Tu Es Sacerdos
Above the door of the exterior entrance to the sacristy of Saint Joseph Church in Danbury, Connecticut is a century old, stained glass window inscribed with the Latin words: Tu es sacerdos in aeternum. The priest is reminded by these sobering, challenging, and beautiful words that he is a "priest forever." Throughout the long history of that church, every priest entering and exiting the sacristy is confronted with who he is and with all that awareness entails.
Saint Joseph Church in Danbury, CT
Pope Benedict has designated this year (June 2009 – June 2010) as the Year of the Priest. The sacrament of Holy Orders and all who have been called to receive it are the focus of this spiritual year. For over thirty–six years I have risen each day to don the clerical attire and to place the Roman Collar around my neck. Whoever sees me, whoever calls me "Father" that day expects to find Christ alive and acting in me. How terrified I am at the thought that he or she might find only me. In the course of serving the People of God, the priest has to cope with the daily frailties of his human nature and the coercions of the culture in which he lives. He prays, "Walk we me, Lord. Watch over me. Help me to express your love in my thoughts and words and actions today. Provide me the wisdom I require to sense the needs of those that I encounter and that I may minister effectively to them. Fill me with the happiness of being your priest. At day's end, let me go to my rest joyful in the knowledge that I have sincerely tried to serve you well."
Clergy and laity alike were stunned at the tragic news of a scandal involving certain priests and the sexual abuse of children. The ensuing crisis of faith was like a punch in the gut for the People of God. One teary-eyed, elderly woman lamented to me, "How can the hands that touched the host do such things to children." I knew that I could not provide an adequate answer, but I expressed my own regret and sadness. In a sex–crazed culture, the impact of this scandal adversely affected the Church's authority to proclaim its moral code.
For a law, broken by its guardians, loses its sanctity in the eyes of the people.
– Aleksandr Kumitsyn
Priests of the highest quality – known to be so by the people – continued to serve God and his faithful courageously and persistently. Men such as these and the profound depth of faith in the Church held by its members did much to ameliorate the pain. The history of this tragedy must bolster and improve the spectrum of the process of discerning and of living a vocation to the priesthood.
As if it were a practice run, Jesus sent his apostles in pairs to the surrounding towns to proclaim repentance and the kingdom of God. They took very little with them that would signal earthly security. They, however, were extended Christ-like ability to heal and to forgive sins. They would perform these and greater tasks later. Through the unparalleled event of the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would instill these apostles with the zeal and the mission to be Church builders. The Truth of Christ would fuel their priestly work and make them more than they ever thought that they could be. The path to wisdom in the Greek world was to "know one's self." The path of the priest is to strive to know one's self in the light of God's Truth and the formative power of the Holy Spirit. He must explore the depth and the meaning of the love with which the Father views his children. He must know the definition of who he is as priest and that he too walks through the world with little of earthly security. The staff upon which he leans is the love of Christ.
Suppose that truth be the expression, not of the intellect, nor even, as we sometimes now think, of will, but of love.
– Lionel Trilling
Back to that stained glass window, the power of its message strikes you whether entering the church to perform a liturgical function or, tellingly, on leaving the church to live your priesthood in the world outside. Indeed, the biblical statement upon the window is most humbling. To my dying day, I shall pray that through God's mercy and grace that I shall have done a fair job at doing his bidding. Recently, however, I have been encouraged by a story shared with me by our parish's administrative assistant. Her young son, having assessed my priesthood, commented to his mother that I should "try out" for pope. God help us!