Saturday, March 16, 2013

Christ Is the Only Measure of a Priest's Love

When a man who is preparing for ordination to the priesthood is first ordained as a deacon, he promises to live in lifelong celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Additionally, he promises respect and obedience to the bishop and to his successors.  In exchange, the bishop hands the ordinand the Book of the Gospels and instructs him to believe, teach, and follow the Gospel.  Similarly, in the Rite of Priestly Ordination, the man once again renews his promise of respect and obedience and, in turn, the bishop presents him with a chalice and a paten for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice for God's holy people.

There are other things that a priest ought to be able to expect from his diocese: a living wage, respect, proper healthcare, a place to live etc.  But, none of those are given during the Rite of Ordination.  There is no point in the ceremony where one works out the details going forward.  There is no pre-nuptial agreement, so to speak.  He is entrusted only with the Gospel and with the chalice and paten.  He is to conform his life to that which has been placed into his hands.  Through the Gospel, he is to become united to the Word made flesh and through the offering of the Sacrifice of Calvary, he is to become increasingly united to Christ crucified.  Ultimately, all the priest has is Jesus in his Word and in his Body and Blood. 

When I prepare couples for marriage, I sometimes will review the vows with them.  One option for the vows says, "I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."  Wow.  We often think of the vows simply meaning that neither person will commit outright adultery.  But, the vow says, "I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."  That's a tall order!  "I will love you and honor you when you're moody, when you're lazy, when you're selfish, when you're obstinate, when you're unfaithful, when you're obtuse, etc.  No matter what, I will love you and honor you."  It would seem that there is an awful lot of room here for the possibility of daily failures in regards to this vow! 

So too with the priest. There may not be dramatic "breaking of the vows" moments in his life, but there are those day to day infidelities that have to be considered honestly:  Moments when he failed to receive the Gospel fully into his heart and to preach it with zeal, love, and integrity; moments when he has not totally conformed his life to the Mystery of the Cross that he offers daily upon the altar; moments when he has not become perfectly united to Christ, the Priest and Victim; moments when he has failed to feed, lead, or protect the flock entrusted to his care.

Every priest will likely come face to face occasionally with the fact that his diocese is imperfect.  By God's grace, this experience of the imperfection of his spouse will allow the priest to recognize his own imperfections and infidelities and encourage him to greater fidelity to the Mysteries that have been placed into his hands.  The imperfection that he discovers in his spouse may be God's way of helping him see his own imperfection.  Ultimately, whether we be married, single, priest, or religious, we cannot base our own fidelity or perfection upon the fidelity and perfection of others. Otherwise, we will always be less than what we are called to be.  The fidelity and love that each of us is called to must have Christ as our only measure.

Were the Ordination Rite to include a healthcare package, a signing bonus, a retirement package, a guaranteed assurance of respect etc, the priest might be tempted to reciprocate his own love based upon those standards.  Instead, he is given the Gospel and the offerings for the Eucharistic Sacrifice.  Through these gifts--entrusted to him by the hands of the bishop--the priest is called to make Christ, the Shepherd and Bridegroom, present in the midst of the flock.  He is called to manifest through his own way of life, the true charity made possible only in Christ, a love that lays down his whole life and a love that loves to the very end.

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