November 24, 2009

Encouragements and Dangers

Over the course of the Year of the Priest so far, I've been touched by the gestures of many. I've received medals and holy cards and even a letter from someone who let me know she was praying for me on a particular day. I thank God every day for the charity of so many; as I often say to penitents and visitors to our parlor, it may only be in heaven that we learn how much we were supported by the prayers of others.

I'm grateful for the Year of the Priest because I think the Church at large needs good reflection and catechesis on the priesthood, but I'm also wary because we need to make sure we make these teachings and reflections in the right way.

A couple of examples from my own experience highlight the need for catechesis on the priesthood. When I was younger in the faith I could be a little scrupulous. (I imagine that some of my confreres would say that I still am.) I tried to attend Mass as often as I could, but I didn't always receive Holy Communion if I felt as if there were a good chance I was in a state of mortal sin. I remember how on one of these days I asked myself what it would be like if I were a priest who had to offer Mass each day; what would happen then if I were in a state of mortal sin? Could I offer Mass but not receive Communion? I had never noticed this happening, but I didn't see why it couldn't be done. That I didn't understand that no Mass in fact occurs without the Communion of the priest revealed my lack of understanding and catechetical formation on the priesthood and the Eucharist.

Once when I was in studies a classmate told me about a wonderfully progressive Mass that she attended. Everyone shared in all the prayers, with one person praying the Collect, another the Prayer over the Gifts, etc. The Eucharistic Prayer was similarly shared among the various persons assisting at the "Mass," except for the Institution Narrative itself: Father had to say that part. In this particular abuse those who thought themselves liberal and progressive actually reveal that their thinking about the Eucharist and the priesthood is actually quite shallow and magical; the priest was only required for the hocus pocus.

These sorts of distortions and misunderstandings, as well as false ideas of "active participation" have left many of us with a shallow or impoverished sense of the nature of the priesthood and its relation to the Eucharist.

On the other hand, as we try to lift up the priesthood and restore proper catechesis during this Year of the Priest, we must be very careful. Whenever we say "priest" or "priesthood" or "Year of the Priest" we must always keep in mind that the primary referent of these utterances is Jesus Christ, not any presbyter or bishop. Sometimes when I have a free morning I make the three mile trip to the St. Joseph's Seminary library. As seems right, I always make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament on my way into and out of the building. Their chapel is very beautiful to me: the white of the walls combined with the deep brown of the choirs, the lack of carpet, it just does it for me. The words of psalm 110 ring out from the sanctuary: Te es sacerdos in aeternum. Sometimes I try to imagine what it might be like to pray beneath those words each day. If a young man saw in them the inner delight of the Blessed Trinity, of the Father's joy in the mission of the Incarnate Son, these words might form him in some mighty grace.* But if a young man began to see himself as the primary referent of these words, then there is clerical arrogance on the horizon for sure.

So let us enjoy the Year of the Priest, encouraging and supporting the ordained priests of Jesus Christ and letting them know. But let us be sure that we are deepening our sense of the One and only Priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. Let us deepen our knowledge of his one Sacrifice, so as to avoid superstition, magic, and clericalism.

*Here we might rant a little against those who are fanatic for 'inclusive language' in psalmody for prayer; in their haste to be politically correct, they often remove from our attention the Christological and Trinitarian meanings of the Psalms on which so much classic Christian spirituality is based.

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