”? This spirit of  constant prayer is  what  differentiates a priest  from  others. 

 It is said that  the life of  a priest consists of three things. They are  the preparation for Holy Mass, the celebration of the Mass and  thanksgiving after its celebration.  Once the  Mass has ended, a priest is  supposed to retire to his  normal  life thanking  God until the time  comes  to  start the  preparations for his   next Mass. St Alphonse Ligouri is  straightforward in telling that  a priest should not  celebrate  Mass unless he  has a just idea about this great sacrament.  During his earthly life, Jesus has not  done anything greater than the institution of  the Holy Mass, says the saint.  The passion of  Christ, crucifixion and  resurrection  are mystically symbolised in the Last Supper. 

Celebrating  the Holy Mass and   hearing confessions are  only part of the duties of  a priest.  When Jesus  gave his disciples the great  commission  he also bestowed upon them power and authority over demons  and all forces of evil. This is why the ministry of deliverance occupies an important place among  the duties of a  priest.  Unfortunately many of us  are unaware  about this  great authority  gifted to  our  priests so that  they would be able to  ward off any kind of  satanic influences from people.  Admittedly, the number of  priests practising exorcism  or deliverance ministry are a few, though the Church encourages  bishops to  appoint at least one priest in their respective dioceses  to  attend to the deliverance ministry.  This is a  time when Satan  engages in a  direct battle with the people of God, unlike in the past when he was mostly operating from  behind the curtain. As demonic attacks increase in number  and gravity, so does the  need to have priests well equipped to do the  ministry of deliverance. 

Casting out demons is no easy thing. We read in the gospel of Mark  about a father who brought his  son, who was possessed by a demon, to Jesus. Before that  he had approached   the disciples but they  failed to  cast the demon out.  When the disciples asked Jesus why they couldn’t  cast the  evil spirit out, Jesus  said to them, ” This kind can come out  only through prayer”.  Any priest venturing into the field of  deliverance and exorcism, should be a man of prayer and fasting. Personal holiness is one thing  the Holy Spirit values very much and  it is  in such persons that the gifts  of  the Spirit  manifest  the most. Let us  hope and pray that  more and more of our priests  come forward to serve the Church in this ministry. 

We have  seen the examples of  a number of priests who had  done great things for the  society, in various fields. While appreciating their  zeal in  giving   testimony to Christ  in whatever they do, we should not  miss  something more important. Priests are  called to be  separated from the rest. A life separate  from everything  mundane, though difficult, will give them  ample time to  be with  Jesus in prayer.  I am not  saying that  priests should not  involve themselves in  secular or social activities. But they should  be prudent not to  spend more time  in such activities thereby  causing their  primary duty to be  neglected.  

A priest is not allowed to  seek  consolation  from this world. His consolation comes from ‘Jesus  Christ, who is crucified’. A priest is  not  allowed to  seek  pleasure from this world.  His  happiness is eternal and  comes  from the risen Lord. A priest is  not to  get appreciation in this world. His crown is  reserved for the end. As Paul writes, ‘From  now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous  judge, wil give me on that  day, and not only to me but also to  all who have longed for his appearance’ (2 Tim 4:8). A priest is  running for the eternal   crown, where he  expects  his flock  also to  be with him. 

We are living in a  time  when  priesthood is becoming  more and  more   challenging.  To stay afloat in a world  that is  rapidly  sinking in the deluge of sin is  not an enviable  task.  To withstand the tempest of temptations  coming  from all four sides is no easy task. To lead   a life of prayer, penance and reparation among a people   ‘weighed  down with dissipation, drunkenness and  worries of this life’ is  truly challenging. To imitate  Christ in a world  that  is drifting  fast from  him is the real challenge. 

But we  have thousands and thousands of priests who  responded to the  call of their Lord to serve him in love , charity and  faith. They  skip the  rather easy path that  most others tread, and instead   carry their  cross willingly  and  follow their  Lord to the ultimate destination that is  Calvary.  Most of the  time they are alone and forlorn. Occasionally a Simeon  would come  from Cyrene to  help  him carry the  cross.  Occasionally a Veronica will come  with a soothing towel.  They are but momentary reliefs; ultimate  destination  remains the  same where  the priest is to  enact the  sacrifice  of  Jesus Christ. Just like  Jesus, he also does it   for  the whole world. He is  nailed to the  other side of Jesus’ cross that is always  there welcoming anybody to  embrace it.   We often look at   the crucified Christ, but  fails to  recognise that   on the other side of the  cross  a priest is going through the passion and agony of   Jesus, without we ever knowing it. 

They need our  prayers now more than ever.  They need the intercession  of the  Queen of  Priests now more than ever.  She is  inviting  priests, whom she fondly calls ‘ beloved sons’, to a new and refreshing  spiritual journey with her by  consecrating them to her  Immaculate Heart. This is  her time and she is  helping  priests to be faithful and  holy. 

‘I make of you ministers of the Church-life, helping you to be faithful and holy priests. Be always available for the needs of souls, lend yourselves, with generous abnegation, to the ministry of reconciliation and be burning flames of love and of zeal for Jesus present in the Eucharist. In your churches may you once again hold frequent hours of public adoration and reparation to the most holy Sacrament of the altar’ ( Message 406 from ‘To the Priests, Our Lady’s Beloved Sons’).

Let us  thank God for blessing us with  holy and  faithful priests. Let us pray for them. It is  essential that  true priests persevere till the last day.  Jesus  has revealed through Maria Valtorta that   the days of Antichrist will be shorter if a sufficient  number  of  true priests  are there.  ‘The more real priests are in the  world when the  times are fulfilled, the shorter and less cruel will be the time of the Antichrist and of the last convulsions  of the human race’. The end of the world is also  mystically  linked to the   presence of   true priests. Maria Valtorta writes: ‘ The day there would no longer be in the  world priests who are really priests, the world  would end in a horror that words  could not believe’.

The future of  this world, and all of us  living  here, is  linked to how many  true priests, not just  priests, remain there.    We need priests shining like a   star among the clouds, like the  full moon at the holiday season, and like the  sun shining upon the temple. Let them flourish like  blossoms in  springtime and like  a lily on the banks of a stream. Like the trees of  Lebanon in Summer let them  give us shade and  let the incense of their  sacrifice permeate  the  world. May our priests be like   olive trees thick with fruit and like  cypress standing against the  clouds.

It  is time to  raise our hands in supplication  for  the  sanctification of  our  priests through the  intercession of the  Blessed Virgin.  ‘ Queen of priests, pray for us’.

And finally to our beloved priests. Fear not, Jesus is with  you. He called you not because you were great, but  he knew  how to  make you great. He called you  not because you can  work miracles, but  to use you as his instruments to work miracles.  He  chose you not because  your voice is  sweet and  your words were of  wisdom, but because  he wanted to  use your  voice and your words  to convey his message. With this  confidence, let us  sing for our priests:

‘I will be with you,

You will work miracles for me.

I will be with you,

Your  words shall be  my voice

I will be with you.

You are my son…’

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