In these conferences, I have been reflecting on the spirituality of the priest in light of the rite of ordination with the conviction that we understand the nature of the priesthood and thus its spiritual components by way of the ritual that makes it. This final reflection takes us to the end of the rite itself.
Having imposed hands on the candidate and praying the prayer of consecration, the rite moves forward rather rapidly. After the prayer of consecration there are four actions that equip the newly ordained priest with the tools he will need to perform his ministry and thus devote his life to the service of God’s holy people: the anointing of his hands, his vesting, the reception of the gifts and the sign of peace.
The anointing of the hands is, like the laying on of hands, an ancient ritual gesture. There is no anointing in the ordination of deacons. In the ordination of bishops, the head is anointed. For priests, it is the hands. Anointing, like so many actions of the rite, has an almost universal anthropological significance. Many cultures and religious traditions employ consecrated oils in rites of initiation and the appointment of religious personnel. It has two purposes, to set something apart and to seal a blessing. In the Old Testament, anointing is a sign of setting apart. The High Priest and the king are referred to as "the anointed" or the “Lord’s anointed”. (Lev 4 and 6 and Psalm 132).Anointing was also a sign of fitness for prophecy (I Kings 19, 16). The anointing of a king was his power. It set him apart as is evident from the anointing of David in the first book of Samuel.
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.(I Samuel, 16,13).
In the Old Testament, anointing is likewise a sign of healing, protection and sealing (Isaiah 1,6. Psalm 109). The same imagery is found in the New Testament. The Samaritan poured oil upon the wounds of the man to heal him. (Luke 10, 34). The significance of anointing takes on particular meaning in the New Testament. Jesus is the messiah, in Greek, the Christ, the anointed one. The anointing of the priest in the rite of ordination is connected to all of these things. First, the anointing sets the priest apart. He is established for holy duty. Unlike the priests of the Old Covenant who performed their priestly duties in annual shifts, the priest of the New Covenant is set apart permanently. As Pope Benedict XVI mentioned in his recent homily for the Chrism Mass “What happened symbolically to the kings and priests of the Old Testament when they were instituted into their ministry by the anointing with oil, takes place in Jesus in all its reality: his humanity is penetrated by the power of the Holy Spirit. He opens our humanity for the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Ours is a continual sacrifice of praise and we are anointed for that purpose. Our being set apart by our anointing also has spiritual ramifications. Concretely speaking the priest is not like other people. Here I do not mean to imply that there is something about the priest that should keep him from engaging with others in normal social interaction. Not at all, the priest needs friends and intimate acquaintances from a human standpoint. The priest is not set apart because he is a different species of person, or has different basic needs. He is set apart by his power and spiritual authority. He can confect, he can absolve, he can anoint the sick. No other human agent can do these essential things. That is not a cause for pride but a cause for realizing the immense responsibility the priest has. The abuse of that power and authority is the sole cause of much of the scandal in the Church today. As the priest is anointed on his hands, the priest’s hands should always be a reminder of what has been entrusted to him. Not only has he been set apart but he has been sealed. He is a priest forever. The sealing of the anointing of the hands mirrors the sealing of the baptismal rite and later confirmation. The anointing is “sealing in” the consecration and hopefully the priest’s formation as well. The hands are fortified. The rite also mirrors the consecration of altars and churches, physical objects sealed for their use and set apart. A beautiful tradition connected with the ordination of priests is the tradition of the manutergium. Before the reform of the rite of ordination after Vatican II, the priest’s hands were wrapped in a linen cloth. The cloth, now soaked with the anointing oil, was given as a gift to the priest’s mother. Traditionally it was placed in her casket and was said to be her clavis caeli (key of heaven). While not required in the new rite, it is not forbidden. The symbol of the manutergium forms a beautiful connection between the ordination and the priest’s family, his place of origin.
The anointing is accompanied by these words: “The Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, guard and preserve you, that you may sanctify the Christ people and offer sacrifice to God.” All of the symbolism of the rite is contained there, separation for a purpose and sealing. Most significantly, it connects the newly ordained priest to Christ his sovereign and his model.
