The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2018 – Cycle B
Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52
What was once the pride of the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic families, the priesthood, has come to fall on hard times, has it not?
Fifteen years of the sexual abuse scandal has caused shame, self-doubts and questions among priests as well as the people. The scandal has resulted in calls to abolish celibacy as a way of life or its converse to remove all men who are gay from the priesthood. Either option causes us to simply avoid talking about human sexuality in a fully Christian manner.
The decline in vocations? Is it a decline or are men simply not responding to the “call” of Christ? The reasons I expect are varied. Is it in how the life of a priest is perceived? Many people think my life is lonely. Far from the truth in my experience. Is it the perception of being on a sinking ship? Where is our trust in Christ Jesus who promised, “I am with you always, until the end of the age”? [Matthew 28:20] Or have we come out of an era of an overabundance of priests and now the challenge is to you the laity to take up your responsibilities as mature Christians alongside that of priests, deacons and vowed religious?
Since Vatican II we have experienced priests leaving the priesthood over the issues of contraception, celibacy, sexual orientation and marriage. There is the call for the ordination of women, responded to with very inadequate biblical and theological teachings of popes and papal commissions. Do we need to reconsider a return to the practice of married people to be our priests?
Then, there is always the specter of clericalism that is the bane of the priesthood and other professionals. This disordered attitude toward clergy; an excessive deference and an assumption of the moral superiority of the priest. It is fostered by laity as well as by clergy and is experienced as an obsession with titles, offices, and religious garb. It fosters a kind of mentality that revels in ecclesiastical ambition, status and power. Clericalism separates the priest from God’s people. Some people and priests prefer it that way.
Has the priesthood of Jesus Christ fallen on hard times? Is it obsolete? Or is this an opportunity as the ground lays fallow for deep reflection on the priesthood by the entire Church?
It is into our present situation that God speaks to us through the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews. Through this letter we are offered the image of the Jewish office of high priest as an analogy and comparison to understand the high priestly service of Jesus Christ. It is therefore an opportunity to reflect on the Catholic priesthood which makes the high priesthood of Jesus present in our midst.
The Letter to the Hebrews names three elements that mark a high priest. A high priest is human. Therefore a high priest is beset by weakness. And it is in his humanity and weakness a high priest is chosen by God. Our humanity, weaknesses, may I say, sinfulness, and being chosen mark the lives of all priests.
Sharing in the human experience we are like the rest of you. We are each in various measure gifted and short sighted, short tempered and patient, playful and serious, filled with doubts about ourselves and mature in our self-awareness, shy and adventurous, distracted and directed.
Like the rest of you we continue on our journey toward God. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, like the Sacrament of Marriage, is not a destination but a journey. We priests have not as yet arrived. At times we struggle with prayer, have dry spiritual periods like Teresa of Kolkata, and also have our moments of deep repose in Jesus Christ. We at times, like you, touch eternity.
Our families are wonderful and broken. Siblings support each other or don’t speak to each other for years. We have parents to care for and know the pain of becoming an orphan.
We have our addictions and proclivities from gambling to alcohol, women to men, overeating to over shopping, hoarding to depression.
Yet we are “taken from among women and men…to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council has kept intact a number of private prayers for the priest. Some include the entire community as when the priest mixes water into the wine, we proclaim, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” But a number of these prayers are still for the individual priest and they all have a common theme.
As we prepare to proclaim the Gospel we bow and pray, “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.” When washing our hands at the Preparation we pray, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” Before receiving Holy Communion we bow and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your death gave life to the world, free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.”
Do you notice the common theme? We priests pray for the cleansing of our sins. We pray for ourselves as we pray for you and then lead you in praying for the world. Priests are well acquainted with sinfulness, because each of us has our own share of them to deal with. And so it is comforting when in your name I pray the first and most ancient of our Eucharistic Prayers, saying, “Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love”. I do not pray alone.
Some of you may be uncomfortable with my description of us priests but I believe it is an honest description. The priesthood will only be renewed and reclaim its rightful place in the church and society if we are honest. Then the issue of who can be ordained will resolve itself. Then the shame and doubts circling the priesthood like vultures will be healed. Then clericalism will have finally been buried as priest and people stand together as equals. Because, then the glory of God will shine through the priesthood in Jesus Christ as intended. That is why the final element of priesthood becomes so wonder filled. For despite our vulnerable and wonderful humanity, our mixture of human dross and beauty, our personal sinfulness and goodness, we priests are chosen by God.
I conclude by sharing the words of German Jesuit, priest and theologian Karl Rahner.
The priest is not an angel sent from Heaven,
he is a human being chosen from among you, a member of the Church, a Christian.
Remaining human and Christian, he begins to speak to you the Word of God.
This Word is not his own. No, he comes to you because, God has told him to proclaim God’s Word.
For must not some one of us say something about God, about eternal life, about the majesty of grace in our sanctified being; must not some one of us speak of sin, the judgment and mercy of God?
So my dear friends, pray for him, carry him so that he might be able to sustain others by bringing to them the mystery of God’s love revealed in Christ Jesus. Amen.