February 28, 2004
January 9, 2004
Day of reflection for priests
oly Thursday always has a special meaning for Catholic priests because it was at the last supper that Christ established the priesthood. He gathered his chosen 12, consecrated bread and wine into his own body and blood, and then said, "Do this in commemoration of me."
The first Holy Thursday was hardly a good opening act for the Catholic Church. Christ knew his apostles were not flawless.
Christ told Judas that he knew he would betray him. The redeemer bluntly told Peter that before the dawn broke Peter would on three occasions deny that he knew Christ. John was the only one of the 12 to stay with Christ during his scourging and crucifixion.
Christ made it plain to the apostles that he had chosen them; they had not chosen him. Christ also told the disciples he was praying for them.
After their faith was restored by the Resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Ascension, the 11 apostles carried out their mandate of representing Christ, of being Christ. All of them, except possibly John, were martyred for their faith.
On Holy Thursday every priest wonders why Christ chose priests to transmit his message. He could have found an organization to continue his works without priests. But he chose priests, frail, fallible, and sometimes foolish.
Throughout the world on this Holy Thursday, 405,178 priests will participate in the moving liturgy wondering whether they, too, will sometimes fall like Judas and Peter. Priests know well that they, like the apostles, have been chosen through no merit of their own but only because God has chosen them to take on the mission of Christ himself. The priest becomes the regent or substitute for Christ. He uses the very words of Christ and brings God into bread and wine.
St. Paul wrote about the essence of the priesthood in his letter to the Galatians (2:20), saying, "I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me." This sentence also means that the laity share in the priesthood of Christ but without all of the privilege conferred on the disciples at the Last Supper. St. Paul also understood the frailty of priests when he wrote, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels" (Corinthians 4:7). There are 110,500 seminarians in the world. This number has increased 73 percent since 1978 when it was 64,000. These seminarians will serve 1.05 billion Catholics, 17.3 percent of the world population.
On Holy Thursday these candidates for the priesthood wonder what the church will look like some 20 years from now. Could they lose their faith as Peter did? Should or will the church change on some issues related not to doctrine but to discipline?
From the earliest centuries the church has prayed for priests. The practice reflects the word in Luke 22:32: "The Lord said to Simon Peter I have prayed that your faith may not fail." The church's prayers for her priests echo the petition of Christ to his Father, "I pray for the men you gave me because they belong to you" (John 17:9). Jesus also prayed to his Father that "you keep them safe from the evil one" (John 17:15). The priests and seminarians of the world have studied and prayed over the magnificent 53-page statement on the priesthood issued by Vatican II on Dec. 7, 1965. It is a summary and a reaffirmation of the centuries-old sacred role which priests have had since the establishment of the Eucharist on the first Holy Thursday.
The decree on the ministry and life of priests issued by Vatican II gives a fuller teaching on the ministries and life of priests than any previous council. It is filled with beautiful statements about the priesthood, the coordinate role of the laity, and the endless mysteries involved in God's selection of those priests who have succeeded the original 12 disciples.
In the Vatican document priests are informed and inspired. They are also told that "since they celebrate the mystery of the Lord's death they should see to it that every part of their being is dead to evil habits and desires."
The modern priest is given a broad mandate by Vatican II; he must pursue goodness of heart, sincerity, constancy of character, and zealous pursuit of justice. He must also be involved in the "formation of a genuine Christian community."
At the Last Supper Christ could foresee every person through the centuries whom he would call to the priesthood. He might have compared their level of belief with the faith of his original disciples.
On Holy Thursday we resolve once again to realize the awesome fact that Christ, both God and man, is present within us. His actual body and blood comes to us in the Eucharist. Priests are the human agents that make this possible. Following the example of Christ at the Last Supper, we should pray for them.
The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, SJ, professor at Georgetown University Law School, was a member of Congress from Massachusetts from 1971 to 1981.
This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 3/28/2002.