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Vol. XVIII: No. 2 - Pentecost 2003

Know What You Are Doing

by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

Imagine a huge news story of a father who abused his children for years, a terrible story that exploded into deeper revelations of that father's sickness, along with emerging cases of other fathers who committed such grievous acts, reported and analyzed by vast numbers of media outlets with the help of social, criminal and mental health experts. They would reveal the allegations, expose the accused, dig up the past and all available facts surrounding these cases and explore culpability, and, by the way, provide generous coverage to the critics of fathers in general. They would exhaustively examine every angle imaginable in this shattering and sensational story of failed fatherhood. Except one. What is fatherhood? Since that relationship has existed from the beginning of creation, what was it intended to be?

Such is the state of coverage of the priesthood over the past year and a half in examining the pathology of a scandal. Where in all the rivers of ink or frequencies of airwaves was it asked: What is priesthood? It has existed for millennia. In the right order of things, what was it intended to be?

Astounding, in a word, as one traces priesthood from its first recorded manifestation in the Old Testament, through its change in practice during the time of Moses, to that established in the new covenant by Christ, the eternal high priest. Times, in grand and breathtaking understatement, have certainly changed in nearly every sweeping way civilization can alter them. But the priesthood remains.

Back to the Beginning
In the opening segment of a former EWTN series, "Our Father's Plan", a young voice raises the question "Who was this Melchizedek guy, and why did he matter?" Many of us have probably wondered this, fleetingly, at some time or other. Barely mentioned in the Bible, he is significantly but briefly referred to in the Old Testament in Genesis 14:18-20, as king of Salem (King of Peace, in translation), who offered bread and wine after Abraham's victory over invading armies. Melchizedek then blessed Abraham, and then "Abram (Abraham) gave him a tenth of everything". The first tithe.

So Melchizedek was both a priest and king of great stature, but with no recorded ancestry or lineage, and no record of successors after him. All of which is a rarity in sacred texts. Scripture scholars have concluded that this remarkable omission was God's way of establishing Melchizedek as the type, or symbol, to pre-figure Christ as both a priest and king, and one who would offer bread and wine. It was just after Abraham received the blessing of this great priest-king, and tithed a tenth of everything he had to him, that Abraham heard the voice of God, who made the first covenant with man, promising him descendants as numerous as the stars.

The second divinely appointed priesthood was established on Mount Sinai, when God appointed the tribe of Levi -- specifically the family of Aaron, brother of Moses -- to become the line of priests for the nation of Israel. That priesthood was practiced through the blood sacrifices of animals as sin offerings, and through the exercise of elaborate laws. It was passed on through the Levite bloodline. Every male son of Aaron was blessed with the priesthood, serving in the holy sanctuary.

Interestingly, King David, the royal Psalmist of Israel, was the voice in Scripture who foresaw that the Messiah would be a priest, but not of the line of Aaron that guided his nation. By writing "The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, 'You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek'" (Ps 110:4), David foretold that the Messiah would be a priest king, of an eternal priesthood. In fact, Scripture scholars see in this the suggestion that this new priesthood of the Christ would replace the old, Aaronitic priesthood.

Why is that important? Most of the letter to the Hebrews is devoted to explaining, at great length, the superiority and perfection of Christ's priesthood, stressing that it is eternal. "Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood, what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?" (Heb 7:11). "The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them".

The author of Hebrews takes pains to point out how Christ's priestly intercession is the total consummation of the sacrifice for sins. "Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb 9:22). "But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (10:3-4). So, he exhaustively explains, Christ became the perfect and ultimate high priest. "He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for His own sins and then for those of the people; He did this once for all when He offered up Himself" (7:27).

This is important because the Hebrews who are addressed in this letter are the earliest members of the young Judeo-Christian Church, in danger -- due to persecution -- of losing that faith and returning to their old religion. The writer sets out a complete and detailed argument proving the futility of the Jewish priesthood and its sacrifice. And he establishes the perfection and finality of Christ's priesthood. There are no successors equal to the eternal high priest. Christ calls men to the priesthood to be His ministers, and ordains them with certain powers. Central among them the power to preside, in His place, at the daily re-presentation of that ultimate sacrifice of His body and blood to God. The power to make Christ fully present to His people in the Eucharist.

Carrying on the Mission
It was for this sacrificial work that Christ came into the world. He established the priesthood to carry it on. "The twelve apostles are the first twelve priests; Judas is the first bad priest", cites the great French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac in his work Holy Thursday: An Intimate Remembrance1. Thus he strikingly notes that from the beginning, the perfection of the ministry has not relied upon perfect ministers, so sufficient is the perfection of the mission.

