They say that the first five years in the priesthood is crucial because it is a period of adjustment and of “going into the bottom”, that is, discovering the deepest meaning of priestly life and ministry. Others also say that it is like a “honeymoon” stage, in which a newly-ordained, full of idealism and enthusiasm, relishes the joy of serving the Lord.
Just a week ago, I was looking at my priestly ordination photos in the computer and sharing some with my priest-friend from Perú. Two things caught his attention: the beautiful garden-altar of the St. Francis of Assisi Parish Church and a pool of water on both sides as I lay prostrate in front of the altar during the Litany of the Saints.
Viewing these photos brings into my introspection, not only the joyful memories of that blessed day of December 2005, but the various experiences that transpired during these first three and a half years of my priestly life – very poetically described in the song, The Priest by an unknown author.
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“To live in the midst of the world without desiring its pleasures…”
The first part is easier: to live in the midst of the world. But joined with the second, it becomes radical and demanding; difficult but not impossible, because the strength comes from above. To be in the world without being of the world is a great challenge for a newly-ordained. But Jesus’ prayer is consoling: “Father, I pray not that You take them out of the world, but that You preserve them from evil.”
“To be a member of each family, but belonging to none…”
When a man takes a bride, it is said that his parents never lose a son: they win a daughter. When a son is ordained priest, his parents never lose him either: they discover their long-lost relatives! Literally, it happens. But in a deeper, more spiritual sense, a priest becomes a member of each family because the family is a “domestic church”. But “belonging to none” simply means that in the heart of a priest, everybody has a place. No one owns it exclusively except He to Whom it is offered wholly. But to a newly-ordained, it is a gift and a tough conquest.
“To share all sufferings, to penetrate all secrets, to heal all wounds…”
It is not for mere empathy. Neither it is for sheer solidarity that a priest is called to share all sufferings. But to experience it himself – in flesh and blood – the crown of thorns, the nails, the cross. Little by little, because God is not a sadist. But He does not exempt either, for He did not even spare His own Son. Only when a priest becomes one with his Master in suffering can he truly penetrate all secrets – even the mystery of suffering itself, caused by wounds of sin – and then, he can truly bring about healing. In the Sacrament of Confession, God revealed the mystery of His mercy and the greatness of His love: the instrument that He employs to heal is itself in need of the same. What a consolation for a newly-ordained!
“To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers…”
What a great joy for a newly-ordained to be able to celebrate his First Mass! But what a great responsibility also because he is bringing all the petitions of the people. In the name of the Church of God, he stands before the throne of the Great Majesty. But he could not have stood it, had he not received first the dignity of being alter Christus, ipse Christus (other Christ, Christ Himself). In reality, it is Christ Himself offering these prayers to the Father through the instrumentality of the priest.
And for the first time, a newly-ordained does it: what an honor! That’s why, he prepares well for it: he thinks about it the night before, he imagines it with excitement and nervousness, with great sense of unworthiness. He prays a lot, even goes to confession before saying his First Mass.
The time comes and he follows the rites with great care, not even adding a word or two because he respects the rubrics – because the Mass is not his: it is the Church’s, that’s why he should not add or omit anything at his own caprices. He follows every rubric: with great sense of reverence he executes every movement and gesture. Every genuflection is genuinely done with adoration.
But little by little, this fervour – if not well taken care of, if not fomented with daily prayer and devotion to the Holy Eucharist – will soon die down. And the daily masses of this newly-ordained will simply become a fulfillment of canonical obligation. With lots of reason, Blessed Mother Teresa exhorted all priests to celebrate the Mass “as if it were your First Mass, your Last Mass, your Only Mass”.
“To return from God to men, to bring pardon, peace and hope…”
How can a priest return from God to men if, in the first place, he has not been to God or with God in his daily meditation and prayer? How can he talk about God to people if he himself has not talk with God first? He is to bring pardon, peace and hope but “he cannot give what he doesn’t possess”. To bring pardon, a priest has to experience repentance and conversion first (regular confession) and to give peace and hope, he has to receive the same first (in his regular spiritual direction). A newly-ordained might think that in returning from God to men, he brings God to them: God is already present in them. But by showing that he is in communion with God, he lets them discover God’s presence in them.
"To have a heart of fire for charity, and a heart of bronze for chastity..."
These are not two different hearts but one human heart: the same heart with which we love our parents, our friends -- all our loved ones. It is same heart with which we love God. Charity and chastity are two sides of a coin. One does not exist without the other. Pastoral charity, for a newly-ordained, is understood as an effort and a fervent petition to God "to make all our human affections pass through the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary". It is because the heart, if not guarded with seven locks, would tend to attach itself to human affections -- attachments in things and in persons. And if a newly-ordained is not careful, these attachments would tend to detach himself from God.
"To teach and to pardon..."
Apparently, these are two different aspects of a priest`s life: the prophetic and the sacramental dimensions of priestly ministry. Indeed, a priest is a teacher. But more than just "mere teaching" Catholic doctrines and dogmas, a priest gives testimony. Pope Paul VI rightly noted, "modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses".
In the Sacrament of Penance, the priest pardons. But in reality, it is Jesus Himself - through the instrumentality of His minister -- who gives pardon. The priest`s instrumentality becomes more profound if he himself experiences from the bottom of his heart the same pardon that God has bestowed on him for his own sins. A priest who experiences in his flesh and bone God´s pardon can readily and more meaningfully bring the same pardon to other souls. The priest should teach how to pardon. And he teaches it by giving witness through his own experience.
"To console and to bless always..."
A blessing is always a consolation. Oftentimes, out of humility (perhaps), a newly-ordained would refuse to extend his hand when an elderly woman would try to take it to ask for a blessing (pagmamano). The priest thinks he is too young or too unworthy to do so. But he should think that when people ask for a priest´s blessing, they are actually asking Christ´s blessing, not the priest´s.
And Christ´s blessing brings consolation. The channel for such blessing, for such consolation, is the priest. But oftentimes, it is the priest himself that longs for such consolation. He can only be a channel if he himself enjoys such divine consolation. But such consolation can only be experienced through an intimate relationship with Jesus. Yet, as St. Teresa of Jesus once said: "search not for the consolation of the Lord, but the Lord of the consolation."
"My God what a life, and it is yours..."
A priest does not belong to himself anymore, but to Christ and to His Church. Hence, his personal plans and projects in life are geared not towards himself, but towards Christ. His plans are the plans of Christ. His projects are the projects of the Church of Christ. His life is not anymore his, but God´s.
Priesthood is never one´s personal life project: it is Christ´s plan that is unfolding in every moment of a priest´s life. Everyday in a life of priest is an unfolding of such divine plan.And the most that a priest can do is to say YES to every moment. Everyday is an opportunity to say YES to God. It is an everyday YES: Serviam! (I will serve).
"Oh, priest of Jesus Christ! Oh, priest of Jesus Christ!"
The greatness of priesthood! St. John Mary Vianney could only describe it in these words: "O, how great is the priest! ... If he realised what he is, he would die. ... God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host". Pray for the sanctity of all priests!