Thursday, March 20, 2008

Priestly Identity

"I am a Catholic priest."

(Holy Thursday 2008: This homily was given on March 20, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2008]

Most of us know the story of the death of St. Maximilian Kolbe. After being taken to the concentration camp in Auschwitz in May of 1941, he offered his life in exchange for another prisoner who was condemned to death.

It happened near the end of July in that same year, 1941, when someone from Maximilian’s cellblock escaped from the camp. As soon as he found out about it, the Nazi commandant decided that 10 other prisoners would be chosen at random and executed in retaliation for the one who had gotten away.

One of those chosen was Francis Gajowniczek, a married man who had a young family. When he was picked he fell to his knees and begged to be spared—for the sake of his wife and children. It was then that St. Maximilian stepped forward and offered to take his place.

The commandant sneered at him and said, “Who is this Polish swine?”

St. Maximilian answered by saying, very simply, “I am a Catholic priest.”

In commenting on this event, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee wrote the following:

“[Notice that] Fr. Kolbe did not reply:

  • I am Maximilian Kolbe . . .
  • I am a Pole . . .
  • I am a human being . . .
  • I am a friend of his . . .

His response was simply and humbly: ‘I am a Catholic priest.’

In the eyes of God, in his own eyes, in the eyes of God’s Church and his suffering people, Maximilian Kolbe’s identity was that of a priest. At the core of his being, on his heart, was engraved a nametag, which marked him forever a priest of God. That identity could not be erased by the inhuman circumstances of a death camp, or the godless environment of Auschwitz, or by the fact that Father Kolbe was hardly ‘doing’ the things one usually associates with priestly ministry . . .

[His priestly] identity hardly depended upon the acclaim of those around him or was lessened by the doubts and crisis he may personally have experienced in such a tortured setting. That identity came from God, and was imbedded indelibly within, born of a call he had detected early on from the Master to follow him, and sealed forever by the sacrament of holy orders. So conscious was he of his priestly identity that he could boldly answer the sneer of the Nazi commandant and simply state what he knew to be the central fact of his personal definition, ‘I am a Catholic priest.’”

The United States Navy used to promote itself with the saying, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” Well the priesthood is not just a job either (which, unfortunately, is what some Catholics think it is): it’s a vocation. And at an even deeper level you could say the priesthood is not just a job, it’s an identity! It’s an identity that’s tied directly to the person of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest.

Many lay people—and sad to say even many priests—have lost sight of this important truth in recent decades. And we’ve all suffered because of it.

Thankfully Maximilian Kolbe never forgot this truth—this ontological fact—about himself. He never forgot who he was by virtue of his priestly ordination! And that self-understanding is what inspired him to minister to others in the hellhole of Auschwitz, even before he offered his life for Francis Gajowniczek. Historians tell us that St. Maximilian would often share the little food he was given each day with his fellow prisoners. That fact alone is striking. I ask you, if you were given a portion of food each day that wasn’t even sufficient for yourself, how eager would you be to give it to someone you didn’t even know?

St. Maximilian also heard Confessions and said Mass in secret—putting his own life on the line for the sake of the salvation of souls.

He did the work of a priest; he served others in the spirit of the Gospel text we just heard—he “washed their feet,” so to speak—in some of the worst circumstances imaginable—because he had a strong sense of his priestly identity. He did all that he did, in other words, because he knew exactly who he was!

In the years after Vatican II, some priests were trained to think of themselves as second-rate social workers or second-rate psychologists. That became their identity. And I fear that a lot of people have gone to hell in the last 40 years because of that bad priestly formation. You see, instead of helping people to meet Jesus Christ in word and sacrament, some of these priests have been more concerned with helping people “find themselves” and experience “psychological wholeness” (whatever that means). So they’ve neglected to preach about sin, and have downplayed the need for Confession, and have failed to teach people about the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Consequently some of the sheep entrusted to their care have probably not received the forgiveness and the grace they’ve needed to be saved and go to heaven!

If priests don’t know who they are, then they obviously won’t do what they’re supposed to do for their flocks—and the sheep of Jesus Christ will suffer the consequences! That means some of them will die, spiritually speaking. Think about it: If Maximilian Kolbe did not know who he was as a priest, some of the prisoners he ministered to in Auschwitz might have died in the state of mortal sin! That’s because he would have told them they were all good enough and didn’t need to go to Confession, when in fact some of them probably did need to go.

In paragraph 1563 of the Catechism it says (quoting one of the documents of Vatican II): “Through [the sacrament of Holy Orders] priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the head.”

That’s technical theological language, but basically it means that when a priest ministers sacramentally, it is Jesus Christ who is working directly through him by the grace of his ordination. This is why the priest says, “I absolve you . . .” when he brings you God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliation. He does not say, “Jesus Christ absolves you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”; he says, “I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As a human person, of course, the priest has no power to take your sins or anyone else’s sins away. But since he’s been configured to Christ by ordination, Jesus Christ can work directly through him to forgive the worst of sins in the worst of sinners.

This also explains why the priest does not say, “This is Jesus’ body” and “This is Jesus’ blood” at the consecration of the Mass. Because he acts in the person of Christ during the Liturgy, he speaks the words of Christ himself at the consecration: “This is my body”; “This is my blood”.

Does this make the priest any holier than other people? Absolutely not! For a priest to be holy, he has to practice the same virtues that everyone else has to practice. Holiness is not a byproduct of ordination, although it is a demand of ordination!

St. Paul, who was a priest himself, once wrote, “I discipline my own body and master it, for fear that after having preached to others I myself should be rejected.” Paul knew that he could fall into serious sin in spite of the fact that he was configured to Christ by his apostleship and by his priesthood.

But thankfully, even if a priest sins seriously, the sacraments he celebrates are still valid! Again that’s because Christ is doing the sacramental work through him. When the priest baptizes, it’s Jesus who baptizes; when the priest absolves, it’s Jesus who absolves; when the priest consecrates the Eucharist, it’s Jesus who consecrates the Eucharist; when the priest anoints the sick, it’s Jesus who anoints the sick.

So on this Holy Thursday night—on this anniversary of the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist—I ask you to pray for all priests. I’ve asked you to do that many times before. But tonight I ask you to pray for them specifically that they will know who they are: that they will know and understand the great grace that has been given to them by virtue of their ordination! Because if they know who they are, then they will help you to be the people—the disciples—the saints—that God calls you to be.