That mission, and its faithful realization, has remained a crucial focus of the Church through the ages. While some things have changed, that cannot. In 1992, Pope John Paul called for a synod on the formation of priests, after which he issued the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds). Its message carried a sense of urgency, and in it the Holy Father expounded at great length on the teachings and traditions of the Church. "For this reason the synod considered it necessary to summarize the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood, as the Church's faith has acknowledged them down the centuries of its history and as the Second Vatican Council has presented them anew to the people of our day". That sentence alone carried a footnote referencing five different papal and other Church documents.2

"Without priests the Church would not be able to live that fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence and her mission in history, an obedience in response to the command of Christ: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations' (Mt 28:19) and 'Do this in remembrance of me' (Lk 22:19; cf. I Cor 11:24), i.e:, an obedience to the command to announce the Gospel and to renew daily the sacrifice of the giving of His body and the shedding of His blood for the life of the world".3 That is an awesome task and privilege.

Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of countless scholars, saints and even sinners who saw in the office of the priest a sublime sanctity that renders his sacredness above others who might be seen as holier. Reflecting on his own deep reverence for the priestly office, Hildebrand once quoted Saint Francis of Assisi as saying "If I were at the same time to meet a priest and Saint Laurence the Deacon, I would first kiss the hands of the priest and say: 'Forgive me, Saint Laurence, but the hands of the priest touch the body of Our Lord each day".4 He continues: "the priest's unimaginable gift and grandeur is to glorify God through the sacrifice of the Mass and to bring Him to men through sacramental communion and the preaching of the Word of God. This is the same sublime vocation the Son of God lived during His sojourn on earth. Thus, the priest establishes the kingdom of God in souls for whom his whole life is dedicated. He is called to be the father of the poor, the persecuted, the humiliated. The sanctification of souls is his whole mission".

Pope Pius XII put it so simply: "You cannot lie down at night in peace, unless you can say with humility and sincerity of heart: Lord, today I have done everything that depended on me for the salvation of souls".5

Seeing the priestly call that way today is heroic, given the need it implies for that obedience the Holy Father refers to in Pastores Dabo Vobis. And the atmosphere in this culture of self-will. "Obedience has become a pejorative in our age", says Father Francis Mary Stone, MFVA, one of the priests of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, (founded by Mother Mary Angelica at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Birmingham, Alabama). "The individual is so exalted, which is why a vocation is a gift of the Church. Obedience, the giving of self, makes one authentically free. The call to priesthood requires a renewal, a submission to formation. You have to be formed into the Church's notion of what the priesthood is. You have to be radically changed to get to the point of seeing that as Christ intended it, as that of a priest/victim".

As such, the Eucharist has to be at the center of a priest's life. "The grace of Holy Thursday will be transmitted unto the end of time, unto the last of the priests who will celebrate the last Mass in a shattered universe", writes Mauriac. "Holy Thursday created these men; a mark was stamped on them; a sign was given to them. They are like to us and yet so different -- a fact never more surprising than in this pagan age. People say that there is a scarcity of priests. In truth, what an adorable mystery it is that there still are any priests".

Mission in a Modern World
There are still priests because of a promise by God, explains Pope John Paul. "'I will give you shepherds after my own heart'" (Jer 3:15) is the opening line of Pastores Dabo Vobis. "By faith we know that the Lord's promise cannot fail". The immolation of the Cross, offered daily in the Mass, requires the priest in persona Christi Capitis6 to join in that suffering, and only God knows why they are called to that mission. "I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest", the Holy Father told those gathered before him in Los Angeles in September 1987. "Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God?"

In his chapter on Holy Orders in Holy Thursday: An Intimate Remembrance, Mauriac continues to wonder that men would choose to follow the call. "They no longer have any human advantage", he points out, and it is remarkable to realize that he did not write this anytime in the past year and a half.

Celibacy, solitude, hatred very often, derision and, above all, the indifference of a world in which there seems to be no longer room for them -- such is the portion they have chosen. They have no apparent power; their task sometimes seems to be centered about material things, identifying them, in the eyes of the masses, with the staffs of town halls and of funeral parlors. A pagan atmosphere prevails all around them. The people would laugh at their virtue if they believed in it, but they do not. They are spied upon. A thousand voices accuse those who fall. As for the others, the greater number, no one is surprised to see them toiling without any sort of recognition, without appreciable salary, bending over the bodies of the dying or ambling about the parish schoolyards. Who can describe the solitude of the priest in the country, in the midst of peasants so often indifferent, if not hostile, to the spirit of Christ?