The next action of the rite that arms the newly ordained with his priestly identity is the clothing with the vestments. Ritual garments are an essential part of any cultic identity. Like the anointing, the vestments set the priest apart. He is vested with particular garments, the garments of the priesthood, but they are placed over his common Christian garment, the alb, that white garment with which he was clothed at baptism. This is an important image. Baptism is his first identity, discipleship. Now he is to be set aside within that context for service as a priest. He has particular garments for this reality. Here I think it is important to reflect upon the cultic identity of the priest. A great deal has been written in recent years about reclaiming a cultic identity within the priesthood. I think this is significant but possible unnecessary. Perhaps the image of the priesthood has become too sanitized, too pedestrian in recent generations. I have often said that the priest has more in common with shamans than with social workers, but that is not to exclude the importance of the latter. The priest must realize that he is not dealing with merely earthbound matters. I use this expression rather than merely human matters because the task of the priest is not to only to acknowledge the earthiness of those whom he serves, but to serve them authentically by pointing out their heavenly citizenship as well. We must be careful here. The priest does not give heavenly citizenship. He points it out. The priest is a cultic agent, but he is also an anthropological agent. His task is to offer insight to others about their true nature. The people of God are made in the likeness of God, and most particularly in the likeness of Christ. Christ was possessed of two simultaneous realities, human and divine. We are conformed to Christ as disciples. We likewise share this dual citizenship and yet our self-perceptions can be very earth bound. The priest points to heaven while remaining here on earth. He points to our true nature and our reality over and against the false messages of inauthentic culture. His ability to make this profession is a function of his office, but it must also be evident in his way of living. The priest is a cultic figure in that he is both a denizen of culture and a transformer of culture. His being set apart for this duty is signified in the vesture. The vesting prayers of the extraordinary form give us some insight into this symbolism.
With the alb
Dealba me, Domine, et a delicto meo munda me; ut cum his, qui stolas suas dealbaverunt in sanguine Agni, gaudiis perfruar sempiternis.
“Purify me, Lord, and cleanse my heart so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.”
The connection to baptism is clear and, in particular, the eschatological nature of baptism. Baptism connects us not only to a concrete community of faith but to an eschatological community the implications of which are continually played out in our lives.
With the cincture:
Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo fidei et virtute castitatis lumbos meos, et extingue in eis humorem libidinis; ut jugiter maneat in me vigor totius castitatis.
Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and extinguish in me all evil desires, that the virtue of chastity may abide in me.
The cincture is another sign of separation, in particular through the priestly charism of celibacy.
With the stole:
Redde mihi, Domine, obsecro, stolam immortalitatis, quam perdidi in praevaricatione primi parentis; et, quamvis indignus accedere praesumo ad tuum sacrum mysterium cum hoc ornamento, praesta, ut in eodem in perpetuum merear laetari.
“Restore unto me, I beseech You, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and inasmuch as I presume to draw near to Your holy Mystery with this adornment, unworthy though I be, grant that I may be worthy to rejoice in the same unto eternity.”
Often the stole is seen as representative of authority. It was worn by judges and other officials in the ancient world. It is still a part of the coronation regalia in modern monarchies. The prayer ties the stole to immortality. It is the rope by which the priest climbs, or is pulled to heaven and the rope by which others, through the Holy Mystery will climb with him.
With the Chasuble:
Domine, qui dixisti: Jugum meum suave est, et onus meum leve: fac, ut illud portare sic valeam, quod possim consequi tuam gratiam.
“O Lord, Who said: My yoke is easy and My burden light: grant that I may bear it well and follow after You with thanksgiving.”
Whom does the priest represent? Christ the Lord and him alone. The chasuble is the priest’s daily reminder of what he has received and what he is.
After the vesting, the priest once again kneels before the bishop and hears these words: “Receive the oblation of God from the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
This part of the rite is very powerful. First it connects the priest’s life and ministry of service to the people, always to the people. The rubric says: “Some of the faithful bring a paten holding the bread and chalice containing the wine mixed with water for the celebration of Mass.” What are these gifts? What do they represent? What will they become? The prayers for the preparation of the gifts give us some insight here. They are the gifts of the earth, the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands. Our Lord chose these very gifts to be the accidental forms by which his holy body and blood would be communicated to the world in a perpetual sacrifice of praise. Obviously they had ritual implications in the chabura/seder meal he celebrated with his disciples in the upper room at the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Even in that context, however, they represented something deeper than aspects of a cultural pattern; they represented and represent the basic elements of our livelihood. The bread and wine of the Passover represented the Jewish people’s liberation because they represented the Jewish people. Bread and wine are basic to human sustenance in what amounts to an almost universal anthropological signification. Bread and wine are what keep human persons alive. They are also the creative engagement of earthly elements and human labor. In the anthropology of food, culture is required for bread and wine as opposed to wheat and grapes. Bread and wine require our participation and our intentionality. We have to make them. In the theology of human labor then, they are a part of us. Bread and wine not only keep us alive, they keep us living through our positive intervention in our creative longevity. When the gifts are presented then, the holy people are giving not only what they need to survive, they are giving the best and most basic elements of themselves.
