The priesthood is near and dear to my heart. And I do not say that in a mushy, sentimental way but rather through eyes that have seen the real and concrete power of God. In the fall of 2007, I became wearied by a life of drunkenness, revelry and promiscuity and looked for something more. The Evangelical Protestant religion I practiced in my youth no longer interested me. Dabbling in paganism with my college friends didn’t fulfill me. I was spiritually starved and standing on the doorstep of hell.
I was in my senior year. I wished to learn Latin, not for any practical reason but because the language simply sounded pretty when sung. I wanted to learn those pretty words and that is what drove me a Latin Mass in downtown Peoria on a Saturday evening.
My friend Brad knew of my searching for religion. He happily took me and showed me all the little gestures: the holy water, the sign of the cross and genuflection before seating. As I waited in the pew, he disappeared for a moment to receive confession. After a while, I felt something coming from behind and swiftly turned my head. The priest, draped in green vestments, made way past me. His air was otherworldly, one of power and majesty. Light clung to him like a fine dust. I felt a little afraid.
“There is a really strong presence coming from him,” I whispered.
Brad answered with three Latin words that would form my entire impression of the priesthood from this day forth: “In persona Christi.”
God had already begun to work his wonders for that very next year, on Easter Vigil, I received confirmation and entered the Catholic Church. In the Eucharist, the Lord Jesus satisfied my deepest hungers and longings. In the priesthood, I witnessed his love and power acted out time and time again. Yes, priests are imperfect, stubborn and sometimes downright frustrating human beings but through many, undeserved graces poured out over them, a glimpse of the divine lingers. We know very well of God’s fondness for storing treasures in clay vessels.
Our story is one of redemption, sacrifice and love. On a pivotal night, before he was to meet his execution, he gathered together 12 disciples and appointed his first priests. Here was the Word, calling men to repentance. Here was the Saving Victim, who would wash away the world’s sins. Here was the Bridegroom, prepared to wed his people, sinners though they were. And all this, he passed unto his priests, sent as the Father sent Him.
Yet few things contain more paradoxes than the Catholic priest. He is a person of quiet defiance. In the background of modern noise, he smacks of something ancient. The priest’s life is everyday yet immersed in the supernatural. A citizen of two worlds, he has one foot on the earth and the other in heaven. St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, once said: “How great is the priest! He will only rightly understand himself in heaven.”
The priesthood itself is made up of sinners, broken men yet who call men to rise to God. It is an institution marred with stains and given to scandal yet the instrument of soul-saving work. Lives can be transformed by a priest whose life is falling apart. Consciences are cleared by a priest who ignores his own conscience. If it derived power from men, the priesthood would be utterly defective. It would have faded to nothing on the night Christ was imprisoned and his own disciples scattered. Yet something here bears the mark of its divine Founder, for every time the priesthood seems all but dead, it rises again. That such beautiful results come from such flawed instruments is part of the paradox of Christianity itself; that victory is found in the defeat of the cross. Only God could fashion the astonishing contradiction which is the Catholic priest.
In a world that forgets the meaning of sin, the priest presents a thorn in our sides. He exists because of sin. Those who are healthy have no need of a physician and those without sin would have no need of a priest. Alas, until that happy day where comes a new heaven and earth, men will continue to sin. Jesus’s very name speaks of the forgiveness of sins… “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21).
Why must we have priests? Why must men work with God at all? The answer to this lies in the depth of God’s grace, who though having no need of men, continually calls men to be part of himself. As stated in the teaching of the Catholic Church: God, who alone is holy and who alone bestows holiness, willed to take as his companions and helpers men who would humbly dedicate themselves to the work of sanctification. Hence, through the ministry of the bishop, God consecrates priests, that being made sharers by special title in the priesthood of Christ, they might act as his ministers in performing sacred functions. (Presbyterorum Ordinis, Ch. 2, 5) Think of how amazing this truly is!
Jesus Christ saves us. He uses his priests. Christ is the Lion, who calls us to repentance, the Lamb who expiated guilt, and the Lover who united His people to Himself. As Christ does, the priest must do. As “other Christs”, they become in their daily work, lions, lambs and lovers.