The Gift of Priesthood
by Bishop Joseph Grech
The "Year for Priests" promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI is coming to a close. It will officially end on June 19, 2010. This year has given us the opportunity to reflect and think about the ministry of the priest. This has come at a very opportune time. We have become more aware of the strengths and giftedness of many priests. We have also become more conscious that priests are not immune from sinfulness and frailties.
What is the essence of the priesthood? I need to go to the Bible. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has this to say, "Every high priest is taken from among men and is appointed to act on their behalf in relationships with God" (Heb 5:1). In the first place it is evident that priesthood is a call. It is a particular vocation with a very specific ministry in the church. The particular ministry of the priest entails him being the link between God and the people; to intercede on behalf of the people. What does this mean in practice?
There is a very insightful story in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 24 which can help us to understand this. Abraham was getting on in years and he realised that his son Isaac was not yet married. He desired to see him settled. So one day, he sent for one of his most trusted servants and asked him to go to the land of his ancestors in order to find a wife for his son. How is he going to achieve this?
When he arrived in the town where Abraham come from he sat beside the village well towards the evening and he prayed. "Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, give me success today and show faithful love to my master Abraham. While I stand by the spring as the young women from the town come out to draw water, I shall say to one of the girls, 'Please lower your pitcher and let me drink' and if she answers, 'drink and I shall water your camels' let it be the one you decreed for your servant Isaac" (Gen 24:12-14).
This is precisely what happened. Rebekah whose father Bethuel was a relative of Abraham came to the well and when the loyal servant asked her for a drink, she also volunteered to give water to the camels. The servant was invited to stay at Rebekah's house and he related to her father and brother the precise nature of his mission. He spoke so well about his master that Rebekah felt very comfortable and ready to leave her family to meet her future husband even though she had never met him before.
The role of the servant was very definite. He had to bring the bride to the bridegroom. He could have easily been tempted to keep the bride for himself. After all, the Bible tells us that, "The girl was beautiful and a virgin, no man had touched her" (Gen 24:16). Yet he remained faithful to his mission. This is also the mission of the priest. As priests we are called to bring the people who are the church and who are also the bride, not to ourselves but to the bridegroom: to Jesus.
This is an awesome vocation. Our call as baptised people is to change the world based on the values and principles of Jesus. Our call is to help all people to live a truly balanced and fulfilled life based on the teaching of Jesus and of His church. We cannot do this on our own. It is too hard and difficult. We need the life giving presence of Jesus to animate, nurture, empower and enable us to live up to this call. Through his ministry as a servant leader, the priest is called to make present the power and the touch of Jesus Christ so that we can all continue this mission of Jesus.
The role of the priest is to enable and empower the church (the people) to be what it is supposed to be, the people of God. His role is at the service of the whole church enabling all the members of the church to live fully their baptismal dignity that is to participate fully in the mission of Jesus as priest, prophet and king. The priest is to enable all baptised to be priestly in the sense of being guided to worship God and to spend time with God in prayer in every circumstance of our lives; to be prophets in the sense of being encouraged to speak, live and act according to what is true and right and to reject everything that is contrary to the mind and heart of Jesus; to be king in the sense of being of service to others following the example of Jesus.
How is the priest going to achieve this? In the first place, by conforming himself to the mind and heart of Jesus. This requires time for prayer, for personal reflection, for reading and for being familiar with the Word of God and with the teaching of the church. God's work needs God's Holy Spirit.
The celebration of the daily Eucharist and the other Sacraments is another vital way enabling the priest to exercise his ministry. However, "Do this in memory of me", does not only entail the call to continue to celebrate the Eucharist. It also entails living the Eucharist, to be the Eucharist. Jesus literally broke his body in service to others. We are asked to put our life on the line too, even to the point of death in order that others might live with dignity.
The preaching of the Word is also a powerful means to teach and to inculcate in the hearts of our people the desire to fully embrace their mission. The Scriptures contain the story of our lives. In the Word of God we find God's plan for each one of us. As priests we are called to help our people interpret what is happening in their own lives and in the world around us according to the life — giving presence of Jesus contained in His Word. Whenever God speaks, hearts are changed, minds are uplifted and souls become inflamed. As priests we are called to expound and break open the Word of God in such a way as to achieve these results.
I thank God for all the priests who in spite of difficulties, disappointments and anxiety are powerful witnesses of the Resurrected Lord. I thank God for so many of our people who support priest by their generosity, wisdom, kindness, care and prayer. Priests and lay people committed to their particular vocation in the church and firmly bonded by our faith in Jesus Christ are a very tangible witness which cannot fail to touch the lives of many for the better.
I urge many of our young men to pray and to seriously consider a vocation to the priesthood. I am more than happy to help in any way I can. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In this spirit let us pray for all priests,
Bless them in their ministry.
Empower those hurting or confused,
nurture the lonely, refresh the fervent,
enthuse the hardworking
and accompany closely the sick and the dying.
May they continue to love like you,
to think like you, to feel like you,
to understand like you
and to speak like you.
May our mother,
Nurture in the hearts of all priests
the same love that you have
for your son Jesus.