The priest: The now of God

The Gospel passage from St. Luke that was just proclaimed is the same as was proclaimed on the fourth Sunday of this year and upon which Pope Francis reflected at the closing Mass for World Youth Day in Panama. The pope expressed that in it, “Jesus reveals the now of God who comes to meet us and calls us to take part in his now! …  This is the now of God. It becomes present with Jesus: it has a face, it is flesh. It is a merciful love that does not wait for ideal or perfect situations to show itself. … It is God’s time, that makes every situation and place both right and proper.” The pope reflected that not everyone who heard the words of Jesus felt invited because they could not accept that God could be that real and intimate as he was in Jesus. He warned that the same sentiment can happen with all of us.

In a particular way, the pope spoke to the young people indicating that they could believe that their mission, vocation and even their life was not in the present but somewhere off in the future, “as if being young were kind of waiting room.” He boldly proclaimed to them, “You, dear young people, are not the future but the now of God.” These are very important words for our young people, so many present with us today, to hear. However, they are also words for all of us. God is with us now in the present moments of our lives where he touches us, speaks to us, challenges us and calls us into his very presence. In a very particular way at this Chrism Mass, I would like to emphasize to our priests that you are the now of God. The priest is the one who makes God present through the unique relationship that he has with him through ordination, truly making the face and flesh of Jesus present, not in the perfect moment, but in the present moment and especially in the Eucharist.

With all of the searing attention that has been focused on priests during the past year, we priests can experience discouragement because of the failures of others over the years. There is no excuse for the evils that have occurred in the Church and, while an extraordinary amount has been accomplished to correct the situation, there can be no question that we must continue to ensure our very best. However, we cannot be tempted to doubt the reality that our ordination has called us to be the now of God and to use what we now face as part of that now. We look to the Lord, especially in today’s Gospel, who is first acclaimed but then led to the brow of the hill to be hurled down headlong. At that moment, the Lord was able to pass through the crowd but it would not be that way Holy Week when only then would his mission be accomplished. It is Jesus who is in the present moment in which we live and there carry out our ministry no matter how imperfect the circumstances may be.

We, as priests, are very grateful to all of you present here this morning, and to the people of our parishes, for the faith and dedication you give to the Church and for the support, loyalty and inspiration that you afford to us. As you thank us, so we thank you with all of our hearts.

As you may know, Pope Francis considered that the present moment was an appropriate one for the Bishops of the United States to have a retreat. At the beginning of January, the retreat was conducted at Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago. The presenter for the retreat was the pope’s personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, an 84-year-old Franciscan Capuchin with a great deal of ecclesial experience. He was also the preacher for St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It was obvious from his very presence, humility, love for the Church and deep spiritual insights, that he is the papal preacher for a very good reason. All of Father Cantalamessa’s preaching was effective because it came from his heart.

At the beginning of the retreat, each Bishop was presented with a letter from Pope Francis. The pope emphasized that the spiritual life of the bishop, is at the core of all that we do. This is true for all of us as priests. Without a deep commitment to prayer and personal conversion, our work is ineffective. The pope expressed that he wanted to be personally present with the Bishops but that, despite his best efforts, scheduling made it impossible for him to do so. I told my sister that I had a letter from the pope indicating how much he wanted to be with us but was prevented because of his schedule. When I spoke to her the next day, she told me she saw a newspaper picture of the pope on the opening day of the retreat, at the Vatican before the circus of Rome, which visits him every year. She told me that as impressed as I was by the pope’s expression of wanting to be with the Bishops, his going to the circus obviously meant more to him. A good and humbling thought!

Father Cantalamessa stressed that his role, as envisioned by Pope Francis, was not to give advice about solutions to problems but to assist the Bishops in listening to the Lord. It is only by listening to the Lord and cultivating a deep relationship with the Lord that all matters can be faced. In the context of the priest being the now of God, truly making God present to others, I found his presentations to be most insightful. I would like to reflect on but three points of Father Cantalamessa’s message which are essential to all of us as sharers in the Priesthood of Christ and in particular to those of us called to be the now of God as priests. They are: intimacy with Christ – our first priority; the centrality of the Eucharist; and the support we receive from Christ in Gethsemane.

Intimacy with Christ is indeed our first priority. We became priests in order that we might have this intimacy in a particular manner. Celibacy is a means which fosters this intimacy as well as a means to enable us to serve more freely. All of us are intimate with Christ in the celebration of the Sacraments and the priest in a particular way as he acts in the very person of Christ. We must come to know that Jesus is with us during everything that we do, and in every situation, including every imperfect situation. He has come to make a home in us and for us to make a home in him. Prayer is the indispensable means for cultivating a relationship with the Lord. Without prayer, all ministry, and indeed, all of the Christian life, is without foundation, like the house built on sand. Our role model for intimacy with God is that of Christ himself. While Jesus was involved in a great deal of public ministry, he also was deeply involved in prayer. The papal preacher insightfully stated that the picture that emerges of Jesus in the Gospels is “a contemplative who every so often moves into action, rather than as a man of action, who every once in a while allows himself periods of contemplation.” For us as priests, it is this personal encounter with the Lord in prayer that is the fullness of our lives which enables us to be the now of God to others.

