Once a year, the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates “Priesthood Sunday.” It is a day to remind all of the need to pray for priests and to show the special appreciation that we have for what they do for Catholics and all Christians. Depending on how much we see priests at work, it is easy to forget that the priest is not merely a religious social worker or parish administrator. He wasn’t ordained just to “do churchy things,” as if he wasn’t capable of doing something else with his life.
“Who, then is the priest? He is the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God’s image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1589)
Whoa! To listen to the description of the priest given by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, it sounds like he has superhero status. Captain America and Batman, step aside! Here comes Fr. Joe! Most likely, your parish priest doesn’t have superhuman strength or an armor plated car fitted with Gatling guns used to combat the bad guys. In reality, he has been given a grace on the day of his ordination which equips your priest with supernatural power that would make a superhero jealous.
The Catholic priest is conformed to Jesus Christ in such a radical way that it leaves an indelible, unchangeable mark on his soul. It means that he is another Christ, and he is given the authority to act in person Christi captitis, in the person of Christ the Head. A priest does not exercise authority apart from Christ; it is authority given in order to serve all humanity. When a priest offers the Sacrifice of the Mass, he is the instrumental cause who makes present the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the God Man present on the altar. He does this for the good of the faithful who are present, in order that they might be nourished by the Eucharist, the “bread of angels.” The priest has the authority to “refashion creation and restore it in God’s image” by absolving sins in the confessional. He aids the faithful in the sacrament of Reconciliation, because he is available to Christ who exercises His authority through the instrument of the priest. And there are many other ways that the priest fulfills his role of service and witness in the world.
Though many Catholics, and even many Christians, may not be able to verbalize what St. Gregory said, it is a fact that many people still have a deep respect for the Catholic priesthood.
Man of God … even at the grocery store
There is a sense in which the Catholic priest is “all in,” he is supposed to be committed to that life of prayer. With this call to lead a life of celibacy, simplicity, and obedience comes the grace necessary to help him to be a spiritual father the faithful. Most priests are aware of the responsibility they have to be of service to people, no matter where they are. That is why they’ll are often be dressed in their clerics or their religious habit, so as to be easily identified as a man of God. They understand their role to preach and teach both from the pulpit, but also when they are out at the grocery store.
One of the great joys of my priesthood have been the random conversations I have had with people out in the world. Of course I love preaching and hearing confessions, but there have been some awesome opportunities for evangelization during random conversations in parking lots, airport terminals or waiting rooms at a doctor’s office. Most recently, I stopped off at a gas station to fuel up, and I ended up talking to gentleman for 20 minutes. He wasn’t Catholic, but it didn’t matter, because he really needed to talk about some heavy stuff that was going on in life. What was really awesome was that I was able to give him a couple of Divine Mercy holy cards, and I encouraged him to say those words “Jesus, I trust in you!” as often as he could.
Priests need you
While I try to be prepared for those random meetings, I am constantly amazed how God uses me as a priest all the time. That is why it is so important for all of you to pray for priests. They need the extra prayers from the whole Church to remain faithful to their role as spiritual mediators for the faithful. Though there have been priests who have not lived up to the high calling that they have received, the vast majority of priests have been faithful to this task of being another Christ in the world. Please pray for priests, because if he perseveres in his call to holiness, then he is going to challenge you to be a better Catholic, too. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). By being faithful to our respective vocations, we will hopefully receive the gift of eternal happiness with God in Heaven.
Fr. Tony Stephens is the Vocational Director for the Fathers of Mercy headquartered in South Union, Kentucky. The primary apostolate of the Fathers of Mercy is to conduct parish missions and retreats in effort to re-evangelize and revitalize the faith of those who hear.