Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Cross—And The Joy—Of The Priesthood

(Holy Thursday 2009: This homily was given on April 9, 2009 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 2009]

One day a woman decided to go to Confession. She had been away from the sacraments for 30 years. She entered the Reconciliation Room, made the Sign of the Cross and said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned; it’s been 30 years since my last Confession.” The priest, who obviously had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, immediately started to reprimand her for being so lax about her faith. After two or three minutes of this he said, “And why have you stayed away from the Church for 30 years?”

The woman replied, “Because, Father, 30 years ago I met a priest just like you.”


On this and every Holy Thursday we commemorate the anniversary of the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. We also celebrate the anniversary of the institution of the ministerial priesthood. When Jesus said to his apostles, “Do this in memory of me,” he implicitly gave them the power to fulfill that command. It was, in effect, the moment of their ordination.

But as we reflect on the glory and the gift of the priesthood tonight, it is important for us to remember that “priests are people too” (in case you weren’t already aware of that!). We all have our strengths; we all have our weaknesses—and we all have our sins, as that story I just told makes clear.

But in spite of those weaknesses and sins, God uses us to bring his saving grace to people in word and in sacrament. Through us sanctifying grace is infused into souls by Baptism; through us forgiveness is given to men and women in Confession; through us spiritual and sometimes physical healing comes in the Anointing of the Sick; through us the Eucharist is consecrated (remember, no priest, no Eucharist!); and through us the Gospel is proclaimed so that people will know the truth that can set them free.

But, as St. Paul reminds all priests (as well as all lay people) in 2 Corinthians 4, we hold the treasure God has given us “in earthen vessels.”

Which is part and parcel of the cross of the priesthood. This is something many lay people probably do not understand, but every priest does—experientially!

Yet this really shouldn’t surprise anyone—especially those of us who are ordained—since it parallels to some extent what Jesus Christ experienced as the Great High Priest.

Let me explain.

In one of his meditations on the passion and death of Jesus, Bishop Sheen made a very interesting observation. He rightly noted that before Jesus died he went through two trials: one was a religious trial before the Jewish religious authorities, the other was a civil trial before Pontius Pilate and the Romans. In the religious trial, Jesus was accused of blasphemy for claiming to be equal to God the Father (which, of course, he was); in the civil trial, he was falsely accused of being a closet revolutionary, and a direct threat to the Roman Emperor, Caesar. As Sheen put it, to the Jews Jesus was too divine for claiming equality with his Heavenly Father, and he was too human for the Romans who considered him a potential rival to Caesar.

And because of that, he was condemned to die on the cross.

Now we ministerial priests—who are blessed to share in a unique and special way in the priesthood of Jesus Christ—are definitely not divine like Jesus was.

But sometimes people treat us like we are! They put us on a pedestal that, quite frankly, we don’t belong on! And while it may thrill some priests to be treated in this way, for most of us it’s actually part of our daily cross—because we know who we really are, and we know what we’re really like; and we know that there is no way that we can possibly live up to the unrealistic expectations that go along with being God-like!

Here, by the way, I’m talking about good, faithful priests who are living good and decent lives. I’m not talking about the bad guys!

And besides all that, when people think of you as almost-divine they don’t pray for you, since they don’t think you need prayers! This only adds to your priestly cross, since you receive fewer graces from God than you otherwise would receive if these men and women did intercede on your behalf.

So for some, we’re too “divine.” But for others, who are at the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re much too human (in the worst possible sense of that term). We’re looked at by them with distrust and suspicion—and sometimes with downright hatred. Some of this is certainly fallout from the scandals of 2002, but to a certain extent it’s always been true. We priests, after all, are a little bit “different” from everyone else. We wear strange clothes, and live in mysterious houses, and we don’t get married and have natural families like “normal” men do.

We’re too “divine” in the minds of some; we’re too “human” in the minds of others—and those contradictions lead us to our cross, as similar contradictions led Jesus Christ to his.

And yet, most priests wouldn’t trade their cross for any other—which might surprise some of you! In fact, when Fr. Stephen Rossetti surveyed 834 priests after the scandals of 2002, he found that 92% of them either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” An LA Times poll of 1,854 priests yielded a similar result: 91% said they were satisfied with the “way [their] life as a priest [was] going,” and 90% said they would do it all over again. If they could turn back the hands of time, they would choose once more to respond to God’s grace and serve the Lord in the priesthood.

I think that’s because the glory of the mission keeps us inspired and going, when opposition and trials and our own human weaknesses would otherwise cause us to give up.
I remember Cardinal Humberto Medeiros of Boston coming to talk to the students and faculty of St. John’s Seminary not long after I first arrived there in the fall of 1982. And I remember him saying how much he loved being a priest, and what a great honor and privilege it was for him to be able to speak about Jesus Christ every day to large groups of people, and to nourish them with the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments.

Here was a man who carried a very heavy cross as archbishop of Boston, telling us it was all worth it!

I never forgot his words.

So always pray for your priests. Pray that we will be joyful and persevering in carrying our priestly cross, especially when people think we’re better than we are, or when people look at us with suspicion and distrust and perhaps even hatred. Pray that, like Cardinal Mederios, we will serve the people of God faithfully—asJesus served his apostles in today’s gospel by washing their feet. And pray that, like the good Cardinal, we will never lose sight of the glorious mission God has given us to bring him to people and to bring people to him.