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The Mystery of the Priesthood: A Post Revisited

February 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Prayer, Vocations

My original post on this topic was written when Catholic priests were especially singled out for severe and sometime even unjust criticism.  The zeal and relish with which some impugned the priesthood in general went largely unanswered. There is also the broad supposition on the part of many that the priesthood is only about social and political power in the Church, another front in the battle of the sexes. Whenever anyone attempts to draw our attention away from this contention to something more beautiful, there is so much hurt and woundedness and rash judgment, constructive conversations are very difficult. There are growing negative effects on our life of prayer that flow from such a mentality.

Today, many are robbed of the confidence with which they once regarded priests, while priests today are often villainized indiscriminately. There are even some priests who find themselves somewhat demoralized and crushed, struggling to be faithful to members of the faithful who have no faith in them. Yet they go to celebrate mass every day and hear our confessions and baptize our babies and visit us in our illness. Our prayer lacks integrity if it is not free to acknowledge this in love and compassion. Spiritual ingratitude stems from both indifference and rash judgment and this is so even when we also must deal with grave abuses of pastoral authority.

The priesthood of Christ is one – but there are different ways of participating in it: Baptism and Holy Orders.  If we want the prayers of the baptismal priesthood of all believers to come alive, the mystery of ministerial priesthood needs to be healed and restored and welcomed as a vital spiritual gift for the whole Church. There is a need to discover ways to reaffirm the mystery of the priesthood as a divine institution and supernatural gift. The greatness of every vocation in the Church can be better affirmed when we rediscover how to build up and honor the ministerial priesthood rightly. How do we affirm the uniqueness and grandeur of what God has established in holy orders and how do we honor the young men and old who have answered the invitation to receive this gift for the Church?

The right answer to this question by no means slights any other vocation in the Church. On the contrary, a healthy and thriving priesthood can be the source of spiritual health for the whole body.  If one part of the body is ill, the whole body feels sick. Bring healing to the part of the body that is sick, and the whole body becomes healthy. The right answer therefore implicates us all in the same saving mystery no matter our vocation.

Against those who regard priests with a kind of egalitarianism that reduces the priesthood to a sociological entity struggling for power against other forces in the Church, our faith must look for the deeper mystery of love, a suffering love. When we accept that what God desires to heal in the priesthood is above all a reality ordered to the heavens and from the heavens, a mediating reality not of this world but for it, a reality of love and not of earthly power, only then can we ever begin to learn how to pray for its restoration.

The ministerial priesthood is a unique and unrepeatable sacramental participation in the priesthood of Christ for the building up of the whole Body. The body needs a heart – and there is no way to repay those men and women who have embraced the contemplative vocation to be this heart.  The Body needs all its other members if the mystery of Christ is to be dynamically revealed to the world: the helping hands of those who have consecrated their lives to the Lord, of deacons consecrated by the Church, of lay missionaries, of moms and dads and spouses.  But the Body also needs a head — and the ministerial priesthood mediates the actions of Christ the head so that through the priest, the whole body can respond to the saving will of God at work in the world. No other order or vocation in the Church has this power or authority. Yet, as more of us fail to acknowledge with gratitude the greatness of this gift, we allow a treasure entrusted to us from above to be greatly weakened and abused.

How we treat the gift reveals our attitude toward the Giver. This is true of very personal gifts given in our life of prayer. It is also true of ecclesial gifts like all kinds of missionary work, the diaconate and religious life.  It is true in a special way today for gifts that we have not fully appreciated, gifts especially despised by the world like the ministerial priesthood and marriage. Before the mystery of a gift despised, we discover betrayal, denial, abandonment — even in our own hearts We also learn that to receive such gifts means going to the Cross and standing firm even as the whole world falls into darkness and confusion.

Only as the faithful rediscover the need to have the saving mystery of Christ's presence mediated into the Church by sacred offices established by Christ Himself, only then can we begin to pray for the priesthood.  It is a journey prayer, prayer rooted in gratitude, in thanksgiving, in Eucharist.  Here, contemplating the beatitude of rejection experienced in the priesthood is a poignant starting point for seeing this mystery as a gift from God. Priests, if they are good priests, are rejected by the world. If they are very good priests, they also experience rejection in the Church. This is the beatitude of faithful ministry that Christ promised them – a beatitude we can taste with them in every mass. When we begin to humbly acknowledge these beautiful sacrifices made by those who embraced holy orders for us, we begin to learn how to thank God that He still calls brave young men to such a noble work and we make space for love to rebuild what we have destroyed.

 

Art: Detail of Clerical Clothing, KF, 11 September 2005, PD-Worldwide; The baptistery in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, 30 June 2013, own work, Farragutful, CC; Ordination sacerdotale d'un prêtre (chrismation des mains), 15 August 2007, own work, English nol, CC; all Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com

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  • Karen Howard

    What a beautiful reflection and call to prayer, Dr. Lilles. You write of a need to discover ways to reaffirm the mystery of priesthood, and you also call this a journey prayer rooted in gratitude, in thanksgiving, in Eucharist. Our parish is getting ready to launch a Lenten course in apologetics, beginning with the topic of Real Presence. While the materials turn to Scripture to begin the defense, I was reminded of another approach from a course I took years ago on Eucharistic Theology. Real Presence is inextricably tied to worship and prayer. If our understanding of Real Presence fails, it will be largely due to prayerlessness more than anything else. Perhaps one way of reaffirming the mystery of priesthood for all those men who are blessings in our lives would be to spend an hour in prayer before the Eucharist in adoration, thanking God for their lives and sacrifices and hands that allow us to do so. Writing them each a note telling them this might be another. Thank you for your direction.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thanks for this Karen – I especially like what you are saying about the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist.

  • Amen. Amen, Anthony. We need to pray for them unceasingly.

    • LizEst

      Praying for all clergy, religious, consecrated every day!

  • Aimliz

    Well said Dr. Lilles. The parish I belong to has a GREAT priest, and the reaction of our church has been rejection. Many have left because they – from the words of their own mouths – don’t want to hear about the churches stance on abortion. And our priest is very vocal about being pro-life. Anyway, thank you for the great post and the reminder to pray for our priests. God bless them!

    • LizEst

      Glad to hear this priest has the courage of his convictions. Whenever a priest talks about the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception to that of natural death, all you have to do is look around at the congregation. Those who have their heads down, those who look like they might be angry, perhaps those who have their arms crossed (unless, of course, they are cold or normally keep them that way), they are usually the ones who have some experience with this: either themselves, their families or someone dear to them. That would be a great time to pray for all of them…and the priest as well, of course.

      • Aimliz

        You are absolutely right. Thank you so much for the reminder to pray for those in the congregation as well. As always I appreciate your comments back 🙂

    • Anthony_Lilles

      You are blessed to have such a great priest – a voice for those who do not have one.

      • Aimliz

        I completely agree. To myself and my family he has been a breath of fresh air, as he speaks the truth.

  • judeen

    the Power of the preisthood.. this is explained in Judges… and tells of bad priests.. the people are not to judge them for God Himself will judge them.. and in bad priests in old testement the people were lead into slavery…what a priest does is very important to all of us…
    being a priest is being a spiritual dad.. a protector, spiritual and physical… leading the people to what is right and good and how God wants us to live…
    and since it is spiritual so evil seeks it to destroy it.. as the people of God often we have to break all hexes curses spells and seals on our preists.. alot of their problems are spiritual…
    if you have masons in your town .. surely enough watch your parades.. where they ride their bikes and claim the town… what forms are they riding.. ciricles , stars? pray alot for your priest then.. bless the churches also … demons stand in our churches. ussually in the back .. where people sit who dont pray… bless your church halls and ect.. and have adoration. you will see a great difference.. we as a church have become spiritually blind… time to wake up and reclaim your priest and churches and towns for God once more

    • patricia

      Thank You Dr. Lilles for such a great article.

  • judeen

    another thing I would like to talk about… is when people find God and have great zeal.. and when the priest is worn or just dont beleive in Gods Power and presence.. these people are put in that church for a reason … and do not leave to go to another one or pentecostal.. but help the priest reawake or even awake his spirit to God and lead him into a spiritual life with God… sujest to him to meet with other priest 1nce a month and share spiritual trials or expereinces.. (something the layaty should do too) and well our nuns… so many have gone off and got into yoga and easter religons… this is so demoralizing.. to see this for the regular people .. so glad the pope came to check out nunerys to see if they are on track.. this really gave us hope..

