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Catholic Voice
  May 23, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 10   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

The primacy of charity in the priest’s identity to Christ

(Bishop Cordileone’s homily at the ordination Mass May 14. A PDF of the homily is available
at www.oakdiocese.org/Homepage/Bishop/HomilyPriesthoodOrdination20110514.pdf.)

Readings: Acts 20:17-18a, 28-32, 36; 1 Pt 4:7b-11; Jn 15:9-17

The Gospel reading for our Mass of Ordination today is taken from St. John’s account of the Last Supper. This scene actually goes on for five chapters in his Gospel. Notice how often, in this short passage, the word “love” is mentioned here: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love”; “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”; “This I command you, to love one another”; and so forth. Not only here, though — this refrain of love is repeated all throughout the five chapters. This is the night before our Lord died, and he leaves no doubt as to what kind of Church he intended to leave behind, beginning with and building upon the foundation stones of the apostles.

Chosen and Appointed

As John recounts the Last Supper, the evening begins with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. This is the ultimate role reversal: the master serves his servants, and in so doing they become his friends — “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” The Master had to bow down low, literally get on his knees, to serve his servants-become-friends. He gives them an example, in order to illustrate for them in action what he would then teach them that night before he died. What he does has a quasi-sacramental quality to it, in that it makes present to them what he would accomplish for them — and for the salvation of the whole world — the next day, in laying down his life on the cross for his friends: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Here, our Lord is teaching his apostles, by word and example, to carry on in his place: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” This means that they, too, are to “lay down” their lives for him and one another. This word “lay down” appears later in this passage, but translated a different way. In this context, the word means “appointed,” where Jesus says, “It was … I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit.” Thus, the connection between the commission of the apostles and the example of love that Jesus gave them becomes quite apparent: their mission is to do for others what he has done for them. This is the sense of the very active commandments here, “go” and “bear fruit.” And it is significant that this same word “appoint” or “lay down” is used elsewhere in the Bible in passages speaking of commission and ordination.

By virtue of his ordination, then, the priest is the one who lays down his life for his friends after the manner of our Lord himself. Answering this call will take on many manifestations, but we can get a very good idea of what it means from the example of St. Paul in our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. What St. Paul says here makes clear that he gave himself completely to and for his fellow believers, as he says to the leaders of the Church in the ancient city of Ephesus: “Remember that for three years, night and day, I unceasingly admonished each of you with tears.” In a verse omitted from the reading, he goes on to tell them: “I have never wanted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You know well that these very hands have served my needs and my companions.”

St. Paul, then, is laying down his life for his friends in the faith for the sake of teaching them the full truth of Jesus Christ. This, indeed, is his concern for his fellow believers in this scene where he is taking his leave of them. He experiences no little distress at the threat of, as he says, “savage wolves” who will “draw the disciples away after them,” leading them away from the truth he taught them. This was the cause of his tears! And so he exhorts the leaders of the Church to “be vigilant” of the flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed them: they, too, are to lay down their lives to keep the community of believers in the truth.

How timely this exhortation is to our own age. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, made this point when speaking about this very passage to a group of priests of the Diocese of Rome last March. He told them: “The Apostle does not preach Christianity ‘a la carte,’ according to his own tastes …; he does not take away from the commitment to announce the entire will of God, even when uncomfortable, nor the themes he may least like personally.” The Pope goes on to tell his fellow pastors that, therefore, priests nowadays must likewise not preach “Christianity ‘a la carte,’” and should be willing to approach even uncomfortable aspects of the Gospel. He told them: “It is our mission to announce all the will of God, in its totality and ultimate simplicity.” Why? Because, “What … could be more interesting, more important, more essential for us than to know what God wants, to know the will of God, the face of God?”

Identity of Priest
Teaching the full truth of Christ, as handed down to us through his Church, has indeed become one of the most demanding duties of the priest in our own age. In the face of opposition, rejection and even hostility, he is called follow his Master’s example of laying down his life for his friends, a duty he must fulfill out of pastoral charity, understanding the beauty of the Church’s teaching and knowing that this is what will make his people free.

However, as demanding as this is of priestly ministry today, it does not really get to the heart of the matter. The commandment our Lord gave to his apostles the night before he died is the ultimate commandment, ultimate because it identifies who the priest is: the one who, with his Lord, lays down his life for his Church. The temptation is to identify who priest is by what he does: the priest is the one who celebrates the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick. He prepares people for the sacraments and celebrates the sacraments for them. He coordinates the various ministries in the parish. The problem is, though, that this makes the Priesthood look like simply one job among many others in the Church, requiring nothing more than learning a certain set of skills in order to take on the role and fulfill the corresponding duties. How easy it is to slip in this way of thinking in a world stripped of any sensitivity to the sacramental reality of life, that is, the truth that God reveals hidden, spiritual reality through visible, temporal symbols, even the symbol of our very bodies.

To focus on what the priest does, then, stays at the surface. What he does will only be beneficial for his people if it flows from who he is.

The identity of the priest is that of Jesus Christ, as exemplified in that Last Supper. He began that evening by washing the feet of his disciples, to teach by example the primacy of charity. Charity, of course, is love in action: not an idea, not a feeling, but the gift of self. The very active verbs in the gospel reading “go” and “bear fruit” are underlined by the word used for “love” all throughout the passage: agape. We also hear this word echoed in the second reading from First Peter, which goes so far as to say: “Above all, let your love (agape) for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” In this day and age, there is no hiding the faults of priests; indeed, it seems every little slip up is exposed in the national media. But pastoral experience shows, over and over again, that people will readily forgive their priest whatever foibles and shortcomings he may have if they know that he really loves them, loves them with agape love: that he is there when they need him, he is present, attentive, compassionate — in short, a friend.

Only by his identity with the person of Jesus Christ will the priest exemplify the primacy of charity in his ministry of Word and Sacrament, and so fulfill the command given him at his ordination: “Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

Eddie, Alex, Rafal and Gerald: thanks to your generous spirit in answering the Lord’s call to lay down your life with him for his Church, this is a happy day for you, your families, and our entire diocese. We are filled with gratitude not only to you, but to all those in your lives who have fulfilled the Lord’s command to them on your behalf and so have brought you to this day: your family and friends, fellow parishioners, and more recently those responsible for your priestly formation, the pastors under whose guidance you have served and the people of the parishes where you served.

Jesus left us an example when he knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. St. Paul models for us what it means to follow this example: “When he had finished speaking he knelt down and prayed with them all.” Eddie, Alex, Rafal and Gerald: continue to kneel down before your Lord to pray, and now, to pray with and for your people; continue to kneel down before them, whose servants and friends you now become. If you do, you will embody the teaching our Lord first modeled for us, and so fulfill the call he sends you now on this day of your Ordination: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

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