Association of Priests

Year of Priesthood XI
Vol. XVI, Feb. 2010

Year of Priesthood VIII: “Priests of the Lord, Ministers of God” (Is 61:6)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We had arrived in our meditations on the mystery of the priesthood with the holy angels at a point, where we found them together in one and the same attitude, sharing one and the same title, “servant”. Indeed, the angel had called himself the fellow servant of John. The title of servant is an honor because Christ is the “servant of the Lord”. Moreover, as the Suffering Servant, His mission was priestly in nature “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God” (Is 61:6).

The essence of the priesthood, according to St. Thomas, consists in mediatorship, the services rendered fall under what is commonly called “ministries” these days. Both priests and angels are ministers of God, sent to minister to those called to salvation. We shall continue to dwell on this topic. Our main question will be: How can I be a servant of the Lord and correspond to His call?

1. A radical demand

a) For a better understanding of a “servant”. Recall that Jesus had called His disciples no longer servants, but friends. Nevertheless, all the Apostles called themselves later on “servants”. Were they deviating from His invitation? Did they reject His grace, His love? They all knew very well that only God’s initiative, His grace and love can make them “friends”; it is a step evidently beyond human poverty and even sinfulness. Because of this very condition, every one in Sacred Scripture is called “servant” (the word appears more than a thousand times!), and so does not only designate representatives of God, of the Hierarchy or the prophets. Abraham called himself servant before his visitors “My Lord, …do not pass by your servant” (Gen 18:3). He also had servants below himself “who hastened to prepare” (Gen 18:7) a meal for his guests. Such a servant was Israel “in the land of Egypt” (cf. Dt 5:15), generally “poor and needy” (Dt 24:14). The whole nation Israel cried to God: “Hide not Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in distress” (Ps 69:17). At the end of the Bible, an angel gives four other angels the order: “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads” (Rev 7:3).

b) Creation as the basis for service. The question arises: Without grace and without a special call, is man still a “servant of God”? When man sincerely looks at himself, he has to recognize that he does not exist by himself. Today more than ever true science shows us how the wisdom built into creation and man cannot be anything but divine. If man has the humility to accept himself as a creature, then he accepts also his status of dependence on God: We owe God our existence.

To live according to this dependence demands that we present to God daily our being and talents, that we order our activities according His holy will with profound respect and holy fear. And this is what it means to be His “servant”. “All things were created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16), we too! Therefore, all creatures have to serve God with all they have and are.

2. The “evangelical radicality”

Even when we look at the different situations in Scripture, where one text accentuates administration (cf. 1 Cor 4:1) and others the priestly duties (e.g. “diakonia”, Jn 12:26), the most frequent expression is, however, “doulos” (servant); and this involves the entire existence of the person, his “total surrender” (T.J. Welz, Kirchliche Autorität als Dienst, Roma 2003, 53-57). This surrender is presupposed when the Lord welcomes the “good and faithful servant” (Mt 25: 21).

“We become good servants through our living relationship with Jesus Christ. Only if our life is lived in dialogue with Him; only if His being, His characteristics enter into us and shape us can we become truly good servants” (Ben. XVI, Sept. 12, 2009). “Faithfulness” indicates lifelong service. In the sense of “trustworthiness” it indicates the authenticity of our service, being a real prolongation of God’s arm, an echo of His voice. It takes the total dedication of man’s entire existence, and therefore the surrender of all one is and has. It requires a stable way of life.

a) The requirements of the “good servant of the Lord”. Jesus served the Apostles by washing their feet with a service reserved to non-Jewish slaves, that is, reserved to the least of the least. Jesus had no difficulty doing this, as His whole life was just one single act of surrender as the “Servant of the Lord”, especially expressed by the radical detachment from all creatures, even from His Mother. Jesus served with the freedom of benevolent love in absolute submission to the will of the Father: “The Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing” (Jn 5:19). When we listen well to Jesus, then we understand His expectations from His disciples: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62), nor one who wants to stop anywhere, like Peter at Tabor (cf. Mt 17:4). Jesus gave the Apostles a living interpretation of a servant, especially through the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, a life “which Christ the Lord chose for Himself and which His Virgin Mother embraced also” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 46).