Now the newly ordained priest is called to receive it. In receiving the gifts, he is receiving the lives those gifts represent. He is receiving the basic aspirations of the people. He is receiving their livelihood. He is receiving all of them. They in turn are entrusting themselves to the priest, or rather to what the priest will do with those gifts. The exchange speaks volumes. The people say: Here is what we have. Here is what keeps us alive. Here is the work of our hands. But it is not enough. It is not enough just to keep ourselves alive. Our creative energies are not sufficient in themselves. Take these gifts priest and make them more than they are at present. Give them life by joining them to God. You alone priest are able to make that journey. We need more. You alone can provide the more we need. Thus the presentation of the gifts becomes a pledge of unity between the best of humanity soon to be augmented by the Divine life which will fill up the best of humanity. As in the Incarnation and the theological ramifications of redemption, Man provides the raw material for the sacrifice. Why did God become man? Man owed a debt and he owed it in the very ground of his being. God alone can satisfy that debt. In the light of the Incarnation and Redemptive act of Christ, the presentation of the gifts is a sign of what is; the perfection of the human condition in the sacrifice of Christ, the unity of God and Man. This is a momentous exchange. It is a cosmic and an historical exchange. It teaches the newly ordained an important lesson: You are here to offer this exchange continually because this exchange is our strength, our life, our only hope.
Who brings these gifts forward? Your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters? Certainly. And all Mankind. All of humanity brings these forward. The familiar and the familial bring them forward. The stranger and the outcast bring them forward.
What does the bishop say? “Understand what you do.” This is perhaps the most sobering injunction of the ordination rite. Narrowly interpreted, this means that the newly ordained priest ought to know how to offer the sacrifice. He ought to understand the principles of the liturgy. He needs to know the rubrics and the proper gestures. But that is not enough. He also needs to know what the sacrifice means. He needs to know the symbolic universe it inhabits. He needs to probe the metaphysical implications of the sacrifice. He must understand where he stands in a greater than natural order. He must appreciate the final significance of this sacrifice. He must also know that in this Holy Sacrifice he is handling the Body and Blood of Christ, but not only in the sacrifice proper, the insight must extend further. The priest will take the bread and wine. He will renew the sacrifice of Christ. He will offer it back to the people in a wonderful exchange. And those who partake of it will become what they consume. The Eucharist makes the Church. The Body of Christ is for the Body of Christ. Now the injunction of the bishop takes on even greater dimensions. Understand what you do not only in the Mass but as a result of the Mass. Understand what you are touching when you touch the lives of the faithful. Understand what you are doing when you “handle” the fragile Body of Christ encountered daily in your ministry and life as a priest. Respect and revered the Body of Christ in the sacrifice and in the tabernacle, but also in the assembly. Understanding leads to respect, authentic respect in the sense of looking again. In our pastoral engagement we are perpetually called to look again. We must see again what we may not see the first time, the authentic presence of Christ in the troubling, the difficult, and the problematic. Understanding what you do means knowing how to appreciate what you have assisted in bringing about. The command goes even further. Understand what you do and who you are. The command seems to be a clarion call to realize your identity as a priest. Who is the priest? What is his function? What is his essence? These questions cannot be answered simply or at first sight. The answer to these questions begins when the newly ordained priest takes the paten and cup. He begins a sacrificial journey at that moment that will not only touch the gifts he has received. It will also touch him, effect him, change him. The priest is unveiled to the world and to himself in his offering of the sacrifice. The paten and the chalice are his key to self-identity because through those vessels and what they contain, he discovers Christ. Christ is the true signifier. Christ is the only thing that makes a difference in this dramatic engagement. In the rite the priest is called to “imitate what you celebrate” to become Christ. How can this be done? By conforming to the mystery of his cross. What is the mystery of the cross? It is tension. The cross is that tensile place, that crossroads of opportunity. In his crucifixion, Christ had the possibility of becoming either a scandal or a source of life. He became a source of life to all who believe. The cross is the intersection between heaven and earth, the vertical and the horizontal. The cross is firmly planted in the earth but reaches decidedly to heaven. Conforming our lives to the mystery of the cross means placing ourselves there, or perhaps more precisely realizing that we are there. Our lives have the opportunity to be either a scandal or a source of life. Some few of our brothers chose the scandal. We must choose the source of life. We become the source of life only when, like Christ, we surrender our will to the will of the Father, we trust being cared for as we drink the cup of the world’s suffering. We become the source of like when like Christ the Good Shepherd we foolishly seek the lost sheep. We become the source of life and thus live the fruitfulness of the mystery of the cross when we recognize that we stand in that unique place, between heaven and earth. The cross without Christ is a symbol of sadism. The cross with Christ, is a symbol of love. Conforming our lives to the mystery of the Lord’s cross means we are willing to put everything aside, family, lands, home, job, everything to become a vessel of his love for the world. We become a paten that holds his body, a sacred chalice that contains his blood and everything we do has the potential, through his grace alone, to change the axis of a sinful world.
The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven. It is not by chance that the Eastern Anaphoras and the Latin Eucharistic Prayers honour Mary, the ever-Virgin Mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, the angels, the holy apostles, the glorious martyrs and all the saints. This is an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention: in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lamb, we are united to the heavenly “liturgy” and become part of that great multitude which cries out: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 19)
Who does not need a glimpse of this vision?
