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The Ministry of Priests

I recently read a new book, Priests in Love with God and Eager to Witness to the Gospel by Archbishop Emeritus Alfred Hughes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2021). He wrote the book with seminarians in mind but also for reflection by priests and bishops. It is important for priests like myself to occasionally reflect on their priestly ministry. I think it is also good for parishioners to reflect on the life and ministry of their priests.

For all of us, clergy, religious, and laity, love of God needs to be at the heart of what we do. Archbishop Hughes reminds us of Jesus’ call to love God above all else, pointing first to Matthew 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23-27; Luke 14:25-33 before he writes, “So, the Lord lays claim to a person’s first and most fundamental love. When the love of the Lord is central, then all other loves fall more easily into their proper place” (21). Loving God first is not contrary to loving others. It is at the heart of it.

You may remember the following quote in my recent article, “Why the Fathers of the Church are Important,” from Mike Aquilina, “Indeed, during the centuries when Christians were most severely persecuted, the Church grew by a steady 40 percent per decade” (Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church 3rd Edition: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division. 2013. 39).

As he examines the history of the church with regards to priesthood, Archbishop Hughes echoes this sentiment as he writes, “But, without the threat of imprisonment or death, Christians became more lax in their living of the faith. Many began to to make accommodations to the wider world culture” (31). We must not be complacent in our faith.

Why might one wish to become a priest? Archbishop Hughes writes, “Chrysostom gave special attention to the motive appropriate for saying yes to a priestly vocation: the salvation and sanctification of others” (34, my emphasis). One does not become a priest for one’s own salvation. One becomes a priest for others. Being a priest is not easy. (Neither is it easy to be a faithful Christian today). Archbishop reminds us of Paul’s recounting of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28). Please pray for all to have the grace to endure sufferings for the faith.

Archbishop Hughes then offers what St. Augustine wrote (in Sermon 340, 3), “In his homily on the anniversary of his ordination, he expressed the awesome responsibilities of his role as a bishop in this way: “The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud need to be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be given your backing, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved” (43). St. Augustine wrote this 1,600 years ago. It still applies today. It is for the priest to share in much of this. For, as Archbishop Hughes later writes of priestly ministry, “He has a very real challenge to keep focused on not what pleases people but what ought to please them” (50, my emphasis). Priestly ministry is not rooted in the people’s will or the individual priest’s will. Priestly ministry must be rooted in God’s will.

It is not easy. As Archbishop Hughes continues to survey church history, he writes, “As the feudal society continued to mingle secular with sacred responsibilities in the lives of Church leaders, Catholic culture flourished, but Gospel living suffered. The faithful developed a remarkable reverence and awe toward the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist” (64). Unfortunately, many today have lost even the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It is Jesus.

What is needed to be a good priest? Archbishop Hughes turns to St. Thomas Aquinas as he writes, “He embraced fully the Dominican motto, contemplata aliis tradere (to hand on to others the fruits of one’s contemplation). For Thomas, prayer was a precondition for good theological study” (68). To be a good priest, one must have a strong prayer life and study. Please pray for priests to do this so that in turn the priests may help you.

Archbishop Hughes later writes, “Moreover, open hostility to the Church prompted many Catholics to privatize their faith in order to experience or to advance in their careers in life” (96). Please pray for priests to have the courage to say the Truth that God offers us.

As Archbishop Hughes continues, he discusses two ways people have seen the Second Vatican Council, “The first story emphasized engagement with the world on revelation’s terms. The second story seemed to focus on the engagement of revelation on the world’s terms” (105). Please pray for priests (and for everyone) to look at the world in terms of God’s revelation and will, not the other way around.

We call priests “father” because they are called to our spiritual fathers. Archbishop Hughes writes, “Every father has some administrative responsibilities for his family, but the spiritual dimensions of his fatherhood have to primary” (113). So it is with priests. Priests have administrative duties but these are not to be the first priority. The supreme good is the salvation of souls (Code of Canon Law, 1752). Please pray the salvation of souls always be the primary focus of priests.

In chapter 17, Archbishop Hughes writes of what is needed in the life of a priest. (Much of what he says is relevant for all Catholics). At the heart of it is a daily holy hour. A priest must keep going back to the Lord in prayer (153). This includes faithfully praying the Liturgy of the Hours where he writes, “This takes regular quiet time, because praying the Hours quickly, routinely, or superficially will not make that possible” (154). Please pray for all priests to sincerely pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

Archbishop Hughes goes on to speak of how priests celebrate the Mass, “those celebrating the Liturgy must become interiorly engaged in this ministry. The Mass is not just a ceremony or a worship service. It is the representation in sacrament of the redemptive Mystery of Faith…This pivotal event in all human history becomes present and accessible to everyone in this great sacrament” (154-155). Please pray for priests to always remember what happens in the Eucharist. The bread and wine really are changed, transubstantiated, into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross that we celebrate in the Eucharist.

Turning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Archbishop Hughes writes, “The priest is ordained to be a minister of that mercy in the name of Christ. If he is to be a good confessor, he needs to be a good penitent first. As St. John Chrysostom taught, only those who engage in the spiritual struggle for virtue and against vice are going to be able to help penitents to do the same” (156). Please pray for priests to understand their own need for forgiveness so they understand what they are offering to you in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Archbishop Hughes writes, “Priests who are humanly mature, intellectually alert, inquisitive, and spiritually alive will explore every avenue to help people meet the Lord in a meaningful and life changing way. For some, it will be helping them to encounter the Lord in personal prayer; for others it will be in participation in the Eucharist or in the quiet of Eucharistic adoration; for still others it may be in a retreat” (160). Please pray for priests to grow in their own faith so that they may help you grow in your faith.

Priesthood is for the salvation of souls. Here Archbishop Hughes writes, “As Francis Cardinal George perceptively commented, missionaries cannot evangelize either a people or a culture they do not love” (160). Pray for priests to have this love. Know what I do, I do for you.

Please pray for priests. Know that I pray for you. I end with one final quote from Archbishop Hughes, “Nor is this a time for the timid! The Holy Spirit has given the gift of parresia in the laying on of hands. It will require wisdom, conviction, courage, even boldness to reproclaim the Gospel in our own time” (164).

Pray for priests. Pray to God our Father “thy will be done.”

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

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