Monday 3 October 2011

The Priesthood

The fifth in the series of sermons on the Mass. Preached by Fr Daniel Seward on 2nd October 2011, at the first Mass of Fr Nicholas Edmonds-Smith.

What we are to witness today in this first Mass is the revelation of the purpose of the whole of creation. When we ask why it was that our Lord chose bread and wine as the forms which would become His Body and Blood, we might think that it is simply because these were the staple foods of His time. This is true, but it looks at the question from the wrong end of the telescope. It is more true to say that grapes and wheat were created by God from the beginning so that they might be changed by us into wine and bread, and so that they might then be offered in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass.

In the same way then, Father Nicholas, in responding to God's call to the priesthood, is fulfilling the whole purpose of his own creation. Why were any of us created? So that we might participate in the Holy Mass. Why are we physical as well as spiritual beings? So that the Lord might become our food. Man was created for worship. The magnificence of the Universe, the beauty of the natural world, the rich possibilities of the human spirit; all of these point towards the Mass, which the Second Vatican Council described as the "source and summit of the Christian life" and we can say that it is also the source and summit of all life.

Tertullian said that all creation gives worship to God - in the animal kingdom by instinct. So he says that the birds pray by flying through the sky in the form of a cross. The psalmist says,

"The young lions roar for their prey and ask their food from God."

But only human beings in the physical creation are able consciously to give praise and thanks to God. One could say that we are able to do so on behalf of all creation, so that man is not only the steward, but also the priest of creation. What we offer or sacrifice to God comes from His own goodness, and it is just and right that we should praise Him by offering Him of His own. The scriptures show the unfolding of this human duty of sacrifice from the time of Cain and Abel onwards, when Abel's offering was acceptable to the Lord.

Israel was chosen by God out of all the peoples of the world not for its own sake only, but rather as a priestly nation for the sake of all others. A higher standard was expected of the chosen people precisely because they had had the Lord revealed to them. "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him?" (Deut. 4:7) Still, the prophets foretold a time when all the nations would stream to worship the Lord upon His holy mountain.

One of these prophecies - that of Malachi - is referred to in the third Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, and its significance is brought out much more clearly in the new English translation:

"You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name."

That is our purpose as Christians: to offer that pure sacrifice. Padre Pio once said that the earth could no more exist without the Mass than it could without the sun. Who knows how many disasters are averted, how many invisible graces are won, how many souls are saved unaware by each and every Mass that is celebrated? Someone once calculated that the consecration of the Eucharistic species takes place every eight seconds somewhere in the world. Each time we offer the Mass, we make present on earth the one, eternal sacrifice of Calvary. Without the Mass, the Cross would simply remain an event of history. By our offering of the Mass, as the new Israel, the priestly people of God, Christ is made present, and His life, death and resurrection can be applied for the salvation of humanity.

It is important that each of us is conscious of our vocation as members of the Church in our participation in the Mass - and from among God's people, priests are chosen to be the instruments by which Christ is brought to earth. We can see the exalted purpose the priest has: higher than any archangel, greater than that of Moses, Elijah or King David: his words take bread and wine out of existence and replace them with the Creator of the Universe; at his command sin is forgiven; by his ministry souls are ushered into eternal life. All this should lead us to have a high regard for the sacrament of Holy Orders. St Francis de Sales (of the Oratory) used sometimes to have a vision of his Guardian Angel, but we are told that after his ordination, the angel would never go through a door before him!

But we should not confuse the office with the person. Of all the causes of recent scandals and problems in the Church, one of the greatest is the vice of clericalism. Our reverence for the priesthood should not lead us to think that Father is (necessarily!) always right or that he is subject to different rules from others. The priest is an instrument, a channel through which God's grace flows. It is not his personal goodness that makes the sacraments work, but only the objective fact of his ordination. This is why the liturgy is governed by the rubrics, so as to remind us that the priest is not a master but a servant. We should not come away from Mass conscious of the personality of the priest who celebrates, rather, it is the person of Christ in whose person the priest acts that is the only important factor. This is why, as Pope Benedict says, there is no room whatever for creativity in the liturgy. Every word, every gesture, should come from the Roman Missal. The Holy Father writes:

"What the priest does at that moment, in the eucharistic celebration, is to serve, to fulfil a service to God and a service to humanity. The cult [that is, worship] that Christ rendered to the Father was the giving of himself to the end for humanity. Into this cult, this service, the priest must insert himself."

If we were to think of the priesthood as a job that needed certain abilities, then we would make a mistake. If it were simply a question of being able to communicate, dealing with people, administering a parish and so on, then we would say that anybody who had these qualities could be a priest. But actually the Lord does not choose us because of our merits any more than He selected those twelve illiterate men from Galilee because they were the best qualified. Rather, He calls us so that He might work through us, and so that His life, death and resurrection might become apparent in us. This is why priests are celibate, since their lives must be given wholly to Christ, and why they are of necessity male, since they act in persona Christi, as icons of the humanity of the Son of God.

But remember that this is nothing to do with power and privilege, but of service - or at least that is how it should be. Today we pray for Father Nicholas as he celebrates his first Mass, that he may be conformed entirely to the mystery of the Eucharist. St Thérèse of Lisieux, on whose feast day Fr Nicholas was ordained yesterday, saw her vocation as a Carmelite as to pray for priests: "Alas! how many bad priests there are, priests who are not holy enough...Let us pray, let us suffer for them."

We know that a bad priest can do incalculable harm - St John Bosco said that the walls of Hell are lined with birettas - but only because a priest has the capacity to do infinite good: truly infinite because it is the power of Christ Himself that acts through him. No wonder that St Thomas Aquinas says that a priest needs two Guardian Angels.

So we must thank the Lord that the call has been heard, and pray for those who may shut off the doors of their hearts to His knocking and so go away sad like the rich young man of the Gospel. Let us also ask that those who have already united themselves to the Lord at the altar may imitate Him in their lives, so that graces may be multiplied and all may come to love that God who acts through the anointed hands of His creature.