Fifth Sunday of Easter.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
In the second reading proclaimed this Sunday, St. Peter reminds us that by virtue of our baptism “we have become a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Each and every one of us has an incomparable dignity on account of our human nature. Whether we are the wealthiest and most powerful person on earth or the weakest, downtrodden and most vulnerable, whether we are a saint or the perpetrator of the most heinous crimes, we share in our common human nature created in the image and likeness of God. We share our infinite dignity with every other human being that ever was, is or will be, simply because we are human, regardless of any other consideration. We share our human nature with Jesus Christ, true God and true man. This fact applies to every single human being.
Some of us, through no merit of our own, have received the sacrament of Baptism that has configured us to Christ in a special way and made us temples of the Holy Spirit. To be baptized does not make us any better than anybody else, but carries a great responsibility, we have to be Christ to others. We share in the mission of Christ, priest, prophet and king. That is the reason why St. Peter reminds us that we have been called into the wonderful light of Christ and are called by virtue of our Baptism to announce his praises. Every Christian ought to be diligently working for the sanctification of the world. We aspire to make the world not just a better place but a holier place, because we share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, through the ordinary priesthood of the baptized.
This ordinary priesthood of the baptized is, of course, different from the sacrament of Holy Orders, the ministerial priesthood. It is not only a matter of degree but an essential difference. One of the best summaries of the difference between the two is found in the preface for the Chrism Mass. (The preface is the part of Mass that opens with a dialogue between the priest and the people, “The Lord be with you… Lift up your hearts… Let us give thanks…”)
“For by the anointing of the Holy Spirit you made your Only Begotten Son High Priest of the new and eternal covenant, and by your wondrous design were pleased to decree that his one Priesthood should continue in the Church.
For Christ not only adorns with a royal priesthood the people he has made his own, but with a brother’s kindness he also chooses men to become sharers in his sacred ministry through the laying on of hands.
They are to renew in his name the sacrifice of human redemption, to set before your children the paschal banquet, to lead your holy people in charity, to nourish them with the word and strengthen them with the Sacraments.
As they give up their lives for you and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, they strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself and offer you a constant witness of faith and love.”
The priest is not just a Church official, an administrator, not even a preacher of the Word. He must conform himself entirely to Christ. Of course, that is impossible for a frail and vulnerable human being. Only with the assistance of the sacramental grace can he live out that calling. Many people, even Catholics sometimes lose sight of this fact and see the priesthood from a purely functional perspective, forgetting the fact that the priest is meant to make present in our midst the reality of the Kingdom of God. Many misunderstandings about the priesthood stem from this fact.
Priestly celibacy, for example, makes a lot of sense because the priest is called to empty himself in imitation of Christ. Celibacy is not about suppressing sexuality, it is not a practical matter so that the priest can spend longer hours at work or to avoid inheritance problems. Our sexuality is good. Just like every other dimension of our humanity it needs redemption, we need to cultivate the virtue of chastity lest it turns against us. Celibacy is not a rejection of sexuality or pleasure. It is an affirmation of their goodness while acknowledging that there are greater goods.
To be a Catholic priest is about being crucified with Christ and making present in our midst the final reality of our existence when men and women will neither marry nor be given in marriage. By emptying himself of the deepest longing of the human heart which would be for a man to find a woman with whom he could form a family, the place where all the natural inclinations of the human person to truth, beauty, goodness, self-preservation, and the preservation of the species converge; the priest is making a statement with his entire being that even the best things the world has to offer are not the final and definite reality of our lives. Communion with God is the end goal of our existence. That is what priestly celibacy is about. Of course, for a frail and vulnerable, wounded human being to live this tall order, this sublime calling, it is imperative that he relies heavily on the grace of God received at the time of his ordination, thus the importance of prayer in the life of the priest.
This weekend several men are ordained for the Archdiocese of Miami. Also, Friday, May 12 marked the tenth anniversary of my ordination. I have vivid memories of that beautiful day when I received the incomparable gift of the priesthood that has been the source of many blessings in my life, allowing me among other privileges to be an eyewitness to the action of grace in this corner of the world.
To be a Christian is to be in a relationship of love with One who is alive, to have encountered somebody who gives a decisive orientation to one’s life. To be a priest is a labor of love, to make Christ present in the world, to empty oneself so as to become a channel of the love and mercy of God. Both the ordinary priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of those of us ordained are a manifestation of the infinite and passionate love of God for us!
Fr. Roberto M. Cid