I’ve been thinking lately about the role and function of priests. I did not grow up with priests being a part of my world. My Baptist world did not have a place for priests. And I did not know other “kinds” of Christians outside of the narrow world of my youth (really most of my life). I also did not grow up with either a Catholic or Protestant “high church” kind of liturgical Sunday services, and thus the sacredness at the heart of Sunday worship was nothing more than one’s emotions as they were conjured and manipulated by the “worship” team and prodded by the sermon−this does not mean Truth was not preached or my emotions were entirely false. God can use anything and I was blessed to hear many great sermons, be encouraged in my faith, and find fellowship with other Christians. But now questions arise: Are some called to be priests, and do priests have a real role in the life of the Church? Do priests fulfill a function?
While I’ve been pondering these questions I found the story below at Courageous Priest:
The greatest priestly action I have ever seen was at Mass on a hot summer Sunday at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn.
This was back before the parish had air conditioning. It was tough for the congregation, but worse for the visiting priest who said Mass in the summer. He had diabetes and some kind of degenerative nerve disorder that made his hands shake.
“It’s hot for you,” he would joke. “But I’m up here wearing a horse blanket!”
This priest’s homilies were excellent, but the moment that is burned in my memory happened during the Eucharistic prayer.
Father was slowing down through the first part of the prayer, like an old record player that needed to be cranked. When he started the consecration, it sounded like he was going to stop altogether.
But after he started the consecration, it quickly became clear that nothing could make him stop.
“Take this,” pause, “all of you,” pause, “and” … long pause … “eat it.”
He took a long gasping breath and looked like he wouldn’t recover. A parishioner ran to his side. The priest made it clear he wasn’t about to leave the altar, so the parishioner brought a chair for him to rest on.
“This … is … my … body … which will be … given up … for you.”
He lifted the host with shaky hands. We watched in rapt silence.
He slowly worked through “When the supper was ended, he took the cup …”
And then a replacement priest had been brought over from the rectory.
But Father wasn’t about to stop halfway through the consecration.
Word after agonizing word, he got to the end of the consecration.
By then, an ambulance had come. After he elevated the chalice, he was carried away on a stretcher.
Then the replacement priest stepped up to the altar. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” he said.
Talk about alter christus. Watching that priest was like watching Our Lord consecrating the Eucharist — from the cross.
“Mom, why wouldn’t he stop?” the kids asked their mother in the car.
“Because he’s a priest,” said April. “That’s what priests do.”
She was right. It is vitally important that priests preach and that they do it well. But preaching isn’t the most important thing priests do. A priest doesn’t need to be talented, interesting or well-read to do the most important things priests do.
“That’s what priests do.” This sentence raises a lot of questions for me, for which I do not yet have the answer.
Also, one of my favorite films is Rome, Open City (1945). I wrote about a priest who plays a crucial role in the story of that film. I suppose there are, and always have been, “muscular” or heroic priests. The early church is full of them.
Priests are not so revered these days as they once were, at least not in the popular media. And there has been a lot of deservedly bad press because of a few notorious priests who abused their positions. But I wonder if in the vast, quiet place that is far removed from popular media that there isn’t a world of honorable priests who labor for the Kingdom and the Christ they love. I think this must be true and I would like to learn more about that world.