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this – yes, you are right – our priests are spiritual protectors in a very beautiful way and when their faith is alive – it sets the whole Church aglow.

  • patricia

    Priests give us the sacraments through Christ. We should be greatful for them and let them know that. One way I like to express my graditude is to say thank you beautiful Mass beautiful homily Father. Another thing when priests offer formation studies or on different themes it does not hurt to attend you be amazed of new treasures secrets of God that come from the mouth of the priests. They are our sheperherd through Jesus the great sheperherd. Thank you all priests. May God Bless and reward you for your service and your sacrifice leading us all closer to God.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Amen – thanks for these encouragements Patricia

  • Utelene Dawn Nugent

    It is such a blessings to know that although we are people in different parts of the world, we are like-minds. I am a member of the National Catholic Charismatic Renewal Centre (NCCRC) in Kingston, Jamaica, and for the month of February 2014, we were requested by our Deacon-in-charge Ron Burgess to pray especially for our priests. We have been doing this both collectively when we meet each Sunday afternoon, and also individually. The section of your article I find most profound is “our prayer lacks integrity, if it does not acknowledge in love and compassion, the sacrifice and service of these men who are called to the priesthood”. You just can’t read this, be a good Catholic, and engage in priest-bashing. Spiritual Ingratitude, indeed!!! Just so others will be sensitized, I will forward your article to my address book. Excellent job Anthony, this so needed to be said!!! Blessings, love, and peace always!!!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this encouraging note and for letting us know about NCCRC of Jamaica. It sounds like you have a very good Deacon – and I am glad to be in solidarity with you in prayer.

  • Estefania

    Thank you Dr.Lilles, I especially liked what you mentioned of not appreciating the gift being like not appreciating the giver. This is something great to share with others who might be tempted to criticize priests or somehow attack a particular priest and not look at all the good they do and how much they sacrifice. I personally love priests as I’m sure most Catholics do, I love their witness, their dedication, devotion and courage. The saints have of course mentioned the reverence we should have for them as representatives of Christ, St. Francis said he would kneel before a priest before he would for an angel. Naturally, they are all different and have their faults and weaknesses but I know so many great priests just in my four years in the Church! (personally and on television) I will try to pray for them more often as well as the Pope and other religious and that we the laity will value them and give them more support and motivation.

  • JKA

    “Priests, if they are good priests, are rejected by the world. If they are very good priests, they also experience rejection in the Church.”

    Can you elaborate on this thought? I think I find this confusing for two reasons:
    1) Am I wrong in believing a priest must be obedient to his superiors? How does this rejection take place in that context? Is it suffering in being obedient to inferior directions?
    2) There seems to be a contradiction between the import and value of priestly vocation, which then as an institution rejects it’s most special priests. I’m confused by this.

    A third thought, does this mean if a priest is popular or loved, he is somehow not the “real deal”? I have known priests who were definitely worldly and popular, and that seemed very obvious to me. I found it amazing that others didn’t see that for what it was. On the other side of the continuum, I know of a particular priest who is enormously popular. People pack into churches to see him hours before mass. I think he is fascinating, but he is much like a celebrity in his popularity and in that he seems to have “handlers” who manage access to him. While the church doesn’t stop him from doing his thing, he’s had several influential detractors in the church, and I believe is watched closely by authorities including the Vatican. Would someone like this, apparently rejected by his own church (including being expelled from at least one order before finding another that would take him), and therefore a “very good priest”, or does this mean we ought to tread carefully because the church is doing so? I guess what worries me is the idea of my Church rejecting the best things.

    • Plevesque

      This thought of priests who are very good, could also mean very faithful or holy. Have you read the life of Saint Padre Pio in the last century. He was popular, had may gifts, but he was also in some ways very tried by some in the church. The same goes for other Holy priests/saints like St Jean Marie Vianney who also had opposition by some in the church.

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