Mauriac's description is startling because it is apt, as much today as ever. But the grace and promise of ordination rests in being conformed to Christ, and the modern world does not appreciate that His is a timeless and unchanging mission. "The priesthood of Christ, in which all priests really share, is necessarily intended for all peoples and all times, and it knows no limits of blood, nationality or time, since it is already mysteriously prefigured in the person of Melchizedek".7

And yet, the modern age spends such energy making every effort to redefine the office of the priest to fit its image and be relevant to the times, in popular language. Which greatly concerns the Magisterium and the Holy Father especially, and he addresses this issue in Pastores Dabo Vobis:

In recent years some have voiced a need to return to the theme of the priesthood, treating it from a relatively new point of view, one that was more adapted to present ecclesial and cultural circumstances. Attention has shifted from the question of the priest's identity to that connected with the process of formation for the priesthood and the quality of priestly life. The new generation of those called to the ministerial priesthood displays different characteristics in comparison to those of their immediate predecessors. In addition, they live in a world which in many respects is new and undergoing rapid and continual evolution.8

Much of this "evolution" has been very painful in these past couple of years. As the scandals in the Church unfolded over time in 2002, Father Francis Mary Stone MFVA was inspired to address misconceptions about priests today, "the new generation called to the priesthood, and their different characteristics", which the pope referred to, and which do reflect the modern world. He did so in a homily that should have been published in the major media. With his permission, we re-produce it here:

10 Characteristics of Contemporary Vocations to Religious Life and the Holy Priesthood
1. We've had ADULT conversions -- virtually no childhood aspirations to the priesthood.

2. We've worked the 80 hour weeks in...

A. Corporate America -- yes, even corporate barrooms;
B. Wall Street and Madison Ave.;
C. Law firms, engineering consultants, and Big 10 CPA firms;
D. Start-ups, takeovers, and leveraged buyouts (LBOs);
E. Ivy League and Big Ten schools and doctors offices;
i.e., We know and have experienced the materialism, consumerism, individualism, secularism unfettered cap- italism, and narcissism of modernity.

3. We don't want new "careers" - we utterly abhor the idea of a "professional priest". It is our vocation, 24/7.

4. We come from a culture, a society, a nation, cities and towns -- yes, even families -- that are dysfunctional - scarred from an abortive, contraceptive, euthanasia mentality. Yet, God still calls us!

5. We're products of an un-catechized generation - and that trend continues...

6. We've recognized the very grave and hurtful scandals in the Church -- of homosexuality and pedophilia -- and are fed-up with it. We welcome the soon to be released directives from Rome.

7. We love Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Holy Eucharist; we consider them to be inseparable and essential -- not an option. The Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration are for us not merely one among "many forms" of spirituality.

8. Pope John Paul II is our unabashed hero -- and we have no qualms about saying that whatsoever, to whomever.

9. We love the life of celibacy and have no intention whatsoever of trying to do away with this longstanding discipline. It's utterly reasonable and clearly a gift to the Church. Our Spouse is the Church and we love Her, we'll die for Her, and are very jealous lovers of Her.

10. We love the Church and Her Divinely mandated authority; we take consolation and peace in the authority She ever so carefully and wisely wields and the order that authority brings about -- for order brings true peace.9

Spiritual Paternity
This is the time of year for the sacrament of Holy Orders, administered in elaborate Rites of Ordination in cathedrals blessed to have men so called and formed and prepared. "The true vocation to the priesthood demands of me that I give myself totally to Christ and His holy Church and that I desire to hold this great office according to the laws of holy Church". Dietrich von Hildebrand, a layman, wrote that, sounding a lot like Father Francis, which reflects the timelessness of truth.

In his Holy Orders meditation,10 Francois Mauriac, also a layman, dwelt on that sacred and eternal commission with deep appreciation for all it encompasses:

The words of Christ concerning priests are proven every day: "I am sending you forth like sheep in the midst of wolves... You will be hated by all for my name's sake". For centuries, since the first Holy Thursday, some men have chosen to become objects of hatred, without expecting any human consolation. They have chosen to lose their lives because once Someone made them the seemingly foolish promise: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it"... But if they did not find their joy even in this world, would they persevere?

Because of these men, the Church perdures. We will always have priests to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and to hear and forgive sins, in the person of Christ, for all ages. The True Presence in the Eucharist and the great cleansing grace and absolution in the confessional do not depend on the majority believing in them. "But it is because of its conformity with our fallen nature, with our wounded nature, that Catholicism shows itself to be the true Church", insists Mauriac:

Only in her bosom is kept the promise that Christ made to His disciples, on that Thursday: "I will not leave you orphans"... Spiritual paternity, which the world deems hateful, is nevertheless the token of salvation... The submission of the penitent to his spiritual director puts it within the power of the most humble of the faithful to make that complete renunciation which is demanded for the slightest progress in the following of Christ... No, it is not to a man that we submit, but to Jesus Christ whose place he takes.

