True nature of priesthood is love for Christ and his people

| Father Michael Johnson | May 25, 2011 | 0 Comments

Father Michael Johnson, parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton, preached the following homily April 21 at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” With these words, along with his exhortation to “do this in memory of me,” when he took the bread and wine into his sacred hands at the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the sacrament of holy orders — the sacrament of the priesthood.

The institution of this sacrament causes me to reflect on and ask the question, “What is a priest?” It is a question that many people answer by answering the similar, but very different, question, “What does a priest do?”

What a priest does changes with times and seasons. What a priest is remains the same for all eternity. So, what is a priest?

Out of curiosity, I Googled the words “Catholic priest” and the results made my heart sink.

My heart sank because alongside a few authentic articles or web pages that could actually help people develop a deeper appreciation for this sacrament of the church, there appeared links to news articles of priests accused of sexual abuse, stories of priests maligning the very church that they promised to serve faithfully on their ordination day, and web pages written and dedicated to priests confused about celibacy and sexuality.

My heart sank because I have given my life to what should be among the most noble callings a man could receive. Yet, a few of my brother priests have defaced the image of Christ that they received upon their ordination, an image that they should represent by their actions and ministry but do not. Because of the sinful actions of a few, many people in our culture have a very negative answer to the question of what a priest is.

My heart sank further when I continued reading and saw how people, who I am ordained to serve, pitied me because they think celibacy is a silly requirement and a throwback to a dead tradition and thus of no importance to my ministry.

My heart sank further when I read how people look at a priest and are only able to see in him an affront to women’s equality.

These people seek to answer the question of “What is a priest?” not by learning what the church teaches or seeking to understand God’s workings in this world, but rather by answering the question of what a priest is only according to the terms of this secular world.

So we come to tonight, when we as a church celebrate the institution of the priesthood. It is a sacrament we should celebrate, even in the face of those who do not live up to its high calling or those who severely misunderstand it.

Proud of faithful priests

I am proud of being a priest, and I am proud to serve with so many of my brother priests who have for 2,000 years faithfully handed on what they have received.

I am proud to follow in the footsteps of priests, like Blessed Miguel Pro and St. Ed­mund Campion, who have suffered martyrdom at the hands of tyrants, in order to preserve the tradition of our church.

I am proud of to be in the line of priests and serve among brother priests, who, like St. Francis Xavier and the North American Martyrs, have traveled to the farthest reaches of this world preaching Christ and carrying on his work even in the face of torture and death.

I am proud to serve alongside heroic priests, who have faithfully and lovingly ministered to their parishioners day after day, year after year, following the example of St. John Vianney and St. Philip Neri.

I am proud to be a brother among priests who have given their lives to the service and care of the poor, following the examples of St. Damian of Molokai and St. Maximilian Kolbe, even in the face of their own hardships, sufferings and ultimately their own deaths.

Authentic face of Christ

These men are the authentic face of Christ in the priesthood. They are priests of God molded into the image of Christ as both priest and victim. They are men who have been transformed into the person of Christ the Head — In Persona Christi capitis — not only through laying on of hands when the sacrament is celebrated by the bishop, but having allowed their very lives to be transformed into the image of Christ in what they say and what they do, carrying Jesus Christ to those people to whom they were sent in and through their very presence. They are men who understand that they were called by God to serve and not to be served.

The highest expression of this is when the priest takes into his hands the bread and wine and speaks those words, which no one aside from God alone can claim the right to utter, saying, “This is my body that is for you.” They are both Christ’s words and the priest’s words. This is my body, given up for you.

So, what is a priest?

St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, says it best: “The priest continues the work of redemption on earth. . . . If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die, not of fright but of love. . . . The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”

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