My Dear Friends,
At the beginning of the Last Supper, Our Blessed Lord addressed these words to the apostles: With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer (Lk 22:15). Earlier He had said: I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptised. And how am I straitened until it be accomplished? (Lk 12:50). In the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola, refers to Christ “desiring to suffer” (Sp. Ex. #195). Yes, Jesus desires to suffer. He tells us so Himself. Not that suffering in itself is a good. No, it remains an evil, something that God did not intend for us, but which was introduced into the world after sin, as a means of atonement, but also the path to spiritual maturity. “The man who has not suffered, what does he know?” (Imitation of Christ). Indeed, what can that man know who has not suffered? Suffering alone leads us to spiritual maturity. If we refuse to suffer, we will remain spiritual dwarfs. But we cannot afford that, for the Church needs strong souls. On this anniversary of the Last Supper, we pray especially that the Lord give us strong priests, priests who know how to suffer.
St Maximilian Kolbe is such a priest who fully understood what it meant to make the paschal mystery the heart of his priestly life. We are all familiar with the moving story of how he offered himself to save a married man, father of a family, from death. What is less well known is the life of great austerity and poverty which he led in imitation of the Lord and his father St Francis. When Fr Kolbe broke ranks on that fateful morning to offer himself in the place of one of the condemned, the Nazi officer in charge, stunned that one of the scum prisoners would dare to come forward and speak out of turn, launched at him: Who are you!?, Fr Kolbe replied with those unforgettable words: “I am a Catholic Priest”. And that said it all: I am a Catholic Priest. That is to say, I am configured with Christ the eternal high priest; He is my Lord, and my honour is to be like Him in offering my life in sacrifice. Then it is that I truly become a priest, when I become also a victim. Then it is that the paschal mystery is truly lived out in my life and in my death. I claim no other identity. I am a Catholic priest.
We may not all be called to such heroic sacrifice. Nor may we exclude the possibility of it. If we are, blessed are we. Then we need to remind ourselves of those words of St Peter: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1Pt 4:13-14). But we also know that the grace of martyrdom is one that needs to be prepared for. If we wish to make ourselves worthy of greater struggles for the Lord, we need to embrace the multiple daily opportunities of being conformed to Christ.
On the day of ordination, the bishop lays his hands over the head of the priest to be. The gesture is a familiar one. It manifests the gift of the Holy Spirit and the handing down of a sacred power, as when Moses laid hands on Joshua and committed to him the task of leading the Chosen People after his death. However, this gesture has another profound meaning, and can be traced back to the High Priest laying his hands over the scapegoat (cf. Lev. 16:21) in order to burden it symbolically with the sins of the people before chasing it out into the wilderness. According to this symbolism, the laying on of hands by the bishop in ordination can be seen to signify a charge, a burden being laid on the new priest. Essential to the priesthood is the taking of sins upon oneself to atone for them. How can this be possible for the priest? Has not Christ paid the full price for our sins? Is there anything we can add?
St Paul helps us understand this. In his epistle to the Colossians, he writes: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labour and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me. For I want you to know how great a struggle I am having for you” (Col 1:24-2:1).
This is an astounding text. The apostle tells us he rejoices in his suffering, and that he is completing the work of Christ. Something is wanting, something is missing to the passion of Christ. How can that be? Did not Christ do it all on the cross? Yes, he did. He played His role as Head of the Mystical Body. But the other members of the Body must do their part, a part which is subordinate to and utterly dependent upon the essential satisfaction offered by Christ, but nevertheless, something must be done by each member. St John Paul II expressed it in these words: “Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension—the dimension of love—the Redemption, which has already been completely accomplished, is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits, but at the same time He did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened Himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so” (Salvifici Doloris)
The cross is our safeguard. It keeps us grounded in the truth of our weakness. Sometimes priests fall under the weight of their cross. Jesus did too. But like Him, we must get back on our feet, and pursue the path, knowing full well that our generosity will be rewarded by still greater partaking of the bitter chalice of the Lord. Is that something to be afraid of? St Paul leads the way for us: “with Christ I am nailed to the cross” (Gal 2:19), “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14); “I die daily” (1 Cor 15:31).
On these holy days, pray for your priests. Do not ask the Lord to increase their suffering, but do ask Him to give them increased capacity to bear suffering in a Christ-like way. Suffering is unavoidable; everyone suffers. What is different, what must be different, is the way we suffer.
If I may share here a personal souvenir, from my early years as a priest. I was once asked to pay a visit to a nursing home. I went, and heard confessions of a number of the Catholic patients. I then prepared to offer Mass when another woman was rolled out in a bed, accompanied by her daughter and son-in-law. The woman’s name, I remember, was Cecilia. She was quite old, and it was clear that she would soon die, even though she was still conscious. Seeing her suffering, I spoke to her of the suffering of Jesus, and how she could offer up her sufferings with His, and they would become fruitful, for then they would take on the very power of God, transformed in the sufferings of Christ. I was amazed to see that my words were welcomed with grateful awe, by the woman and her daughter and son-in-law. No one had ever told them that. It was a revelation. The revelation that my suffering, here and now, is not meaningless. I was reminded of the words of Fulton Sheen, who could be heard to exclaim as he would pass in front of a hospital: “So much wasted suffering”.
The privileged place where we all learn, priests and faithful alike, how to suffer with Christ is in the sacramental reenactment of his sacrifice. It is precisely with the memorial of the institution of the Mass at the Last Supper that we open our celebration of the paschal mystery, because it contains within itself the whole of that mystery. John Paul II actually wrote in his encyclical on the Eucharist that this sacrament contains the entire spiritual good of the Church. Indeed, there is nothing the Church has which is not contained therein, for the Author of all good is there in person. With the apostles we watch and listen with amazement while the Saviour brings to fulfilment the Jewish passover meal, pronouncing those astounding words over the bread and wine: this is my body, this is my blood. We hear Him say to them and to us: You are to do this in memory of me. By which words He made them true priests of the New Covenant, the most noble and important function of which is the offering of the Holy Mass, which constitutes the Sacrifice of the New Law, that of Jesus Christ on the cross, made present on our altars. The context in which the sacrifice of the Mass is instituted and celebrated is one of the paschal meal, but in its very essence, what constitutes the Mass, is that it is the sacrifice of the Cross made present on the altar. The Last Supper was an anticipated offering of the sacrifice that would take place the next day on Calvary. Our Mass looks back to Calvary, and makes present its infinite adoration, praise, thanksgiving and atonement.
Fr. Mateo Crawley, whose name was at one time known in households across the world for having been the apostle of enthronement of the Sacred Heart in homes, wrote to his fellow priests: “We are priests above all for our Mass; to live our Mass is to live the life of Christ. The Mass must operate two great marvels: the transubstantiation of bread and wine and figuratively the transubstantiation of the priest, that is to say, his sanctification. To devour Christ and to let himself be devoured by Christ. If a priest is not a saint, either he must become one or be damned by his theology”.
As we commemorate the anniversary of the institution of this most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and of the priesthood, let us ask the Lord to keep ever burning in the heart of our priests the fire of love. In the Old Covenant, Moses was commanded to keep fire burning continually in the sanctuary. In the New Covenant, the fire is the burning furnace of charity which is the Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Pray that that fire may always burn in the heart of your priests, for then you too shall be set ablaze and the world shall know and turn back to God.