"Whose place he takes..." It is perhaps easier for many to see Christ in the person of Pope John Paul II than in the lowly parish priest, but it is the pope who reminds us otherwise. "The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus! No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!"11 And it is to a priest that the Holy Father, himself, submits in confession. "The pope is penitent and is directed", reminds Mauriac.

The man before whom we kneel, kneels in his turn -- he who judges is judged. He hears our sins but he confesses his own. Confession, penance, contrition, constitute the sacred patrimony shared by all priests and all the faithful.

We receive three inestimable treasures: the certainty of being forgiven; a kiss of peace received in the very depths of our miserable hearts; a blank page upon which the most infamous man, having become once more like a little child, can begin writing his life anew... for it is never too late to become a saint. Such is the immense stream of grace which has its source in the first priestly ordination of this sacred Thursday.

On this past Holy Thursday, Pope John Paul II released his powerful encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia on the holy Eucharist, recalling its centrality in the Church, the life of the priest, and his own priesthood. It suggests and prompts a great hope for recovery of the sacred, and renewal of devotion to the presence of Christ the high priest in the Eucharist. At this time, many grassroots initiatives are also forming around the cause of renewal of the holy priesthood. Women for Faith & Family has devoted a page of our web site to prayers for priests and vocations (

One of those initiatives started with two priests and a layman in the diocese of Peoria, who decided to pray together for a priestly renewal. "For the past year, we've all been listening to the media, the psychologists, the lawyers, the critics and the analysts on the priest scandals", explains one of the novena's originators, Father Christopher Layden, associate pastor of Saint Patrick's Church in Ottawa, Illinois. "But we wondered if anybody was listening to God". So they composed a novena prayer for priests, with ecclesiastical approval by Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, and wanted as many voices as possible praying it in unison starting on May 31. They created a web site ( to circulate the novena widely and swiftly. After the initial Pentecost novena ends, Father Layden expects to continue the prayer effort for the cause of renewal.

This is the season of renewal, and the immense stream of grace Mauriac describes as flowing from the first Holy Thursday is present at each ordination through the laying on of hands, carried out in unbroken succession from the time of the Apostles. The Church has continued to remind us over the ages that it is the responsibility of the laity to pray continually for and to promote vocations to the priesthood. In the traditional Rite of Holy Orders of 1954, the bishop explained the need succinctly: "Dearly beloved brethren, the captain of a ship as well as the passengers are in the same condition as to safety or danger. Their cause is common, therefore they ought to be of the same mind".

The words and rituals have changed, and -- as the pope pointed out in Pastores Dabo Vobis, and Father Francis described in his homily -- the new generation called to ministerial priesthood has "new characteristics", but the priesthood remains the same. It is still the "mission of sanctifying in the power of Christ", in the words of the newer Rite of Ordination, words addressed by the bishop to the priest candidates:

Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach... Your ministry will perfect the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful by uniting it with Christ's sacrifice, the sacrifice which is offered sacramentally through your hands. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate. Do your part in the work of Christ the Priest with genuine joy and love, and attend to the concerns of Christ before your own.

Then, in the prayer of Consecration, the bishop implores the aid and blessing of God, who has continually "appointed high priests" throughout salvation history. "With the same loving care you gave companions to your Son's apostles to help in teaching the faith: they preached the Gospel to the whole world. Lord, grant also to us such fellow workers, for we are weak and our need is greater."


On the day this article was finally written, the Evening Prayer for the Liturgy of the Hours happened to be Hebrews 5:8-10: "Son though He was, Christ learned obedience from what He suffered; and when perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him, designated by God as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek". Imagine that...

1 Francois Mauriac. Holy Thursday: An Intimate Remembrance, 1931, English translation by Sophia Institute Press, 1991.
2 PDV Ch. 2, no. 11.
3 PDV Introduction, no. 1.
4 Dietrich von Hildebrand. Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith, translated by John Crosby, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1971.
5 The Other Christ, a collection of short reflections on the priesthood, compiled by Reverend William D. Ryan, J.S. Paluch Co., Inc., Schiller Park, Il., first published 1955, revised 1995.
6 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1548.
7 Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Ch. 2, no. 10.
8 PDV, Introduction, no. 3.
9 Father Francis Mary Stone, Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word.
10 Chapter Five, Holy Thursday.
11 From an audience in Rome, October 1979.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is a Chicago journalist and a member of the editorial board of Voices. She is married and the mother of two sons. Her son Andrew's essay on priesthood and the Eucharist appears in this issue.

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