Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
April 20, 2011
Wednesday of Holy Week
Chrism Mass

“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

There is an enormous hunger on the part of the people we serve for holiness and by extension Christ, because Jesus Christ is the means by which any holiness is achieved.  God has placed deep in the heart of each one a hunger for Him.  Holiness satisfies that hunger, and the sheep await the shepherd’s voice to lead them to the food they desire—nothing less than Christ the Lord.  There is a Gospel to be preached, there is a worship of God in which that preaching is to be found, and there is a sacrifice essential to that worship.  It is in this ecclesial mission that the priesthood of Jesus Christ finds its raison d’être.  

In a few moments, I will ask you, the priests of this diocese, to renew your commitment to priestly service.  The questions speak to the heart of this particular call and this critical vocation.  I will ask if you are “ready to renew your own dedication to Christ as priests of his new covenant.”  I will inquire whether or not you are willing to put aside your “pleasure and ambition to bring his peace and love to your brothers and sisters.”  I will conclude by posing questions that remind you of the “sincere devotion” with which you should celebrate the sacred liturgy and that remind you to imitate Christ by teaching faithfully what He taught, “without thinking of your own profit, solely for the well-being of the people you were sent to serve.”        

The priesthood is incredible, when you think of it.  I say this because I marvel at it as a work of Jesus Christ.  Our Lord instituted it to carry on His work.  We are taught in our theology that all sacraments are the work of Jesus Christ, ex opere operato.   A priest is an alter Christus, we are told.  With apologies to St. Augustine (Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Tract VI, # 7)—when Father John baptizes, Christ baptizes.  When Father Jim anoints, Christ anoints.  It all belongs to Christ.

Perhaps at no other time is this brought home to me as when I meet someone I thought a stranger on the street.  And he says to me, “Father, I am so glad to see you.  I have wanted to write you a letter for a long time.  Do you remember when I came to you twenty years ago?  My life was a wreck, but you helped turn me around.  You listened to my problems.  You heard my confession.  I am so thankful to you.  As a matter of fact, I am married now.  My wife and I have four children, and we all go to Mass faithfully, make retreats, and take our faith seriously.  That wouldn’t have happened, if it hadn’t been for you.”  He is so excited that I dare not correct him.  I let him speak because I can’t remember a thing.   Maybe he mistook me for another priest.  That happens.  Regardless, I think to myself, it’s not my work that did it.  It is Christ.  I say nothing but just listen.  It is so marvelous, and I am thankful to God that his life and the life of his family aren’t still a “wreck” and I pray that their lives will stay on track.  Such is the way Christ works, and it is marvelous to behold.  Finally, I say to him, “You know, Jack, Christ did it all.  Whatever good happened was due to Christ working through His priest.”  

Jesus knew this, when he stood in the synagogue of Nazareth and opened the scroll to Isaiah 61 and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim 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” (Luke 4:18-19).   He rolled “up the scroll, … handed it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:20), and he thought of you.  Yes, He had come to fulfill the great prophetic vision of Isaiah and much more.  How would this marvelous work continue?  He thought of His priests.  Praying to His Father in the great prayer of priestly consecration at the Last Supper, Jesus says, “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.  And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:18-19).  He was thinking of His priests.

Jesus was thinking of you when He said to the disciples, “Whoever listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16).  He was thinking of you when He spoke to his disciples, “… knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted you” (Matthew 13:11).  And He was thinking of you on the night before He died when He said to the apostles, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).  And He was certainly thinking of you when before His ascension He said to the apostles, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20).   Priests are entrusted with Word and Sacrament.  They speak it.  They hold it in their hands.  And in their intimacy with Word and Sacrament, the priests must bring the innocence, truthfulness, and purity of Christ.

What then can sabotage priestly virtue in this present age?  May I suggest something that we all feel a temptation to at times.  It is cynicism.  This is cynicism not in the classical sense of the Greek philosophers, where virtue is the only good and the essence of virtue is self-control.  I point to cynicism as we have come to understand it in the modern world—thinking that only selfishness motivates human action and that we can only disparage or distrust the motives of others.  In cynicism there can be no appeal to a higher good that motivates someone to act altruistically, because there cannot be a completely selfless act.  This attitude of cynicism comes about for many reasons—extreme disappointment, unexplained suffering, lack of wisdom and understanding, deeply felt resentment.  Jesus encountered this corrosive cynicism.    

The classic example is Pilate.  When Jesus says that anyone who “belongs to the truth listens to [his] voice,” Pilate responds, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38).   That Jesus would submit himself to humiliation and crucifixion for a higher good is beyond the thinking of this bureaucratic Roman.  For that matter cynicism is present in the Pharisees who keep thinking that there must be some deceit in the actions and words of Jesus.  They even place a guard at the tomb because they fear that the disciples will come and steal the body and claim resurrection.  “This last imposture would be worse than the first,” (Matthew 27:64) they say.  For them the life of Jesus has been imposture.  Jesus contrasts this cynicism with His innocence.  He spoke the truth.  He remained obedient unto death.  In this innocence Jesus leaves everyone an example but particularly His priests.

Innocence in the life of the priest confronts noisy cynicism with its own witness.  The life of the priest, the consistency between words and actions, the integrity of imitating Christ, must speak for itself.  The spirit of the world will always question the motives of the Church and the priests who teach for Christ.  The priest must never allow this “leaven of the Pharisees” to contaminate his soul.  He must keep himself pure and undefiled.  Just as the Old Testament priests purified themselves before offering sacrifice, the priest of Jesus Christ must realize that in speaking and acting for Christ, he must “belong to the truth.”  The priest must allow the truth to purify.  

Belonging to the truth, the priest must keep his conscience pure.  To do this, he must know God.  He must have met Him, encountered Him, and embraced Him.  Cynicism cannot compromise our communion with the Father.

The compassionate priest knows compassion.  The patient priest has met the patience of the Father.  The merciful priest is the priest to whom the Father has shown mercy.  To realize these qualities, the priest must be a child who sees in the Father the one who loves him.  Then the priest can approach the altar of God and offer sacrifice and in Word and Sacrament be the “other Christ” who “has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).