Holy Orders is the only sacrament that is plural, for indeed it includes bishops, priests, and deacons. I will be reflecting on the priesthood, leaving it to those called to be ordained as bishop or deacon to reflect on their specific “order” in our Church.
To give this reflection some “order” or focus, I would like to make use of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and find in this one solemn celebration important elements of the order, ministry, and spirituality of the priest.
Every priest knows full well how important the celebration of the Eucharist is for the Catholic community. It is our most important reason to gather. What would any Catholic parish be without the Eucharist? What would the identity of the priest be without the Eucharist?
And so, when we celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy, we are grateful for Jesus’ special gift of the Eucharist, His loving way to remain so close to us, so “really present,” and the way He deemed to have the Eucharist continue in time: the priesthood.
The Liturgy of the Word makes sure we recognize how this celebration had been foreshadowed in the past. The reading from Exodus describes how the Passover meal is to be celebrated. It is, like the Eucharist, a tradition that is handed down; it is a ritual that we enter into, not something we create on our own.
The description of the institution of the Eucharist from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians then reassures us that right from the earliest time, after the Ascension of Jesus, the Church had understood what Jesus intended the Eucharist to be. On the one hand, we look back to see how God prepared His people for the Last Supper, and then we look ahead to see how the early Church did as Jesus had commanded.
It is quite clever of our tradition not to prefer to give an account of the institution of the Eucharist from the Gospels but instead to remind us that Jesus came to serve. By washing the feet of His disciples and telling them that they are to follow Him, the Master, by doing the same unto to others, the underlying motivation of the Eucharist, loving presence, becomes clear.
And so, the priest is the one who, in the “person of Jesus the Head,” celebrates the Eucharist in the midst of God’s people. By being present to the community, the priest makes Jesus present, and the presence of Jesus is always caring, healing, enlightening, forgiving, nurturing.
The narrative of the washing of the feet has several important lessons for the spirituality of the priest. As Peter reacts negatively to Jesus’ humble service, he is reminded that the gift of Jesus is not based on one’s worthiness. Jesus’ choice of His disciples then and now is a gift. Just as one’s unworthiness cannot be denied, neither can the gift of Jesus’ call be refused.
We are told that the devil had already induced Judas to hand Jesus over. Even in the context of a special vocation, the evil one is at work. The priest must humbly depend on the Lord for perseverance and, when there is failure and sin, to be like Peter rather than Judas in believing in the mercy of Jesus.
Could we not wonder why Jesus doesn’t choose only disciples who would be perfectly faithful? Then and now? Jesus may be telling us that there is no such perfect human being. Jesus made it clear that He was the Teacher and Master and therefore the model the priest is to represent at the altar when in the “person of Jesus” himself.
After the Holy Thursday Mass, there is a special time of quiet prayer with the Lord. It mirrors the time Jesus spent in the garden, asking His disciples to stay awake and pray with Him. An important part of the priest’s ministry is to spend time with the Lord Jesus. It is this quiet time that gives meaning to all the more active and far less quiet times of a priest’s life. Like the disciples, one might at times be caught asleep in at least having to bring one’s attention back to the Lord. No one maintains a wholesome friendship without time with the friend. No priest becomes more and more like Christ without a lot of time with Him.
Quite often, I, as a priest, am given the privilege of being told how God has blessed a person in need thanks to the presence and ministry of a priest. It is then that I thank God for the priesthood and, not withstanding my sins, could not think of a better way to have been called to spend my lifetime on earth.
Rev. Paul Plante
Vicar for Priests