Finally the bishop gives the newly ordained the fraternal kiss of peace. His words are the words of the risen Christ: “Peace be with you” Peace will certainly follow if the priest has attended carefully to the injunctions that have been offered in the rite. He will be a man of peace, God’s own peace, which may not always look to the world like peacefulness, but it is peace in the truest, deepest, and most abiding sense. The priests present also the newly ordained the kiss of peace. The fraternity of the presbyterate cannot be gainsaid. The priest is now one of their number and will take his place. In many dioceses the common vestment now makes the newly ordained difficult to find in this sea of men. That seems fitting. He is a part of an army of priests, formed together to wage a war of love. The irony should not be lost. The rite allows for the singing of the antiphon: “You are my friends says the Lord, if you do what I command”. So be it. The rite of ordination is now over. The priest must move on to his first celebration of the Holy Eucharist as a priest. He does so with his fellow priests, led by the bishop, the most fitting sign of God’s plan of the Church. Now the newly ordained priest can expect many days. He will face many trials. He will enjoy countless triumphs. He will be loved and reviled. He will have moments of perfect clarity and moments of grave doubt about his decision to become a priest. There is no question that all of these potential difficulties are worth it when we consider the core of the priest’s call in the Eucharist, in priestly service and in evangelization:
From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and her communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church draws the spiritual power needed to carry out her mission. The Eucharist thus appears as both the source and the summit of all evangelization, since its goal is the communion of mankind with Christ and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 22).
Going back to the insight that began these reflections, it is necessary for the priest to find his authentic identity and his true spirituality in the words of this rite. The rite makes him a priest. Often today there can seem to be a move among some of your younger brethren that the priesthood is not enough. In the wind today is talk of particular gifts given to some priests and not others. Some have various gifts and this is certainly scriptural. St. Paul tells us as much in the First Letter to the Corinthians. “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. (I Cor 12, 3-6).
We certainly know that all priests are not the same. We wouldn’t want them to be. We have great preachers and mediocre preachers. We have amazing teachers and some who seem regularly to induce slumber. We have those who excel at the bedside of the sick and those who avoid the hospital like the plague. Nuances of talent are not the significant issue in looking at the life and ministry of the priest. They exist. A dangerous move for both the theology and spirituality of the priesthood is the introduction of the notion that some priests have more than others. Every priest is the same. Every priest is called to the same thing. The introduction of the perception of special gifts above the priesthood is insidious. There is not greater power in the hands of men than the power to confect, absolve and anoint the sick. Show me a priest who thinks he has special powers above these and I will show you, in almost every instance, a narcissistic charlatan. Brothers we are called to a vocation of custody, custody of the Divine Power that God intends to unleash upon the world through the passion, death and resurrection of his son. That power is the power of love. The rite of ordination tells us who we are. It tells us that definitively. It tells us that permanently. My brothers, there is no greater vocation to which we can be called, if we take it soberly and seriously. There is no greater power entrusted to human hands, if we assume it humbly and diligently. There is not greater act that the human mind can conceive than the act of sacrifice renewed in every Eucharist. But we would be remiss not to refer to the words of the Apostle. “The one who eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks damnation” (I Corinthians, 11, 29). As our lives are spent appropriating a priestly identity and spirituality we must realize that the stakes are high. The rewards are higher. As I said recently in a retreat to some of our seminarians, in my years as a priest I have never felt lonely, never felt alone and certainly never felt bored. As priests, we are called to an awesome mystery. We cannot realize it on our own. We should not even try. As the rector of Saint Meinrad, it is my daily privilege to witness the unfolding of this drama in the lives of men who struggle mightily to realize the authentic nature of the life they are undertaking. We always take it seriously. It is serious. In the end we know, however, that it is God’s work, a work of grace. In that insight is our lasting peace and our everlasting joy. I wish to conclude these reflections with the words of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, words spoken at the Chrism Mass in Rome in 2011.
I turn finally to you, dear brothers in the priestly ministry. Holy Thursday is in a special way our day. At the hour of the last Supper, the Lord instituted the New Testament priesthood. "Sanctify them in the truth" (Jn 17:17), he prayed to the Father, for the Apostles and for priests of all times. With great gratitude for the vocation and with humility for all our shortcomings, we renew at this hour our "yes" to the Lord’s call: yes, I want to be intimately united to the Lord Jesus, in self-denial, driven on by the love of Christ. Amen.
It is a “yes” that connects us mystically to the great cloud of witnesses around the throne of the Ancient of Days. It is the “yes” that initiated the life of God on earth, a “yes” spoken by a maid in a secluded corner of the world and echoing today in those who owe their authentic lives to the theotokos, that Blessed Lady upon whom we cast all our cares.