Among my few remaining friends are some priests who are very patient with me. One of them responded to my recent column on the priesthood as men who bring God down from Heaven.
He said, “I also think a big part of what we do is lift men and women up to God. Through our presence as another Christ, through our prayers and intercession to God on behalf of the Church, etc.”
He’s exactly right. Let’s go back to the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6, where the Twelve are worried they’re spread too thin and need help.
“The first duty of a priest, then and now, is dedication to prayer and the service of God.”
Specifically, they’re worried about ‘neglecting the ministry of the Word of God’ and the need to ‘give our attention to prayer and to the ministry of the Word’.
The ‘Word’ here in the original Greek is from ‘logos’ – the Word. It doesn’t just mean Scripture; it means God Himself.
The first duty of a priest, then and now, is dedication to prayer and the service of God. In that prayer and service, he’s lifting us up to God, just as surely as he lifts up the Host at the consecration.
Priests lift us up to God continually as a way of life. When a person is consecrated to God (like in the priesthood), it means that everything they do afterwards – even the most insignificant thing – is caught up into that consecrated life.
It’s like spiritually adding value. When it’s lived properly, there’s no difference in the consecrated life between ‘doing’ for God, and simply ‘being’ for God.
A priest, just by being a priest – a man consecrated to God – can serve God with great potency even if he’s sick in bed or frail or elderly. He can offer us to God all day, every day, just through his consecration as a priest. This is before we even get to his preaching, which can be a real help to his listeners, especially if he builds on the readings and Gospel.
(Slightly less helpful if it’s all about him and his life experiences, no matter how edifying these are meant to be.)
“Priests are like the Twelve when they helped Jesus on the mountain to feed the five thousand.”
Outside of Mass, his work of absolution is one of the principal ways a priest lifts us up to God. To dispense God’s mercy – to pour wine and oil into our wounds – is to be another Christ to the frazzled souls that Jesus pitied because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Priests are like the Twelve when they helped Jesus on the mountain to feed the five thousand. Afterwards there was a lot of cleaning up to do, and they collected twelve baskets of leftovers – one basket each.
I often think of those baskets of leftovers as us. It’s often said that priests don’t go to Heaven or Hell alone. They take with them the people whom they have helped or harmed.
The priesthood is a two-way street. In fact, it’s a two-way street across a bridge, which is exactly what ‘pontifex’, the ancient Roman word for priest, means – a ‘bridge-builder’.