From the Epistle to the Hebrews: “But when Christ appeared as High Priest of the good things to come, He entered once for all through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands.. not again by virtue of blood of goats and calves but by virtue of His own Blood, into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption. “
From the Gospel of St. Luke:
“And he said to the vinedresser: Behold, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and I find none. Cut it down….But he answered him and said: Sir let it alone this year too, till I dig around and manure it. Perhaps it may bear fruit; but if not, then afterwards thou shalt cut it down.”
That Epistle and Gospel were two of six readings in yesterday’s Mass for Ember Saturday in September. A mass not for the Catholic seeking liturgical minimalism. I promise you I will not go on again about the Ember Days and what a great loss they are to the Novus Ordo Church. These days of fasting and prayer that coincide with the natural seasons of the year, the last links of the natural with the spiritual in the liturgical year were always associated with ordinations to the priesthood. We celebrated the shorter form of this Ember Day yesterday at the 9 o’clock Mass, which is allowed when this is not a conventual Mass nor the Mass of ordination of priests. In illo tempore, this Mass was framed for ordinations: after the Kyrie the tonsure is conferred, after the First Lesson the Door-keepers; after the Second the Readers; after the Third, the Exorcists; after the Fourth, the Acolytes, after the Fifth, the Subdeacons; after the Epistle the Deacons; and after the last words of the Tract, the Priests. The OT readings deal with that fasting and abstinence that are so important to living a life centered in God. When we come to the Epistle we are confronted with that reading from Hebrews that describes in detail the office of the Jewish priest who offered sacrifices of bulls and goats and sheep, the blood of which was understood as the offering of life- blood to God for the expiation of sins. And on the Day of Atonement it was the High Priest alone who entered the sanctuary behind the veil to offer that sacrifice that was the highest symbolic act of propitiation for sins. And yet– it had to be done over and over again. There was never enough blood to atone. But, and what a but, when Christ appeared as High Priest of the good things to come, He entered once for all through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made by hands, nor again by virtue of blood of goats and calves, but by virtue of His own Blood, into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption. And it was in this context, in the hearing of these words, that the ordination of priests was carried out.
What is a priest? The answer to this question does not come only from Judaism but from what we can still call pagan forms of religion. The Roman priests before Christianity offered sacrifices to the gods, and these sacrifices always had blood at their heart, the blood of birds and animals. One of the highest offices in the Roman hierarchy was that of the Pontifex Maximus, the great high priest. And Pontifex means the one who is the bridge between this world and world of the gods. And it was this title that became the title of the Popes. On the façade of St Peter’s there is the inscription: HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX
What is a priest, not in general, but in the Catholic faith? He is the one who offers sacrifice. This is the heart of the Catholic priesthood, without which the priest becomes a mere religious functionary, a clergyman. And this is indeed what so many Catholics think their priests are: Catholic clergymen, analogous to Anglican, Lutheran or Pentecostalist ministers. In the new-speak of the post-Vatican II jargon, the guy at the altar at Mass was denoted as the presider, the presider over the assembly, as if the Mass were, God forbid, a meeting of the United Nations. This guy sat on a big chair, forbidden to call it a throne, where the tabernacle used to be, and he presided over the assembly, a combination of whipping up the people to feeling religious and making sure that things went as they were supposed to go. It was assumed that the presider would be a priest, the priest understood as a man who was legally in the eyes of the Church ordained to that particular order. And in this way the understanding of the priest is reduced to ecclesiastical legalism, and the heart of the matter is defaced.
What is a priest? He who offers sacrifice. The heart of the priesthood is the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Mass as the re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, the place and time where the priest under the form of bread and wine offers Christ the victim to the Father, who accepts this sacrifice for the sins of the world, this sacrifice which is not another sacrifice apart from the Cross, but the same sacrifice without which there is no Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is, in Jesus’ words, worship in spirit and in truth. So the priest stands at the altar as the alter Christus, the icon of Christ, and leads his people, conjoins his people, in the awesome and unbloody re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross that is the only true sacrifice that can take away the sins of the world, the only act that can be worship in spirit and in truth.
And in this act of sacrifice the priest is deeply alone, as Christ was alone on the Cross. But this aloneness that is real is supported by and participated in by the people who are present at the Sacrifice. The priest is alone within the community of faith that is with him in the deepest possible way as members of the body of Christ, that body that is being offered on the altar. This aloneness of the priest as priest was signified already by the fifth century in the Church in some places by the drawing of a curtain at the consecration so that the faithful who are really participating in the Sacrifice could not see the priest at this climax of the Mass. And this veiling of the sacred moment developed in the West with the rood screen that at least partially hid the priestly action from the people in the nave. This hiding has nothing to do with separating the priest from the people as is expressed in the contemporary sentimental obsessions. This hiding is the hiding of the Cross itself, the ultimate mystery of life.
