On the 12th June, The Feast of the Sacred Heart, we have been asked to pray for the sanctification of all priests.. but what does that long word mean? What are we actually praying for? The word “sanctification” means being made more holy, in other words growing closer to God; and it’s a process that all Christians are meant to be undergoing all the way through our lives, as we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in us. Of course, we are never fully sanctified, we die less than perfectly holy; but the process of sanctification is then completed by God after death, provided we are open to it, so that finally we can be one with God for ever.
What I want to share with you today however is not how you can become more holy, but more specifically some ideas about how priests can become more holy, since that is what we have been asked to pray for ; and I thought I would do so by looking at the nature of God, of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and showing that what God is like might help to explain what we might expect every Catholic priest to aim for.
God the Father is, of course, God as the Creative Power underlying the Universe. I know a young man who is coming to study for a Doctorate in Astro-Physics here in Oxford next October who explained to me that he would be studying the formation of galaxies, and that there were hundreds of thousands of them – in fact he then gave me a figure so immense that I just lost the ability to understand how big that was. If we cannot grasp what the Universe is like in its immensity, how can we ever grasp what God is like? And that’s the point isn’t it? If we are to be like God, we must always keep in mind how holy, how much beyond us, God the Father is.
The Priest can easily forget this. He can get too familiar with the words he uses every day as he says Mass, and the other Prayers of the Church. If a priest is to be holy he needs to meditate regularly on the mystery and majesty of God that he is called to convey to others through the Holy Mystery that is the Mass. When a priest is ordained, the Bishop hands him the vessels in which the bread and wine are to be consecrated and says “Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate.” Powerful words! But easily forgotten as the Mass becomes more and more familiar. I find I have had to think of different ways throughout my time as a priest to bring to mind what the Mass is. At the moment I am trying to think myself into the person of Jesus as I say his words “This is my Body…This is my Blood.”, but before long I will have to vary this to keep myself thinking in new ways of the mystery of what I am doing.
Moving on then from God the Father to God the Son, we all know that we are meant to be more like Jesus, especially more loving and more sacrificial; but how does this relate specifically to a priest. Most obviously it is is shown to us all on Holy Thursday when the priest washes feet in imitation of Jesus. Remember how horrified St Peter is at seeing Jesus doing the task of the lowliest slave? It’s all too easy for a priest to think of himself as something special. You laity are a bit like St Peter. If you see “Father” doing some lowly job, you are inclined to be a bit shocked. Some of you, not all, can easily put the priest on a pedestal. You honour his office, which is right, but somehow you can end up making a priest think he is more important than he is. To be like Christ means he must be a servant not a Lord, and people who are given power and leadership, as a priest is, can easily allow that to go to their head! This can come out in the Confessional too, as Pope Francis pointed out recently to some priests he had just ordained. How easy it is for a Priest to forget what he is there for. The Pope has clearly heard some horror stories of bad priests, as I have, when he said firmly “You are there to forgive, not to condemn!”
Finally we meet God the Holy Spirit within us, working in all sorts of ways according to what we are like, but always for one goal, as St Paul says, “ To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” – in other words for the good of the Church and its work in bringing God’s love to the world. The Priest can forget this. He has to run his Church, and he can get immersed in all the day to day administration that this brings – from making sure the sick and housebound are cared for to dealing with the sewers or the sound system when they go wrong. But the Priest is ordained principally to be the link with the Bishop and with the worldwide Church of which we are only a small part. He has to remember that when he says Mass, he does so not in his own power, but only in the power of the Church, and in the power of Christ as its Head. It is Christ who celebrates Mass, not the individual priest, and every priest needs to remember that!
The priest also has to remember that when he preaches, he is called to preach the Gospel, not his own opinions. He may, indeed he must, use examples and illustrations that are personal to him, or to the people he is speaking to; but always in order to convey the Faith of the Church, not to promote his own bandwagon. Indeed some of the most dangerous priests are the most successful ones. Success can go to our heads, and can mislead the people, who faced later with a quieter less bouncy priest can drift away from the faith, because their faith has become too dependent on the personality of one priest. In a way, you need to pray that your priest will make mistakes, and own up to them, because then he is likely to be more humble and thus more holy.
Anyway I hope these thoughts have helped you with your prayers and given you some suggestions on how to treat your priest whoever he may be!