Identity of the Priest

Dominican Father Cessario Sees the Parallels with John the Baptist

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BOSTON, Massachusetts, DEC. 23, 2002 ( The clergy scandals of the past year prompted Dominican Father Romanus Cessario to focus on the identity of the priest, in this homily for the Third Sunday of Advent.

Father Cessario is a professor of systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary in the Boston Archdiocese.

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The drama of Advent’s Third Sunday centers on the identity of John the Baptist. What are you then? This question the Church poses as well to each of her members. What are you then?

Indeed, every human being is required to face this unique interrogation. What are you then? One’s response either portends eternal happiness or spells the loss of it. No third alternative exists.

Thus, St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians: «May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ» (I Thessalonians 5:23).

Advent affords a time to ponder again this question: What are you then? The Church does not encourage heavy introspection. The rose of Gaudete Sunday signals that the birth of the Savior makes it possible for everyone to supply the right answer.

John the Baptist’s full identity unfolds only in relation to the person of Jesus Christ. John himself announces that he awaits «… the one who is coming after me.» The Precursor’s identity is circumscribed, if you will, by his place in salvation history. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light, as the Evangelist remarks.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that anyone who belongs to the Church of faith and sacraments, the one Church of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, is greater than John the Baptist. Even the least in the Kingdom rank above him.

The reason for this configuration is not difficult to imagine. Christ’s baptism effects something that John the Baptist’s could only prefigure. John’s baptism encouraged repentance. Christ’s baptism forgives sins. John’s baptism proclaimed a consolation that was near. Christ’s baptism makes us God’s adopted sons and daughters. No greater consolation exists.

The answer that the ordained priest [and those who have received the grace to prepare for ordination] gives to the Advent question remains of enormous importance for the Church. What are you then? When asked of a priest, the question finds its answer only in divine revelation. In other words, God himself reveals the identity of the priest.

No sociologist can tell you what a priest is. Sociology would only conclude that the priest purveys spiritual services to those who appreciate the place that religion holds in social life.

No psychologist can tell you what a priest is. Psychology would only surmise that the priest offers religious counseling to those who may prefer his availability to that of a secular therapist.

No politician can tell you what a priest is. Politics would only assume that the priest ensures a stability for the secular regime that the public authorities may have difficulty realizing.

None of these human enterprises can reveal the essence of the priesthood. Only Christian faith discloses who a priest is. Like John the Baptist, the Christian priest learns his identity from his specific, God-given mission. The key words remain «I am ….» For John the Baptist, I am the voice. For the priest, I am head and shepherd.

When John the Baptist announces that he is not worthy to untie the Lord’s sandal, he speaks in the name of every human being. John is the Prophet for Everyman. The Baptist foretells a key event that will remain in the Church until the end of time. It is the event of the Mass, a eucharistic moment, when priest and laity say together, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Because Christians, especially priests, say these words often, it is easy for us to forget what they signify. Put otherwise, it is easy for us to forget our full identity before God: We are creatures, and sinful creatures at that. We are creatures with a capacity for a life that exceeds our creaturehood. We are sinners, who have lost any claim there may be to receiving the gift of supernatural life.

In the United States during the past year, many have forgotten the spiritual identity of the priest, of the Christian believer, and so of the Church. We have been pushed toward this forgetfulness by social engineers, who regard the Church only as an institution, as a human structure.

We have been helped to forget by therapists of one kind or another, who equate human happiness with the capacity to function well. We and all Americans have been helped to forget by public figures, who, following an instinct that first emerged when Christ announced that his Kingdom was not of this world, aim to subordinate the Church and her hierarchical structure to the ends of a civil commonwealth.

That the forgetfulness has been fueled by a subterranean anti-clericalism that now exhibits itself in many quarters results of course from the fact that the unchastity of some ministers of the altar occasioned this most recent challenge to the freedom and identity of the Church.

But do not be misled. Men of power have always confronted the Church, and asked, What do you have to say for yourself. In any case, the developments of the past year have left many members of the Church, priests and laity alike, ill disposed to hear the message of John the Baptist, «I am not worthy. Repent» ([see] Matthew 3:2).

The priest recognizes in John the Baptist an icon of his vocation. He must prepare the way of the Lord. While one may concede that the present moment is a difficult one, the task has never been easy.

Reflect on how many priest martyrs of the modern period Pope John Paul II has canonized. How should the priest prepare the way of the Lord in Advent 2002? We begin by recalling our own creaturely condition. We are not the light, but we are sent to testify to the Light. We continue by acknowledging our own sinfulness. We are not worthy to untie the sandals of Christ, but by his gracious mercy we hold in our hands his Body and Blood.

The Christian people need many John the Baptists. They need holy men to serve as heads and shepherds so that the Baptized can achieve the holiness that the Incarnation of the Son of God introduces into the world.

It comes as an imperishable grace. No political power can capture it. No sociologist can explain it. No psychologist can produce it. No. The grace of the Incarnation comes as a free and unique gift from God. The grace comes as a little child, more anxious to console than to threaten.

The grace arrives in the company of Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God and Mother of the Church. The grace endures in the one Church of Christ gathered around Peter. This unique grace appears today on the altars of the Archdiocese of Boston where priests hold up the Host and say, Lord, I am not worthy.

The grace abides in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, guarded by Bishop Richard Lennon, until the Bishop of Rome establishes a more permanent arrangement. The grace, please God, dwells in each member of this parish community. This means that we have the answer to the question, What are you then?

Priests and laity together possess the answer. We are Christ’s. Is it any wonder that the Church introduces a rose hue for Gaudete Sunday? What better reason to rejoice than to know that once again we can celebrate that night when the Eternal Son of God became man.

Is it any wonder that St. Paul urges us, In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. What are we? A people who rejoice always.

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