Ask anyone, “What does a priest do?” Ask anyone from a child to an adult. The first thing they will tell you is, “The priest celebrates Mass.”
El Sacerdote celebra la misa. (Some have told me that they would love a job in which you only have to work on Sunday.) Many of us priests want to add that we do a few other things. But this common perception about priesthood, that a priest celebrates Mass, still stands as utterly correct. I would go further and suggest, Frank, that as a priest, although you will do many other good things in the course of your ministry, you will find your fundamental purpose and your deepest identity in the celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments.
Whatever else you do, if it is indeed the work of a priest, will be a logical extension of what we do at Mass. When we visit the sick, the imprisoned; when we serve the poor and those who need counsel and consolation. All of this is contained and draws its meaning from what we celebrate.
The Eucharist is, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, “the source and summit of the life of the Church”. The Body of Christ is formed and comes to life in the Sacraments. The Eucharist nourishes, renews and sustains her. If this is true for the Church in general, then the Eucharist is for the priest, even to a greater degree the source and summit, the nourishment and sustenance, of his life.
Each member of the Church from the smallest newborn child to the Pope has a place at the table of the Lord. We are an ordered body and so each has a role and a responsibility to fulfill. The Body is incomplete without all the members exercising their particular calling. The priest is one, as we heard in the second reading, who is called from among God’s people and “made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices.”
So it is that you participate in the Sacrament of Order, “Holy Orders”, within the Body of Christ. In your ministry you will re-present Christ, the head of the Body as you lead God’s people in their worship and in life. You will fill this role in the Body of Christ, not because of any innate superiority. You are, as are we all “sinner[s], beset by weakness”, as Hebrews reminds us. In fact this sinfulness you share with the community of the faithful is a requirement for your calling. That way you will remember that you are truly one with those you serve. You don’t stand above them. You know them, as it were, from within.
Priesthood is an identity that you could never claim on your own, but as Hebrews reminds us, it is a call from God himself. God is the one who chooses. God is the one who Ordains. God is the one who gives out his Holy Spirit with generosity, sharing His power. God is the one who transforms you into the one who can dare to speak and act in His name, in the person of Jesus, His Son.
The Priesthood of the New Testament is essentially different than that of the former Covenant. In former times there were many High Priests who were born into that role. For us in the new dispensation there is only one High Priest, Jesus Christ. Those who are called ‘priests’ are only priests insofar as they have been united with Christ in his priesthood and who have allowed Christ to conform themselves to him to the degree that when they speak, Christ speaks, when they act, Christ acts. Who else is it that Baptizes when they say “I baptize you”, but Christ? Who else is it that forgives saying, “I absolve you”, but Christ? Who else is it that makes Christ present saying, “This is my Body; This is my Blood”, but Christ? Christ is the one who stands before God in a timeless way offering his one great sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. When you celebrate the Mass, Frank, you will unite God’s people to that self-offering Christ made once and for all on the Cross.
Don’t be surprised, Frank, if this new reality into which you are being inserted today, takes a bit of getting used to. I remember the struggle I had the first time I went to the Holy Land. I said to myself, this is the place where the Son of God walked. Why is it that the dirt looks just like my dirt at home? It took me a while before the truth could sink in. That is the point of the Incarnation. He entered into my dirt!
It was the same kind of struggle I had when I was Ordained and found myself presiding at my first Mass. I still felt just like Mark. Looked just like Mark. Sounded just like Mark. To my great disappointment I was still a sinner just like Mark. Shouldn’t some of that have changed, at least a little, for me to be able to re-present Christ in this awesome way? It has taken me a while; I’m not sure even yet after 36 years that I have fully accepted, that this is exactly God’s point. Of course as a priest you are called to a higher standard. As a priest you have an even greater responsibility to seek to grow in holiness than the rest of the people of God. But you are not a priest because you are holy. You are a priest because God in his mercy has reached into the midst of his people here in the Diocese of El Paso and into the midst of la Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Luz and into the midst of the Hernandez family and called a person who is truly one of them that they may be one with Christ.
What a mysterious and awesome work of God! What great love God is showing for his people! I want to encourage you, Frank, to go forward boldly, but with great humility. This is all God’s wonderful work and his grace will not be found wanting. Allow God to use you for his glory. As he does so allow him to form you in holiness that will grow each day so that you may be a more and more transparent instrument in his hand. Remember that you will find your true identity as well as your strength in the Eucharist. Make of your life a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered in union with that of Christ. “Pray my brothers and sisters that this sacrifice may be acceptable to God our Almighty Father.”
Bp. Mark J. Seitz
Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz