SOME YEARS AGO I was with a community of young aspiring MSC. We were housed in suburbia next door to a large house that sheltered a shifting population of young men and women. These neighbours of ours could be noisy at times and sometimes a little wild, especially on Friday evenings when we would notice suspicious-smelling smoke clouds wafting over the fence. On more than one occasion they received visits from the police following neighbours’ complaints about the noise. Late one memorable evening we were awakened by a violent pounding against their front door and a simultaneous frantic rapping on our back door—a young lady was seeking sanctuary with us as a gorilla was making forced entry next door.
After one noisy session, when police had again paid a visit, the head of the household apologized for the noise. I hastened to tell him that our community wanted his community to know that it was not we who had called in the law.
We kept good communications with them by over-the-fence exchanges. In the course of one of our conversations, à propos of nothing, one of them said to me: ‘You guys would have it all together, wouldn’t you?’
I had to do some quick thinking. I sensed a dilemma. The answer I wanted to give would be wordy, filled with talk of us all being on a journey, weak and prone to temptation like everyone else, and never ‘getting it all together’—if ever—until the parousia. A bit ponderous for the occasion, and somehow it did not seem to be the appropriate answer. The question had been put in such a whistful tone that the young man seemed to want a straight ‘yes’, which would have left me feeling like the pharisee ought to have felt in presence of the publican.
What he wanted, even needed, to believe was that it was possible, despite everything, ‘to get it all together’. Anything less than ‘yes’ would have disappointed him. My response, then, was as qualified a ‘yes’ as I could manage, along the lines: ‘Well, I suppose, in a sort of a way, yes’…praying silently all the time for forgiveness for such arrogance.
I have often thought back on that brief exchange. The young man seemed to need someone to ‘speak’ to him of a better life, of a more satisfying and uplifting existence. He needed the witness that all Christians are called to give, the witness to the Good News of a saviour and of salvation. All of us, the baptised, are anointed for and commissioned to this as our mission, our personal mission, and the mission we share as a community.
Within that community of witnesses we priests have a special ministry. What people want from us above all else are not our hard work or our passing ‘successes’, important and all as these can be at times. (And that is a relief, for if we depend on such things for our sense of worth in the community we are set for a fall one day or another.) Above all else people want us to ‘talk’ of God and of the life that God opens up for us, so that they will feel strengthened in going out and doing the same—telling the Good News to the whole world. They want us to help them to raise their eyes and hearts in hope. They want us to be men ‘of God’.
This is not a new thought, of course; it is something that we priests have heard repeatedly since the earliest years of our training. But we need to remind ourselves of it constantly, and especially in these days when we have reason to feel that the value of our service is being questioned as never before in recent memory, at least in the secular arena.
Normally within the Catholic community the responses of the faithful to our efforts to do what we have been ordained to do are extremely generous, and can sometimes assault our humility. ‘It is good to have a holy man pray over you’, said one of our senior parishioners after I had administered the Sacrament of the Sick to him.
Again, this was not the moment for an adequate comment that would clarify for him that ordination does not make us holier, or better, or superior in the Christian community. What he was really responding to was that ordination makes us people who are important links between God and the community, and between the community and God. Our ‘speaking of God’ takes a sacramental form and people are put in touch with the divine in a special way through us. Through their faith they catch a glimpse of, and are actually touched by, the divine presence in our words and actions.
The divine is linked with the whole community through our ministry, and this reaches its high point when we preside at the Eucharist. In this celebration the special characterof our ministry is clearly operative. Christ our head is among us in a particular way because we preside in persona Christi. In this celebration God responds to the deep human yearning to be linked with him (her) as he and his world, the whole court of heaven, join with us on earth. The Eucharist is a celebration on earth and in heaven, all in communion, and it is our ministry that fulfils the necessary condition for this to happen.
Priests are chosen from among God’s people to serve the people. Respect, deference and authority are given to us because we represent Christ in the assembly in a special way, and we are an important link with him. Our response can only be one of profound humility, together with a resolve to become better servants of God’s people.
- Barry Brundell MSC, Editor