First, the priest as he views himself; the second, the priest as he views the lay person; third, the realization that both priest and lay person have to work together if they are going to fulfill the mandate of Christ to preach and teach his gospel.
First, the priest as he views himself. Every priest knows that his priesthood is derived from Jesus Christ, the high priest. From the time of the last supper, down to this very day, every priest knows that Jesus Christ has given him a divine power to change lifeless bread into the bread of life at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Every priest, no matter how limited he might be intellectually or emotionally, has this same mission to bring the Eucharist into the lives of others and to preach and teach that gospel. Even though we have priests who are scientists and intellectuals, priests who are in all kinds of diversified pursuits, the average Catholic meets his priest through the local parish. And so, for most priests, his work, his vocation is in the form of a sacramental priesthood. Baptism, Communion, Confirmation and the sacraments are administered through the local parish. The fundamental work of preaching and teaching the mission of Christ is still the same and the Eucharist is the focal point of the spiritual life of the priest, layperson and parish. There is not a priest I know of who is not aware of his awesome responsibility. Most of them that I have worked with over the years are men of faith with as many talents or limitations as any group of lay persons.
In 44 years in the priesthood, I have seen hundreds of priests working under the most bizarre of conditions in a very quiet way, trying to teach and preach the word of God. In sections of Canada where I was asked to preach and lecture, you would see men in the most solitary conditions working every day for their parishioners trying with their limitations to do the work for which they were ordained. There are thousands of such priests all throughout the country. Every priest is taught that in the teaching a preaching of the gospel of Christ, you are going to pay a price, you are going to be called upon to make a sacrifice. And being as human as you are, sacrifices are hard. Priests have paid a price down through the centuries for preaching and teaching others about Christ. Archbishop Romero, as we all know, was assassinated. The six Jesuit priests in South America were assassinated. Bruce Ritter had been the victim of character assassination. But the work, despite these losses and crimes, has to go on.
The priest and the work of preaching. When Cardinal O'Connor said that we must love the homosexual, but never approve of homosexual acts, it practically caused a revolution in St. Patrick's Cathedral. St. Augustine was hurt by his preaching of the gospel of Christ, St. Thomas was rejected. Cardinal O'Connor and these priests of the past and present are not preaching their own doctrine. It is the doctrine and teaching of Christ. All the rampage and acts of desecration that might take place in any cathedral are not going to bring about a change because of this kind of intimidation. Homosexual acts are morally wrong from the teaching point of the Catholic Church. This is our belief. This is what we have to preach with all the compassion of Christ. And you are aware, because of abuse and anger, the priest will pray a price. There probably was no man in the Church that did more personally for AIDS victims, and most of them are homosexual, than Cardinal O'Connor. I know that he took care of over 1,000 AIDS victims at St. Claire's Hospital. That means from shaving them, helping them get dressed, taking care of them in as Christ-like a fashion as any priest could.
Yet, no man has been more vilified by the group that he personally helped so much. Here is another aspect of preaching and teaching that becomes very complicated as far as the priest is concerned. I go to many mental hospitals and hospitals in general especially Sloan Kettering. Many of these non-catholic professionals will say "why is there so much money being spent on AIDS victims by the Catholic Church for acts that are personally caused by the men themselves, when there is such a need for greater financial support for people who have leukemia caused by causes beyond their control." They will make it very clear. AIDS diseases are caused by people who have a change to avoid the disease. It is something that is self-inflicted. But leukemia depressions and other illnesses are often beyond the control of the patient or victim. Preaching compassion for AIDS victims in a place where others are suffering form things like cancer does not always get a favorable reception.
The role of preaching and teaching is becoming one of the most complicated aspects of the priesthood. Several years ago Bishop Vaughn was sent to jail near Newburgh, New York, for his anti-abortion stand. He paid the price, he made the sacrifice for his belief. There was a misquote in the newspapers as to whether he said former Governor Cuomo would go to hell because of the Governor's stand on abortion. When you recognize that abortion is wrong, that life starts at the moment of conception, you wonder what is happening in the political sense. The teaching of Christ and the Church are not going to change despite political pressure. When you analyze the comments made by the former Governor, it is obvious that he ignored the long-standing teaching of the Church on this subject. At times you wonder if he really knows not only what abortion is as far as the Church is concerned, but whether he know what being a Catholic is all about.
The priesthood and the lay people. Lay people have a right to have expectations that are realistic about their priest. And priests have the same right to have realistic expectations from their lay people. The word realistic should be emphasized. The United State, which over seventy years ago was an immigrant country, was built by people who came to this country filled with hope and fortified by their Catholic faith. Together, both priest and lay people built the Catholic school system, universities that are extremely professional and academic, and through their schools and their parishes have brought into this country a set of values based on the ten commandments and the beatitudes and the sacraments that have been responsible for much of the spiritual heritage that we now have. G.K. Chesterton once said on this theme, "it is so easy to criticize Christianity, but imagine how worse things would be in our society if Christianity never existed."
During the time when the Church was an immigrant Church, vocations to the priesthood were never a problem. That has changed radically. In 1967 there were 47,000 young men in the seminary. Today, there are about 7,000. Only in a few areas like the Legionnaires of Christ and Mother Teresa's group is there an increase of vocations. But the total picture in the Catholic Church is quite grim. Vocations are not that numerous. But still, the mandate to preach and teach the gospel is incumbent upon all of us. You expect from your priests that they be professional and capable. We, as priests, expect the same. We are very much aware of our limitations in the clergy, and also are quite aware of the limitations in the laity. No one has all the answers. But the gospel has to be preached, the work of Christ has to go on. And this can be partially achieved through personal collaboration.
Even though, as I have mentioned, we have met many wonderful priests outside the parish structure, the work and the mandate of the Church and Christ are for most of us going to be done through the parish. If we can help in the inner city, if we can help in non-catholic hospitals, if we can help our neighbor in any avenue, this is helping the gospel of Christ be preached through you. To criticize the priest or the lay person generally is counterproductive. To try to be positive, constructive and have continual interest in the spiritual growth of your parish is going to help you, the priest and the parish. The days when any of us can sit back, criticize and make snow balls that others can throw, those days are gone, priests don't need this nor do lay people need it. If you cannot work, after you have tried all your efforts to work in your parish, then try some other priest that you can have collaboration with.
If we are going to prepare for the future to preach and teach others, it is going to be done with one word in mind, collaboration. Priests and lay people both need each other. I think the Church will go through one of its most exciting and creative periods. And I think collaboration of priests with lay people in a much more positive way will be one of the factors. Despite all the bad news and the set backs, I think this is one of the most exciting periods for both priest and lay person. It is a chance for all us to make a difference, a difference that will help the Church and the society in which they fulfill their mission to preach and teach the gospel. Both priest and lay people need each other. If you look for a quote that will highlight the importance of collaboration, that will help all of us, you will not find a better spiritual comment than that made by Paul Claudel, the French poet and writer who lived in the 19th century. He said:
We must work for the family of God. There is not one of my brothers that I can do without. In the heart of the meanest miser, the most squalid prostitute, the most miserable drunkard, there is an immortal soul with holy aspirations which deprived of daylight, worships in the night. I hear them speaking when I speak. I hear them weeping when I get down on my knees. There is not one of them that I can do without. Just as there are many stars in the heavens and the power of calculation is beyond my reckoning, so also there are many living souls and they scarcely give forth their light, but I need them all in my praise of God. There are many living beings but there is not one of them that I am not in communion with when I utter the prayer, Our Father who art in heaven.
If the work of Christ is to grow, this theme has to utmost in our minds.
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