Gone are the rood screens for the most part. After the Council of Trent, churches were built as open as possible with the altar and tabernacle as the visual focus of the church. And yet, and yet, this veiling, this hiddenness that is part of the mystery of priesthood, is seen, seen and not heard, in the silence of the prayer that the priest prays alone to the Father that is the heart of the offering of the Sacrifice of the Son to the Father that is the Mass. The silence of the Canon does not exclude the participation of the people in the Sacrifice. That silence is what the people give themselves up to as they contemplate the mercy and love of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. For the people this is an act of surrender. For the priest it is also an act of surrender as he offers what he cannot possibly offer: the Lamb of God to his Father for his sins, for the sins of those who are present at the Sacrifice, and for those not bound by time and space but bound by faith in Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God and the Resurrection and the Life.
The Gospel for yesterday’s Ember Day Mass is long: it includes the parable of the fig tree not bearing fruit, the healing of a bent-over old woman, and the reaction of the Pharisees, the observant Jews, to the healing on the Sabbath. All three of these elements of the Gospel, Jesus’s words, are a sermon to those who were present on this Ember Day to be ordained priest. These men heard the epistle reading from Hebrews about what a priest is: the one who offers Sacrifice. Then they heard this Gospel: and they heard that those who offer Sacrifice in the name of Jesus Christ who is the one offered as the Sacrifice are called to be pastors, and what it means to be a pastor is to teach the Law of God and to exercise mercy in its behalf. A pastor is the one who takes the risk of leaving his flock to go after the one who has strayed. The pastor is the one who deeply knows Christ’s words: I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it and who also knows that he must work mightily to manure the fig tree so that when the Master comes next year the fig tree will be fruitful and the Master will not cut it down. And manure is never pleasant. It is messy and smelly. This is the man who knows his own infirmities and sinfulness and yet goes out, goes out and eats and drinks with his people like Jesus did. He eats and drinks not only with his disciples but also with the Pharisees and obvious sinners like Mary Magdelene. He takes the risk of loving his people, some of whom may be adverse to being loved, and in that risk, which is not damnably sentimental and therefore selfish in the manner of the atheistic existentialists, he approaches as a man what it means to identify himself with Christ’s offering on the Cross.
The second most important work of the Catholic priest is hearing Confessions. It is here that the mercy of God as exemplified in the parable of the sterile fig tree and the healing of the bent over old woman is made real. It is here that the priest sits as judge in hearing the sins of his people. And he must judge them according to the teaching of the Church based on the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. And yet that judgment, which is real and necessary, must be, by the command of the Savior under the sacred umbrella of mercy, as in the parable, of “one more year”, that mercy that does not negate judgment but rather fulfills it in the heart of Christ the Redeemer.
I led a tour this past May for a group of parishioners from St. Mary’s to Italy. These tours for me are intensely personal and eclectic. My biggest worry this past May was how to transport my group from Venice, La Serenissima, to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia in Umbria. It is not a straight line. I arranged for a bus to meet us on the mainland outside of Venice and bring us to Umbria via Arezzo. The ride was a deep learning experience for me. Not in the sense of learning about more of the beauty and geography of Italy, but from the bus driver. It took us quite a few hours to make this trip, and I engaged the driver in conversation. Eventually I asked him THE question: are you a practicing Catholic? Do you go to Mass? The relationship of many Italians to the Church is complex and does not often fit into preconceived notions of what it means to be Catholic. But I did ask the question. He answered my question. He told me that he and a friend of his in their village when they were 18 or 19 went to the parroco, the parish priest, and told him they thought they might have a vocation. He was very excited and positive and said to them: this is great. You will have a position in your town second only to the mayor. You will be respected, men will take their hats off to you, women will kiss your hands, and you will never lack for signs of respect. He and his friend have never gone to Mass since. But, he said to me, I live a moral life according to the teaching of the Church and I love Christ.
I tried to offer some words haltingly that would make him see that this priest, his parroco, is not the Church and that one does not abandon the Mass because of the silliness of one priest. And this is what he said to me and something that will always be with me. He said to me: There are two words in Italian for priest: sacerdote and prete. Sacerdote comes directly from the Latin and is the upper class word to define a priest in the regal sense, a priest who is full of himself, who expects bows of obeisance paid to him, who is part of the religious establishment, who sees himself as an enforcer of the law, and who has little interest in the lives of his parishoners. The prete is like Don Camillo and all such priests, who loves his people, who eats with them, dances with them at weddings, who cries with them when tragedy strikes, who identifies himself with the lowly and meek whom Christ came to serve, and yet is at home and goes out of his way to eat and drink wine with the Communist mayor of the city. And the bus driver’s last words to me were this: Padre: che non mai sia sacerdote ma sempre un prete. May you never be a sacerdote but always a prete. And I said to him, pray for me, pray for me that the Cross of Jesus Christ will always be at the center of my life and that that grace will make me a real priest, un prete. May all priests be preti.
Fr. Richard Cipolla