b) The servant John Marie Vianney. Beyond the counsel of celibacy and his promise of obedience, a priest in the western Church is not required to embrace the evangelical counsel of poverty. But even in this he is not to live extravagantly and out of harmony with the people to whom he ministers. The priest’s life, therefore, if not canonically defined strictly in terms of the vows, is still strongly qualified in this direction. John Paul II in his masterpiece on the Priesthood, Pastores dabo vobis (1992, # 27) says: “For all Christians without exception, the radicalism of the Gospel represents a fundamental, undeniable demand...”, then, of course, “necessary also for diocesan priests”. He adds some special motives for priests which are worthwhile to read again. Benedict XVI shares John Paul’s understanding and quotes in the opening letter to the present “Year of the Priest” Blessed John XXIII’s reference to the evangelical counsels in the life of the Saint John Marie Vianney (cf. Pope John XXIII, Sacerdotii nostri primordia, 1959):

c) "The Curé of Ars lived the 'evangelical counsels' in a way suited to his priestly state. His poverty was … that proper to a priest: while managing much money (since well-to-do pilgrims naturally took an interest in his charitable works), he realized that everything had been donated to his church, his poor, his orphans, the girls of his ‘Providence’, his families of modest means. Consequently, he ‘was rich in giving to others and very poor for himself’. As he would explain: ‘My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back’. ….

“His chastity, too, was that … suited to one who must daily touch the Eucharist, who contemplates it blissfully and with that same bliss offers it to his flock. It was said of him that ‘he radiated chastity’…

“Finally, Saint John Marie Vianney’s obedience found full embodiment in his conscientious fidelity to the daily demands of his ministry. We know how he was tormented … by a desire to flee… Only obedience and a thirst for souls convinced him to remain at his post. As he explained to himself and his flock: ‘There are no two good ways of serving God. There is only one: serve Him as He desires to be served’” (Benedict XVI, June 16, 2009).

3. Motives

If a true servant has to first let go of everything, to empty himself from all creatures, then we understand that he approaches more and more the angels.

a) Approaching the angels. There we find the servant like a pure, empty vessel, whose eyes are totally fixed on God to see the least hint of God’s will, whose ears are totally tuned to God’s every wish, in order to implement them immediately. The resemblance to the angels adds to the three counsels purity of intention which is love expressing itself in “serving, and in doing so giving oneself; existing not for oneself but for others, on behalf of God and in view of God” (Benedict XVI, Sept. 12, 2009).

b) Becoming a “slave of God”. In the world, we find servants who act out of fear, who serve under threat of punishment. Generally slaves fell into this category, workers in concentration- and work-camps. Others serve in view of some personal benefit, mainly a financial reward to gain their living; they form the majority of all servants. Few are the servants who give themselves gratuitously for someone in need as Jesus asked from the Apostles: ”You received without paying, give without pay” (Mt 10:8). St. Paul interprets it: “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient…slaves of righteousness. …[J]ust as you once yielded your members to impurity [chastity] and to greater and greater iniquity [poverty], so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification [obedience]… (As you) have become slaves of God” (Rom 6:17-18,22). “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:5-8).

c) The most perfect or love. Service in such a way is like a synonym for a life of love. Only Jesus can live it for us, because He is loved by the Father. What Jesus did in the Incarnation and His surrender in His death on the Cross, issues from the infinitely rich Trinitarian Communion, where each one disposes Himself totally to the other. His ‘slavery’ for the sake of man is the revelation and extension of the Life of the Blessed Trinity, motivated by love, for “God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8).

Consequently, we are allowed to say: Whoever grows in love, in the union with God, will grow and has to grow in the attitude and practice of service. Or, to put it the other way around: The more one lives a life of service the holier he is, the closer he is to the Lord and in His Mystical Body. The higher one is, the more he can give; the more he should bow and share out of love. The love of God needs to manifest itself in one’s love of neighbor.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

What a view of life is shown us: God in Heaven, Jesus on earth, the angels around the throne of God, the Apostles sent to the most distant corners, all living the ‘law of life,’ all serving the others simply out of love. The fallen angels, on the contrary, said “I will not serve” (Jer 2:20). Let us not tire in serving the Lord and His people. There is nothing comparable to it, for such service takes us ever deeper into God’s life and love.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC