In every ancient society that people have discovered and studied, the peoples that emerge have worshipped some kind of god or deity. Sometimes the god was the local volcano, or the river nearby, or a statue made of stone. People in charge of worship among the group came to be called priests because they made some sort of offerings to the god.
Jesus comes to our world as part of the Jewish society of His time. Jesus never once calls himself a priest. He does not speak of the apostles as priests. In the letter to the Hebrews, the early Christians begin to see what Jesus did in His suffering and dying as a priestly ''offering.'' It is not unusual that the early Christians would see what Jesus did at the Last Supper as part of that priestly offering. It is not unusual that the early Christians would tie Last Supper and Calvary and Resurrection together. We still do.
Almost from the beginning, the early Christians said and did certain things when they came together. The sharing of the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ, the sharing of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus under the form of bread and wine, came to be done by certain people chosen out of the community to do these actions in the name of the rest. Whether they were coming from paganism or Judaism, this was what they had been accustomed to. So they continued to do it. There were dedicated persons among them.
In the New Testament, we begin to see the calling out of deacons and presbyters. People who were to be in charge of the flock. To minister. To serve. Even as Elisha did of old. AndJesus, when He came. And Paul, as he carried the message of Jesus from place to place.
In August of this year 2006, some of our Gospel passages were from the beautiful and powerful sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John. Through the centuries Scripture scholars have seen this sixth chapter of St. John as his way of giving a detailed teaching on just what the bread and wine that become the body and blood of the Lord Jesus are all about. Writing after the others, he seems to take it for granted that we have read either the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians or any of the other three Gospel writers as they tell of the Last Supper.
When you sit down and read the sixth chapter of St. John, some bells ring. The meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus. His meeting with the Samaritan woman. His healing of the man born blind.
Early June is the usual time for ordinations to the priesthood. It is always a delight to be present for such an occasion, or to carry the young men in prayer. And when I do this, I am always called upon to review my own thoughts about priesthood or the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
As I was preparing for priesthood over 50 years ago, I am not sure that I can remember seeing myself in any other way except as a sacramental minister. The importance of being able to offer Mass and celebrate the Sacra- ments was uppermost in my mind. We were not able to get any ''hands on'' experiences or working in a parish in the good old days. The opportunity for seminarians to do this in our time is a real plus. What was I not prepared for in priesthood?
· Being in a hospital room with a young couple as their dead infant was brought into the room.
· Counseling week after week with a nine-year-old lad whose parents had divorced and whose whole world was peopled with monsters.
· Being in the room with a family as they bid their mother goodbye, giving them permission to let her go and giving her permission to go.
· Walking to the middle of the street in the rain to anoint the body of a policeman who only minutes before had been struck by a truck.
· Asking an AIDS patient if he wanted to go to Confession and watching him shrug his shoulders as he answered: ''Well, I guess it won't hurt me.''
· Going to the airport to tell a father and daughter that their son and brother had been killed in an air crash. The look on their faces as they came off the plane and found their pastor waiting instead of the person they expected.
· Accepting an infant from a young woman who had delivered the baby alone in her room, and who wanted me to find a couple who would raise him.
None of these were part of my vision before ordination. As I reflect on 56 years of priesthood, there are the kinds of images that come into my mind and my heart. I continue to be amazed that I am a person who stands and calls people to worship in order to worship with them. Who preaches the Word because I have first wrestled with it during the week. Who calls others to sacramental moments because God bids me to do so.
And, oh, the blessings!
· Being a pastor and having a young man from the local university show up and tell me: ''Monsignor, my dad said to tell you hello. You taught him in grade school and he remembers.''
· Not having a bishop for some time, and being given permission to confirm. And so able to confirm and give first Eucharist to groups of children, many of whom I had baptized.
· Being able to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with people coming back to Confession after being away 10, 20 or 40 years, while helping during Cursillos or Acts retreats.
· Baptizing a 70-year-old man in the hospital because, in his words, ''You or any other priest never asked me before.''
· Reading the beautiful letters of people who tell of their experience of going through the Catechumenate.
· Being the official witness of the Church at the wedding of two young people who are deeply in love with Christ and with each other.
· Being able to lay hands at the ceremony of Holy Orders on men I had known as laymen or seminarians -- especially the laying of hands on a young man I had baptized and given First Communion to in the seventh grade.
Where is the priesthood today? There have been any number of scandals involving priests in the news. To deny this is not to recognize the truth. This comes at a time when the number of Roman Catholics is getting larger, and the number of priests is getting smaller. Will priesthood change? I do not know.
Not all of the troubles in priesthood can be traced to celibacy. If tomorrow the Church did away with the rule of celibacy, there would be men who would opt to priestly service as celibates. Why? Because they hate women? Not at all. Why? Because they are homosexual or asexual? Not at all. There will always be both men and women in our Church, as there have been in every age of the Church, who opt for celibacy as a sign of the kingdom of God among us.
Jesus came among us as a sign of complete obedience and complete dedication to God -- body, soul, heart and mind. He was a walking, talking, breathing sign of this on our earth and in our world. There will always be men and women who will opt to be this kind of sign. Not because marriage is less good and less holy and less dedicated, but because it is a different kind of dedication. Both ways of life are expected to lead to holiness and goodness and service of God in our world.
Further, a priest in our tradition is to stand before God and speak in the name of the people. Even as there were such persons in societies and civilizations from the beginning, there continues to be the need for such people.
In the early Church the community decided who should exercise this role among them. Already Paul changed that a bit by putting Timothy in charge of a community out of which he had not come. But one way or the other, one from the group stood before the rest of the group calling them to love and service of their God.
In our tradition, the call to priesthood is that the priest be a living sign in our world of the one great priest, Jesus the Christ. A human priest is the one called by the Church through the bishop to stand at the altar and speak in the name of the group. He is the one who deals with the sacred signs and symbols in a world which has largely forgotten or even denies that there is anything sacred. He is the one who is to take the Word and try to make it come alive. He is to take the symbols and try to make them speak.
Am I discouraged with where we are? Discouraged, No! Curious? Yes! In faith I believe the Church to be of God, and so somehow, what we are experiencing now and what we may be called to experience in the future as Church, is of God.
I cannot believe that more of our young men are not called to priesthood and the service of God through the Church than we are experiencing at this time. It seems that all of us who are priests should speak of this whenever we are able. And that we should urge adults to think, talk and encourage in a positive way service to God through the priesthood and dedicated service through the Church. There is a passage (Rom 10:14-15) that goes like this:
How can anyone go unless they are sent?
How can we hear the Word if no one speaks it among us?
How can we receive the Lord unless someone prepares the offering and calls down the Lord into the Offering. TP
Msgr. Comiskey, a priest of the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, is living in retirement at Little Sisters of the Poor in Kansas City, Mo. He was ordained for the Diocese of Amarillo in 1950. He was pastor of Christ the King Cathedral in Lubbock until he retired in 1998. He has written The Ministry of Hospitality and This is Our Church (for children), both published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., in English and Spanish.