SUPPORTING AND LOVING OUR PRIESTS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ HEB 5:1-10; PS 110:1-4; MARK 2:18-22 ]
Very often, as bishop, I receive complaints and disappointments with our priests. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction with our priests, their lifestyle, leadership and character are not peculiar to Singapore but everywhere in the world. This is a contradiction and a cause of sadness not just to the bishop and the priests, but everyone in the Church. A priest is called to be a bridge between God and man. So, when he becomes an obstacle instead, he has failed in his role as a priest. But how does that come about? This is because people have high expectations of a priest. He is supposed to be the representative of Christ and also the image of God our Heavenly Father. People, therefore, expect a priest to be a man of God, exuding the love, mercy and compassion of our heavenly Father, besides being a good leader, an eloquent preacher, a scholarly teacher and a warm and understanding spiritual father.
However, quite often people fail to realize that a priest is not a god. He is a human being taken from among the people of God. He is weak and prone to temptations and sins like the rest of humanity. Indeed, a priest is tempted to the capital sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, lust and greed. This is what the letter of Hebrews reminds us. “Every high priest has been taken out of mankind and is appointed to act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins; and so he can sympathise with those who are ignorant or uncertain because he too lives in the limitations of weakness. That is why he has to make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.” He is a sinner himself and imperfect like the rest of the People of God. He too must offer sacrifices for his own purification from his sins. But because he is a fellow sinner, that should make him more compassionate, forgiving and understanding because he knows how difficult it is to struggle against temptations and sins.
Nevertheless, the Lord in His mercy has chosen a priest, taken from among the people of God, to mediate His presence. The call to the priesthood is not something that we take upon ourselves, but it is a divine election. “No one takes this honour on himself, but each one is called by God, as Aaron was. Nor did Christ give himself the glory of becoming high priest, but he had it from the one who said to him: You are my son, today I have become your father, and in another text: You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever.” Unlike entry into jobs and positions in the world which is determined by qualifications and capability, entry into the priesthood is dependent on whether the Lord has called that person to the priesthood. Those called are not necessarily the best in the eyes of the world. They might not be the most eloquent, the most holy, the most talented. But they are ordinary people like the early apostles, chosen from among the People of God for the service of the Church.
Of course, this does not mean that a person who is called to be a priest is not expected to live up to the high demands of the priesthood. On the contrary, more than the laity, a priest is expected to be another Christ to others and to act in His name, especially in the celebration of the sacraments because by virtue of his ordination, he is configured to Christ. A priest, aware of his weaknesses and imperfection, strives to grow in holiness, in acquiring the skills of preaching and shepherding the people of God. Grace perfects nature. And so a priest cannot simply depend on grace without cooperating with the Lord. This was what Jesus Himself did. “Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation and was acclaimed by God with the title of high priest of the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus too had to grow in perfection through obedience to His Father’s will.
Consequently, instead of complaining about the imperfections and mistakes of our priests, the people of God must support them in their growth in holiness and passion for their ministry. What they must not do is to be the devil’s advocate or his accomplice in tempting our priests to sin. The letter to the Hebrews states clearly, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Even Jesus was tempted right at the outset of His ministry and throughout His ministry. The devil did not leave the Lord alone but tried to put obstacles in His way. So too when the priest tries to be a good priest, he is often tempted by the Evil One. But woe is the one who tempts the priest to sin and then condemns the priest for sinning. It is like what the world is doing, tempting others to sin, to sexual offences and stealing, and when they sin and commit offences, it condemns them, punishes them and sends them to prison.
Like Jesus, the devil tempts the priest to earthly pleasures and material possessions. He was tempted to use His power to change stone into bread. Whilst we should take good care of our priest in his material needs and offer him some comforts in life, we should be careful that we do not tempt our priest to hanker for money, material things, indulge in worldly pleasures so that he becomes a slave to the pleasures and material things of life. Priests, like Jesus, too are tempted to glory and honour. Jesus was asked to bow down in worship of Satan for the glory of the world. Again, while we must show respect to our priests, we should not put them on the pedestal as if they are mini-gods. Otherwise, used to being served and glorified, they become egotistic and enslave themselves to popularity and honour and acknowledgement. Finally, like Jesus, a priest is tempted to use his power to affirm his position and status. This was what the devil asked the Lord Jesus to do: jump down from the pinnacle of the Temple. Often, priests can be carried away by the spiritual and temporal powers vested on them. They are so used to having things their way, commanding obedience from all but giving obedience to none, that they become so full of themselves, arrogant, dictatorial, abusing their authority to serve themselves. (cf Mt 4:1-11)
Indeed, the danger for us when we fall into sin and get used to sin is that our hearts become hardened. This is what the Lord warns us all. “No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak; if he does, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. And nobody puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins!” Indeed, our sins are like wineskins stretched over the years and lost its elasticity. Old wineskins cannot receive the newness of the Holy Spirit. Many of us in our spiritual life, due to neglect and complacency and most of all indifference to our sins, have become hardened to the voice of God. We no longer hear God’s challenge to purify our life, like the scribes and the Pharisees.
Priests and religious are so used to handling the “sacred things” of God that after some time we get used to them and become irreverent, treating them as mundane things. This explains why some priests lack reverence for the sacred, including the Eucharist, because their hearts are hardened. They are no longer sensitive to the presence of God. The priesthood becomes simply a function that they perform. This is true for those who are married as well, and those who hold positions in their offices and in the community. We become indifferent to the roles we play. We merely perform for people to see, like the Pharisees who fasted to impress others, but it does not come from our inner convictions.
Hence, whether we are priests or lay, we must ensure that our hearts are docile to the Lord. We read from the first reading that “during his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard.” We need to be intense in our prayer life and intimacy with God who alone can give us the grace to overcome the temptations and the power of the Evil one by being obedient to the Word of God and to His holy will. Unless we are willing to submit ourselves to God even at the expense of suffering, we will not grow in perfection and holiness, and become an example of inspiration to others.
Indeed, our great joy at the end of the day is to be in the company of our bridegroom, and like John the Baptist, to lead others into His company. John the Baptist said, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:29f) Every priest’s joy is to bring someone to Jesus, and having done that, he steps back and allows the relationship to grow. No good priest wants to be an obstacle to someone’s relationship with the Lord.
Until then, we must strengthen our resolve to be with the bridegroom, to love Him more so that we will do everything in union with Him and for Him. We need to practise fasting and mortifications to strengthen our will to do the will of God as Jesus did. Through fasting, we come to appreciate the simple things of life and have the strength to be detached from worldly things and from being a slave to the world. Most of all, it enables us to be hungry for God and for intimacy with Him. This is what the Lord says, “Surely the bridegroom’s attendants would never think of fasting while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they could not think of fasting. But the time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away from them, and then, on that day, they will fast.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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