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4/21/2016 9:00:00 AM
BISHOP'S COLUMN
Priesthood reveals God's foolishness
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


Unlike priestly classes of pre-Christian cultures, the priesthood initiated by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper represents no kind of upward mobility as the world might view it. In reality, it is a humiliation.

An action of Christ that best depicts this is the washing of the feet of the Apostles. That ritual, as recorded in the Gospel of John, like the eucharistic institution in the synoptic Gospels, prefigures and points to the humiliating death of Jesus on the cross, with all its bloody, gutsy and self-emptying implications.

Understandably, even Peter himself wants no part of this kind of priesthood - until Jesus tells him it is the only way he can have it and stay associated with Him.

Earlier, when Jesus had identified Peter as "the rock" on which He would build His Church, Peter seemed to have taken his appointment as a kind of promotion or elevation. It is only natural to feel special in being "chosen."

The newly-empowered Peter feels he can start advising Jesus on how to run His ministry. He pronounces it unacceptable that any God he knew would bring Jesus to the fate He announces right after Peter has been singled out: death on a cross.

Jesus then tells Peter that he is talking like Satan.

Not like Him
In many cultures, priests are primarily cultic figures. They perform rituals, spells and incantations that are thought to have effects on participants and recipients. Sometimes, they themselves, shaman-like, enter into trances or altered states of consciousness to create a bridge between this world and the transcendent, however that be defined.

Such priests hold themselves out as possessing a kind of magical power that ordinary people do not have which can make connections with the divine or the spirit world. More than a mere medium, this kind of priest also becomes a power figure, often the object of special veneration and entitlement.

The priesthood of Jesus Christ, however, modeled upon His life and death, is of a very different order.

Every Christian, at the time of sacramental initiation, becomes a disciple of Jesus, and is infused with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that drove or "pushed" Jesus, after His baptism by John, to be tempted in the desert. There, Jesus Himself was subjected to the three typical, worldly temptations that form around some variation of money, power and sensuality.

Baptism, confirmation and the holy Eucharist enable the Christian to live a holy life in a broken world that is subject to wander off course through twisted desires, motives and fantasies. The priesthood all disciples acquire at baptism derives from the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out from the side of Jesus crucified, for their own sanctification and that of the whole world.

By living in an ecclesial (or Church) communion with Christ and one another, disciples have a leavening influence in the world, like yeast, leading to a gradual transformation through the power of grace flowing through them.

Grace of God
This power of grace is always experienced through personal and institutional trials and growth, often with much pain and difficulty, but also with great joy in knowing the abiding presence of the Spirit and the transforming power of grace.

Ordained priests not only share in this baptismal priesthood in its internal, often hidden operations, but in a decidedly public, symbolic and sacramental way. "In persona Christi" -- in the person of Christ -- they stand before the Church community as fools for Christ, vulnerable to the same temptations as Jesus Himself in this world, yet called to witness personally and sacramentally to His death and resurrection.

This personal witness, as the Church has come to understand it through its contemplation of Scripture and tradition, is borne in as dedicated completely to the service of God's people through a life of detachment from the idols of power, money and sensuality.

The latter includes not only chastity, but a kind of marriage to the Church, like Jesus Himself, and in the permanent state of celibacy regarding any human partner. This is foolishness in the eyes of the world, including the world "out there" that at times tempts us all from within -- including priests!

It is also foolishness that ordained priests renounce attachments to power and personal acquisitions. Those who enter religious communities, strictly following the "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity and obedience, literally own and control nothing. Parish or "secular" priests, who do not belong to such communities, need basic provisions in order to fulfill their ministry.

Clergy supplies
What is "needed" may change with the geographical and cultural parameters of their priestly presence. What kind of accommodations, food, health care, transport, electronic connectivity, vesture and personal items are needed may vary according to time, place, age and other physical conditions. Never should their possessions, however, become an obstacle or scandal to their personal witness to the detachment of Jesus from the things of the world.

This means, in practical terms, that any notion of the sacramental priesthood as a promotion, entitlement, empowerment or elevation is a contradiction of its very nature. If it can be said that priesthood is what a man may "aspire" to, it must mean a willingness to be humbled and even be considered foolish, as giving up land, possessions and married life for the sake of the kingdom of God were seen by the rich young man who encountered Jesus.

Paradoxically, the attractiveness of a life completely given over to following Jesus in His humiliation is much appreciated and esteemed by the few who feel the call to His priesthood and the many who admire it, within and beyond our faith family. Even the film industry and the secular media have detected this and shown us powerful images of "good" and "bad" priests -- and few people, among the faithful or not, have much trouble telling the difference between them.

Whenever I ask readers to search their consciences, as I am doing today, for something within you that is either calling you to be a good priest (from now on, at least; or, if you are not yet ordained, sometime in the future) or to reach out to someone whom you think may have this vocation, I do so with confidence that you will know exactly what and whom to look for.

This seems to be something that the Holy Spirit gives to us -- sometimes, even beyond our faith family. I have a priest friend who got his first call from Jewish teacher who saw his vocation before he did!

Priestly people
Besides the personal public witness that an ordained priest must bear, his sacramental ministry stands out most prominently in everything that he does, day in and day out. How a priest celebrates the Mass; preaches; receives penitents in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation; prepares couples for matrimony; accompanies families with their unborn, newly-born and growing children through the years; and, most of all, becomes a man known to be the companion of the poorest, most vulnerable and least valued of our human family, defines him either as a true priest of Jesus Christ or as just a pretender.

Most people know the difference.

The world -- or, as Jesus calls it, the vineyard -- is longing for the witness and the presence of laborers who will bring in a good harvest of persons transformed by the healing, liberating and joy-filling power of the Good News. Let us pray that the Lord of the harvest will bring in, through us and among us, priests to lead us by word, work and example to the celebration of Christ's victory over the world.

I think of John 3:15, where Jesus reminds us that He has not come to condemn the world, but to save it. May our priests, both present and in formation, be a sign of hope that there is freedom from the world's evils, even now; that it can be seen in heroic lives; and that all of us can be encouraged by these spiritual fathers who love us, that we might live even on earth the redeemed life of heaven -- as foolish as this might sound to the unbeliever.

As Mother Angelica, a person admired by many (though not without detractors), once said: "Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous."

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)





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