As I entered the room to visit a priest friend in the last stages of cancer, it was clear that he was preparing himself for the great journey ahead of him. With him were family members and friends, including brother priests. As I came to the point in the sacrament where I was to anoint his hands, he turned them over, palm down, as a simple reminder that his hands had already, once and irrevocably, been anointed. He was already consecrated to Christ.
In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Blessed John Paul II spoke of the priest as configured to Jesus Christ as Head and Shepherd of the Church (cf. 15.5). Here it is clear that the priesthood is a permanent part of the priest’s being. Priestly identity is in some way introduced into the life and being of the priest (cf. 16.5). Its purpose is to express the fact that Christ associated the Church with himself in an irrevocable way for the salvation of the world.
Priesthood is not just for the service of God’s people at this stage of development of the kingdom; it exists also to reflect the permanent and transcendent union of Christ with His kingdom and to be a sign of the final fulfillment of the kingdom. In this sense, the eschatological nature of the priesthood touches every aspect of the priest’s work and life. The priest is configured to Christ in a manner that affects his very being for the specific purpose of testifying to the world that the fullness of Christ’s kingdom is yet to come but has already begun in our midst.
Because of sacred ordination, the priest stands in the midst of the Church as its leader — its head. He also functions in the name of the whole Church specifically when presenting to God the prayers of the Church and, above all, when offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. As we identify the task of the priest, we realize that it is completely tied to the continuation of the unique work of Christ. That work is preeminently achieved in Christ’s death and Resurrection, which won our redemption. Hence the priesthood is intimately connected to the Eucharist, which continues to make present the life-giving effects of the great Passover. On the same first Holy Thursday on which He instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ conferred priesthood on the apostles: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).
At the installation of every pastor I speak to him and to the parishioners, reminding them that the priest is to stand in the midst of that faith community as the image of Christ — the Imago Christi. The priest is to teach, to be the spiritual leader and to administer the sacraments, especially the Eucharist by which we participate in our salvation. Yes, this is an exalted picture of Catholic priesthood. It is the image painted by Jesus.
As Jesus was preparing His apostles and disciples for the day when He would no longer be with them and when His Church would take His place in carrying out His mission and ministry, He called them to the foundational element of discipleship — faith. Gathering the apostles, Jesus said to Peter in Matthew’s remarkable narrative of the encounter, “Who do you say that I am?” In other words, “Do you believe in me?” “Do you place your faith in me?” “Do you trust with your life, what I proclaim to you?” “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The priesthood, however, is more than an act of faith. It is a commitment to ministry. After His death and Resurrection and as He prepared to return to the glory of His Father, Jesus once again encountered Peter and the other apostles, this time not to question them about their faith but to ask them for their commitment to priestly ministry. John’s Gospel recounts the stirring exchange: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” to which, Simon Peter replied, “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.” Jesus simply rejoined, “Feed my sheep.” Again a second and a third time, Jesus continued the interrogation: “Do you love me more than these?” The answer was the same, “Yes,” and the challenge identical: “Then feed my sheep.” This is the heart of priestly ministry — if we love Christ we will tend His flock.
Christ is the light of the world. We are merely the mirrors that reflect it. Our entire ministry is identified with the mediatorship of Christ. The Gospels remind us of that in a poignant manner. It was only in the breaking of the bread that the disciples of Jesus came to recognize His presence. As they looked to the world around them, to historical events and to what they could see with the eyes of human experience, they had come to the end of the road. “We had hoped…” The melancholy implications of this phrase was that it had not been realized. We had hoped, and our hopes were not fulfilled. We had hoped, and our dreams evaporated. We had hoped, and our expectations were dashed.
Only in the breaking of the bread did they recognize the risen, ever-present Christ — the same today, as He was yesterday, and as he will be forever. Our ministry is focused on the Eucharist. We look to the Eucharist with the eyes of faith. We see the Lord Jesus who asks us, “Who do you say I am?” We see the risen Lord who asks us, “Do you love me more than these?” and, if you do, “Feed my sheep.” We look to the Eucharist and see that we are part of an unending realization of what we have come to call the Paschal Mystery. We re-present — we make present for our day — the dying and rising to new life in Jesus Christ in a way that the work of our redemption is carried out (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 11).
Any reflection on the priesthood today has to take place in the context of the New Evangelization. When Jesus first came among us, He offered a whole new way of living. The excitement spread as God’s Son, who is also one of us, announced the coming of the kingdom. The invitation to discipleship and a place in the kingdom that He held out to those who heard Him, He continues to hold out to you and to me today. But, for many, the invitation has lost its appeal.
We all know people who have drifted away from the faith and the understanding of priesthood, Eucharist and Church. In spite of the genuine and sometimes heroic efforts on the part of parents and teachers in our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs, we all have to admit that sometimes the first time around, the message simply wasn’t heard. For too many people, their religious instruction at whatever level failed them. Something went wrong.
Repropose Our Belief
Pope Benedict XVI used the word “repropose” to describe the New Evangelization. Somehow in what we do and how we express our faith, we have to be able to repropose our belief in Christ and His Gospel for a hearing among those who are convinced that they already know the faith and that it holds no interest for them. We have to invite them to hear it all over again, this time maybe for the first time.
The one and unchanging priesthood is lived out and exercised in circumstances that change from age to age, generation to generation. Today we are priests of the new millennium. We are priests of the New Evangelization. All ministry today has to be seen in the context of the Church that rejoices in and reflects the legacy of Blessed John Paul II and recognizes the challenges of this new moment and embraces the call to the New Evangelization. Blessed John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, offer vision and direction as the Church moves beyond past decades and looks to the future with renewed energy.
An elderly retired priest once was asked the question of whether, as he looked back over more than 70 years as a priest, his life of self-giving, self-emptying, service and ministry had been what he expected. His response is one I will never forget. He said, “Somewhere, someplace, a thousand years ago there was a priest, no one knows his name, no one remembers that he even existed. But because of his fidelity to his calling, centuries later I came to know Jesus Christ. Somewhere a thousand years from now, a young couple will bring their child to the baptismal font to receive the new life of Christ. It will be because of me!”
Hyperbole? I am not so sure. We priests are part of a living continuity of breaking the bread every day, decade after decade, century after century, millennium after millennium. In that continuous continuity of Eucharist, Jesus is revealed and made present to each generation and to every believer.
To know that we, priests, are configured to Christ in persona Christi is to recognize that we are a part of that great Body of Christ present in the world. We stand it the midst of the community as images of Christ in whose priesthood we share, the Christ who calls all of us, not just individually, but together as a presbyterate, bishops and priests working together, the Christ who asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”, the Christ who questioned us, “Do you love me more that these?”, the Christ who challenged you and me, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” TP
Cardinal Wuerl is archbishop of Washington, D.C.