On this Holy Thursday, we are asked to reflect on priesthood and Eucharist. This has certainly been an interesting time for all of us to celebrate priesthood and Eucharist. Priesthood when we have to keep a social distance. Priesthood when we have to be isolated. Priesthood when we have to be separated. From the very time of our ordination, we as priests are consecrated. To be consecrated means to be made holy and to be set apart.
We are experiencing that right now. We are experiencing being set apart. Just yesterday, I was driving and I wanted to go outside and be around people but not catch anything bad. I figured the safest place would be the cemetery. I went to four or five different cemeteries. I made a pilgrimage initially and went to look for my ancestors, my grandparents and great-grandparents.
Then I discovered that most Catholic cemeteries have a section for priests, and it is all just priests who are buried there together. It was interesting because as I looked at many of these priests there were a lot that I did not recognize, especially those that are much older than me. On each of their gravestones it says in Latin “tu es sacerdos aeternum,” which means “you are a priest forever “(Hebrews 7:3).
Some of these priests I knew. Father Costello and his brother from my home parish Holy Family in Parma were there. Some of the priests were mentors of mine. Some had been friends over the years. But, even the ones that I did not know or really never knew what they were known for, I knew one thing. They were priests, and they are a priest forever.
I would like to focus on that for a moment of this time of being a priest and yet being separated from the people. This time of having social distancing and quarantine. Even my brother priests, as we talk to each other, we say, “It is kind of weird being a priest right now, is it not?”
Priesthood is not so much about what we do. What we do is good. We do a lot of good ministry, and it is important, but it is not the essence of who we are. I am a priest forever no matter what I do, even if I am dead. I am a priest forever.
People will ask me in quarantine, “Well what do you do?” It is not about what we do as priests. It is about who we are. I am still a priest even though I am not counseling people, or teaching at the grade school, or organizing parish groups, building things or any of that, or even celebrating the sacraments. We are still priests.
Maybe if I learned anything during this time it is who I am, that I am a priest forever. This quarantining, as I said, should come somewhat naturally to us as priests because in this consecration, we are set apart.
Do not take this as a negative. It is not like we are set apart to be apart from people. We are set apart so that we can actually be closer. John Paul II says this in a very beautiful way. He says that:
We are not separated from people, but we are dedicated and consecrated totally. Since we are consecrated to God in a new way by our ordination, priests have become living instruments of Christ, the eternal priest so that through the ages they can accomplish His wonderful works of reuniting the whole human race. Therefore since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ.
So each of us priests represent the person of Christ. Not by what we do but by who we are in His identity. He says
Our human weakness in our flesh remedied by the holiness of Jesus, who was the high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled and separated from sinners.
I am going to give you a few examples from recent history of priests that were holy because of who they are – not because of what they did.
Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was ordained a priest in 1953. In 1967, at the age of 37 years old, he became Bishop of South Vietnam. Pope Paul VI appointed him Coajutor of Saigon. By that time, Francis’ new appointment was rejected by the government and on August 15, 1975, the Feast of the Assumption, he was arrested. He would spend the next 13 years in prison. Nine of those years in solitary confinement. If you think being stuck at home right now is bad, it is not anything close to this. When he was released, the media interviewed him, and he was asked, “What was your secret?” What was the strength that kept him alive? What kept him sane? His answer was always the same: Eucharist. He explained that when he was arrested, he had to leave immediately empty handed. On the following day, he was allowed to write to his faithful and ask for his personal affects. He wrote, “Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach.” They understood right away. A few days later, the guards handed him a small container addressed, and it said, “Medicine for your stomach ailments.” He also received a small container of pieces of bread. With three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand, he would celebrate mass. He was still a priest even in solitary confinement for nine years.
Cardinal Dolan tells a story about Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and you are probably familiar with the story. There were 10 people that were going to be assassinated. They were on death row at the concentration camp. One of the men was a father and he had children, so Maximilian said, “I wish to take the place of that man.” The prison guard said, “Who is this polish swine?” Instead of saying, “I am Maximilian Kolbe” or “I am a Pole,” or “I am a human being,” or “I am a friend of his.” He says simply, “I am a Catholic priest.” That was his identity. That is who he was. Archbishop Dolan uses this story to talk about what it means for all of us priests. Priesthood ultimately is a call, not a career. It is a redefinition of self, not just a ministry. It is a new way of life, not a job. We are priests and, yes the ministry we do is important, but he said, “Priests first and foremost are priests before we act or do anything.” He quotes Father William Byron who says, “We are human beings not human doings.” So, our identity comes from who we are and not from what we do.
Finally, Pope Benedict XVI was talking about some of the Russians that were being persecuted in the Gulag prison camps, and he says, “We should learn anew the Eucharist is never merely what a congregation does, but what we receive from the Lord that has been granted to the entirety of the church.” He says, “I am always moved by the stories of what happens in these camps, Persian Russian camps, where people had to do without the Eucharist for a period of weeks and months and yet did not turn to the arbitrary celebration of acting it out themselves. Rather, they made Eucharistic celebration a longing. Waiting and yearning upon the Lord who alone can give Himself. In such a Eucharist of longing and yearning, they were made ready for His gift in a new way. They received it as something new where another priest was found with a bit of bread and some wine.”
So, we go through this very unique time in our church history where right now the faithful are unable to receive the Eucharist, but the priests continue to celebrate.
As we celebrate this Holy Thursday in the Triduum, we give thanks to God for priests, for the priests that have gone before us, for the priests that intercede for us. We give thanks for the priests that pray faithfully the Divine Office, who continue to celebrate the Eucharist and hear confessions, baptize and anoint, who marry and bury. We give thanks especially for the priests that say their eternal yes.
Even during this time, we give thanks to the priests who are unable to celebrate the sacraments. Those in nursing homes. For priests that are struggling with addiction or are broken. None of these things change the realty of who they really are.
As those graves mark the priests that have gone before us, may we too realize this amazing reality that we have. These fathers always praying for us, always interceding, always being set apart as another Christ. May we always remember what it means when we say, “You are a priest forever.”