Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

A Practical Guide to Understanding the Priesthood


            This week I would like to concentrate on the second reading, which I would call the Practical Guide to Understanding the Priesthood.


            First of all the reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, a lengthy sermon written to shore up the faith of  second and third generation Christians of Hebrew ancestry.  When the writer begins by mentioning High Priests, he is speaking about two groups of people.  He is referring both to the Temple priests of the Old Covenant and Christian bishops and priests, the priests of the New Covenant.  He says that every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. 


            Before Christianity this sacrifice would be some sort of animal.  The sacrifice was made to atone for sin.  Jewish theology quotes Leviticus 17:11 that says that blood makes an atonement for the soul.  The Jewish feast of Yom Kippur, celebrated last month on September 22nd -23rd ,  is the Day of Atonement, when sacrifice is made for sin.  This is not just an acknowledgment of sin.  That would be no more effective then an apology would be effective in removing a murder charge.  God has been offended by the sins of mankind.  Only a sacrifice can atone for the offence. Leviticus 16 gives these instructions:  The high priest, after becoming ritually pure, first offered a bull for his sins and the sins of his household. Then two goats were set aside. Lots were cast, and one goat was chosen to be the scapegoat or "Azazel." The High Priest slaughtered the other goat to atone for the sins of Israel and brought the blood into the Holy of Holies. The scapegoat was sent away to be lost in the desert after the High Priest laid both hands on its head and confessed the sins of Israel. In this way, the sins of the nation were symbolically carried off into the desert.


            Two were brought for sacrifice.  One was accepted and one was released into the desert.  And Pilate brought Jesus and Barrabbas before the people.  One was sacrificed.  One was released into oblivion.


            A sacrifice has been made.  The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is the perfect sacrifice.  He is sacrificed once in history. This sacrifice is renewed mystically at Mass.  It is the one sacrifice is for all people.  Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice.   The essential action of the Mass is the offering of the Son to the Father. The Mass takes us to the Cross and leads us mystically into the Eternal Now of God, as the priest offers the sacrifice of the Son to the Father. We need the priests of the New Covenant to replace the priests of the Old Covenant.  The Temple no longer exists.  Nor is it needed. In the New Covenant we need priests to offer the sacrifice of Christ for the people and for himself.

            Hebrews refers to priests of the New Covenant when it says that a priest is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and the erring because for he himself is beset by weakness.  It goes on to say that for this reason, the priest must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. Well, I hope the priest is patient and understanding.  I hope I have been patient and understanding.  There is an important point here.  The priest of the New Covenant realizes that he himself is attacked by weakness and sin in his own life.  He realizes that there are two sinners in that confessional, that reconciliation room.  Please understand this, hearing confessions is the most humbling ministry that a priest performs.  We priests realize that no matter what we hear, we are also sinners, responsible to God for giving into our weakness.  Perhaps, you have often heard me say,  “If you ever go to confession to a priest and that priest thinks he is better than you, he has a serious problem, not you.”  When I minister the sacrament of penance, hear confessions, I am acutely aware of my own sins.  I am also edified by the humility of those coming to receive the sacrament.  When I celebrate Mass, I make the eternal offering not just for the sins of the people but for my own sins.  Sometimes people will be concerned that if they make an honest confession, the priest is going to think negatively about them.  The truth is that I think far more highly about you than I do about myself.  After all, you are the one humbling yourself before God.  I’m just the mediator.  I also need forgiveness, and I need the Eternal Offering for sin that is the essence of the Mass.


            Finally, Hebrews says that no one takes this honor upon himself, but only when called by God.  No one has the right to be ordained.  Priesthood is not a job.  It does not demand an equal employment opportunity.  Priesthood is a vocation, a call from God.  Why He chooses this person instead of that person to be a priest is beyond me.  Why He chose me still baffles me.  Perhaps it’s to show that He has a good sense of humor. Certainly it is to show that His power is made perfect in the weakness of His priests, in my weakness.  


            When I grew up, priests were often placed on pedestals.  How horrible. A priest is not better than anyone else.  In fact, he has more to answer to than most people because he has daily contact with the mysteries of God. Still, there are many people and many priests who think that priests should not be seen as normal human beings. That is really sad.  It misses the whole point of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  He came to offer atonement for the sins of all the people, including, and perhaps especially, his priests.   Perhaps if people had a more realistic view of whom their priests are, and if priests promoted a more realistic view of whom they are, there would be less scandal when the human weakness of the clergy becomes evident.


            I’m sure some of you are wondering what all this has to do with you.  Why did I decide to devote a homily to some of the theological tenets of the Sacrament of Holy Orders?  It is because I don’t want you to confuse the actions of the priest with the person  performing these actions.  So, in summary, the priest’s main role is to renew the Eternal Offering of Christ for himself and his people.  He must recognize that he was called by God to serve the people.  He didn’t earn the priesthood, nor did he have a right to this vocation.  And finally priest and people should realize that God’s power is made perfect in the weakness we all have, including the weakness of His priests.


            So I ask you today to pray for your priests.  Pray that we might truly be priests of God serving His People.