I believe that we live in a world that finds it very difficult to enter into the now of God because of so many distractions placed before us. It is difficult to hear God because we are consumed by noise. We do not hear each other and so many times do not even hear ourselves. The digital age and the abundance of instant communication keeps us in touch with what is going on in the world before it even happens. Sadly, we are also presented not with what is happening but how that happening is perceived and evaluated. Political correctness becomes more important than the truth. The truth cannot set us free when the truth is not presented to us. We do not personally communicate enough with each other when we communicate through iPhones and tablets even in the presence of each other and at the family table. At the Last Supper, Judas was a perfect example of this distraction. While the Lord was speaking, he was not listening but texting and reading blogs from the Pharisees. We need to take the time to listen to the Lord as he truly speaks to us through the power of his Spirit dwelling within us. While the words of our prayer are a very important part of it, more importance is the silence that we spend with the Lord and he spends with us. Through this we can become the now of God for ourselves and for others.

Fred and Martha had just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Fred was concerned that Martha’s hearing was not what it should be since he thought that she many times did not hear what he said. Knowing she would not go to the doctor on her own, he called for an appointment and told the doctor his concerns. The doctor made an appointment for the following week but told Fred to test Martha’s hearing by speaking to her in the house from various places to get a better perspective on the problem. That evening Martha was preparing dinner in the kitchen and Fred was watching the news on TV in the living room. From his chair he asked his wife, “Martha, what are you making for supper tonight?” Fred did not hear any response. He got up and went to the door of the kitchen and asked again, “Martha, what are you making for supper?” Again, Fred heard no response. He went into the middle of the kitchen, not too far from Martha, and asked her for the third time, “What is for supper?” He heard no response and reflected to himself that this was more serious than he thought. Finally, he went up right behind Martha and in a loud voice asked, “Martha, what are you preparing tonight?” Martha turned around, looked at Fred, and said, “I already told you three times, chicken!” The problem was not Martha’s. Many times we think the Lord is not speaking when it is we who are not listening and do not even realize it.

I also believe that theological reflection is a necessary manner of preparing ourselves for intimacy with the Lord. As we reflect more and more upon God, his nature, his word, his relationship to us in his creation, we come personally to know him in a deeper way. It is unfortunate that the present context in which we live has eclipsed real theological thinking, dialogue and study. Theology is not something that enables us to give practical answers about God to be used in homilies or in another manner. It enables us to encounter God in the now so that we can personally know him and be his instruments. Theology is not meant to enhance administrative and organizational functions as a corporation and Pope Francis has warned about this danger. He has referred to the proper way of theological reflection in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, as on one’s knees, not at the desk, and has praised Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as a true theologian on his knees. Benedict’s most recent essay responding to the current challenges facing the Church, just released on Thursday, is an excellent example of this. He concludes his essay with words of gratitude to Pope Francis for showing us the light of Christ. I truly encourage our wonderful seminarians present with us today to appreciate the time they have for the study of theology on their knees and to embrace it as part of their lifestyle in future ministry. I encourage our priests to continue to do the same.

For most of his homilies at Mass during his retreat, Father Cantalamessa reflected on the priority of Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI also did this in his essay. Truly, for all of us the Eucharist is the center of our lives and the occasion where God is most now to us. The Eucharist is for the ordained priest the center of his ministry and the reason for which he was ordained. In the daily life of the priest, everything flows to the Eucharist and everything flows from the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist where the priest speaks the actual words of Christ which now become his words and transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The more the priest is cognizant of this, the more he is in touch with his identity as a priest. The more the priest is able to interiorize the words of the Lord, “This is my body given up for you,” and “This is my blood poured out for you,” the more he is the now of God in a concrete but mystical manner. We priests realize how unworthy we are to carry out this ministry in the person of Christ but realize that it is a grace freely bestowed upon us by the Lord.

On more than one occasion, Father Cantalamessa emphasized that Christ freely took upon himself our sins and our failures and offered himself to the Father in loving sacrifice. He emphasized that through his agony in the garden, Jesus is able to be present with all of us in our own agonies, no matter what they may be. We offer them to the Father with the Lord in a manner of deep prayer. He movingly spoke of the trying situation the Church is in today because of the sins of others. He expressed, “the ultimate cause of his (Christ’s) suffering in the Garden of Olives consisted in his taking upon himself sins that he had not committed himself and in bearing responsibility for them in front of the Father. There is a redemptive and expiatory power in doing this. . . If we share in his sufferings, we will share in his glory and in the glory of the Church which will most certainly follow, after her purification.” As priests, in a special way, we realize that being scapegoats with Christ is part of our vocation, part of our being the now of God.

It is my special joy to thank all of you for your love of the Church and for being the now of God among us. In a particular way, I thank our priests who make God now through their lives of configuration with Christ. My brothers, you are a source of grace and inspiration for me. As we now renew our priestly commitment, may we do so with joy knowing that the Lord is with us now and it is here that we serve him.