Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
April 4, 2012
"To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his Blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.” Revelation 1:5-6
The priest, like any Christian, is called to live the Paschal Mystery, but the way the priest lives the Pascal Mystery is particularly his. Allow me to share with you a little meditation on death and rebirth in the life of a priest. Let us begin with the Sacred Scriptures.
The One who “loves us” frees “us from our sins by his Blood” to make us a kingdom of “priests.” What does it mean to be a priest of God? St. Thomas Aquinas will tell us that a priest is defined by sacrifice. Isn’t this what makes Christ a priest? We know that Jesus Christ is at one and the same time both the priest who offers sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. Jesus “… did that once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27).
The sacrifice once offered becomes extended and overflowing. The effects of the sacrifice are so abundant that God makes them present to all. This “all” must be understood, however, as revealed in the Scriptures. The Letter to the Hebrews, in a beautiful description of this abundance, speaks of it this way: “… Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him” (Hebrews 9:28).
In the new translation of the Roman Missal we see a return to the explicit Scriptural imagery found in the original text. One great example of this is the translation of the solemn words of consecration. “For this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The more accurate “for many” replaces the previous “for all.” I remember the question being asked, why change “all” to “many.” Doesn’t this imply a limitation? In fact, the change limits nothing and only heightens the meaning for two reasons. First, it is truer to the Scriptural original. “For many” preserves the Semitic meaning of “all.” There is an offering for all, but all are not open to it. This is the second point. Extended to all, there are some who will refuse it. “For many” is a subtle way of inviting response. There is then what has been called an ambiguity, an ambiguity suggested by the conclusion of that earlier verse from Hebrews. An offering can be either accepted or refused. Christ “will appear a second time… to bring salvation to those”—many—“who eagerly await him” (Hebrews 9:28). “For many,” in the final analysis, is part of the sacrificial language that reflects not only Christ who is sacrificed but also the priest who presents the sacrifice. Christ is sacrificed, and He uses His priest to propose His sacrifice. The priest must, above all, be one “who eagerly await[s] him.” The priest must make a choice for Christ.
As purveyors of this sacrifice, we, as priests, propose a choice to the people of God. We proclaim to the people of God a choice that we must first make definitively ourselves. We must be those many “who eagerly await him.” One who waits puts aside himself. One who waits has made a choice opposed to the world and its choices. In the words of Garrigou-Lagrange, “A priest is a man despoiled.”
When I think of being despoiled, I think of victims ravaged by a storm, stripped of possessions, deprived of home and sustenance. I think of the people displaced in our recent hurricanes. We have all heard them speak of their trials. We have also seen them embrace something new to replace what they lost. Is not this the language of sacrifice? Is not this the language of Christ? “[S]o must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). He must be handed over (John 13:2). The grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die (John 12:24). Only then can something redemptive take place. And it is perhaps here that we enter into the richest liturgical and scriptural language of the priest.
On the night before Jesus was “handed over,” He “took bread” and “broke it” (I Corinthians 11:23, 24). The Scriptural wording is interwoven into the Eucharistic Prayers. The description of what Christ did becomes what the priest does. He raises his eyes to heaven (Eucharistic Prayer I), breaks the bread, takes a chalice of Blood “which will be poured out.” There is oblation, offering, service, and victim. There is altar, participation, “humble prayer and petition.” This is the language of sacrifice, the language of Jesus, His and ours.
Bread cannot “be” unless the grain of wheat is ground. Wine cannot “be” unless the grapes are crushed. Oil, that other great sacramental matter, cannot “be” without olives being mashed to extract their precious liquid. This is the great subtlety of the Gospel chosen for this Chrism Mass. Jesus quotes Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (John 4:18; Isaiah 61:1). Just as bread and wine are inextricably linked to the life of the priest, so is it with oil. And once he is offered and takes upon himself the persona Christi, then his life becomes sacrifice. He “bring[s] glad tidings to the poor, proclaim[s] liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (John 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2). All of this sounds lovely, but there is something uncomfortably sacrificial about this litany of priestly duties. The priest is “broken,” “poured out,” and humbled, when he brings “glad tidings to the poor,” “proclaim[s] liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” frees the oppressed, and preaches the “good news” which many long to hear.
Just recently a layman wrote to me saying that he had attended the Mass of a priest in the diocese. He said he was so moved by the homily, whose topic was controversial, he felt like applauding. He concluded, “I never felt so proud to be a Catholic.” Later I saw the priest and passed on the compliment. The priest was embarrassed and responded, “I’m not sure what I said that was all that profound. It was just the truth.” God bless that priest! He was being very humble, but is there such thing as “just the truth”? I don’t think the truth is ever “just” the truth. The truth can disrupt the center of deception. The truth can set us free. It does so because it is sacrificial. We must give up a part of ourselves, like a child begging forgiveness from his parents by telling the truth or any of us admitting a mistake or humbling ourselves in the Sacrament of Penance. The simple fact is we cannot preach the truth unless we live the truth, and this is sacrificial in the life of the priest. The truth implies a dying to self. The truth is always vitally linked to the cross.
Do you recall earlier in Lenten Office of Readings, the passage from the commentary On the Book of Job by Pope St. Gregory the Great? He wrote, “If the mystery of the Lord’s passion is to be effectual in us, we must imitate what we receive and proclaim to others what we venerate.” What a superb insight to help us through our priesthood! Everyone must embody the Paschal Mystery, but the priest in his own way is the Paschal Mystery. He must know the Lord very well. He must absorb Him so that knowing Him, the priest is turned into love and love into action. This can only happen as a result of dying to self. The priest must not merely make an act of faith. He must be an act of faith. For this sacrifice is required. He cannot be like everyone else. If he does not ascend, he descends (cf. Garrigou-Lagrange). He must be a cut above, always striving for the perfection for which the Sacrifice he offers is a model. The sheep must see the Sacrifice and the Mystery lived by shepherds who are willing to give their lives for the sheep (cf. Luke 4:21). The Paschal Mystery is alive in the life of the priest when the priest imitates the Lord whom he receives and proclaims the Lord whom he adores.