Spirituality Year for Priests

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May 19, 2010: The priest and obedience

Toward the conclusion of the rite of priestly ordination the ordaining prelate, standing at the epistle side of the altar, recites the Responsory, 'Iam non dicam...' ('I will not now call you servants, but my friends').

These words of Our Lord in the Gospel, addressed to His first ordination 'class,' locate for us the heart of the nature of priestly obedience: that it is founded in a personal relationship between Christ and the priest, one characterized not by an obedience rooted in servility but by one founded in divine friendship.

That such a relationship should exist at all represents an extraordinary condescension on the part of Christ towards His priest. Acknowledging this helps to clarify for us how it is that a priest, a man taken from amongst other men, can still be an 'alter Christus', a 'second Christ.'

And if the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and its worthy celebration, defines the actualisation, as it were, of that relationship, this is so particularly through the faithful obedience with which the priest conforms himself to the elements of the Mass for, in doing so, he exercises that obedience in such a way that 'no longer he lives but Christ lives in him.' This is a matter of the most lofty theological character. And yet it is made real in the most humble fidelity to the rubrics: a fidelity which literally conforms the  priest to his Lord: the more faithfully and purely instrumental the priest becomes as he stands at the altar, the more fully Christ is revealed and the true nature of the Sacrifice of the Cross, renewed there, is made plain.

So for the priest it is not through self-actualization nor through insistance on the prerogatives of his position, nor via the expectation that his cleverness or eloquence will be recognized and complimented - through none of these that his priesthood is realized but instead according to the degree to which he becomes less so that Christ may become more: in this way alone, contrary to this world's expectations and aspirations, the priest is fulfilled.

Though a man becomes a priest 'in a flash, in a trumpet's crash,' he becomes more fully what he becomes essentially at the moment of ordination by living out more deeply and more faithfully, day by day, the elements of that priestly character. With regard to obedience, the priest becomes more obedient in the way proper to him as he exercises that virtue in numberless ways moment by moment. His obedience is subject to deepening and to growth but always in conformity to its essential nature, that is to say, through union with Christ, Who summoning the priest to that most intimate of relationships, fully expressed at the altar, remains at the centre.

This deepening is modeled for each priest by Christ Himself Who, as Scripture tells us, learnt obedience. How is it possible that the Son of God, infinitely perfect in His obedience to the Father, can be said to have 'learnt' obedience? He learned it through suffering and He took that suffering on for our sakes. So He submitted to this wholly human experience of 'learning' for our sakes as well, so that we would be strengthened to follow Him and find conformity to Him in this most challenging of priestly  requirements.

For those of us in the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, our Holy Patron, St Peter demonstrates for us both the challenge and the character of the priestly obedience proper to our particular vocation. The Gospel recalls again and again the struggle which engulfed St Peter as he sought to offer to the 'Master' that service which would be wholly worthy of Him. Yet he had to learn by the most abject and humiliating experience of human failure that he had first to relinquish all his sense of personal strength and acts of the will, to find himself in that desert of abject spiritual poverty - and there to find the Master waiting for him with all the resources he needed to fulfill, not the character of his own ideal, but that unexpected one framed particularly for him by Christ: 'Peter, lovest thou Me?' For us then it must be understood that our particular sense of obedience arises from the particular character of our Institute. It is no lack of appreciation for other particular perspectives on obedience such as that proper to monastic institutes or that militaristic, not to say mechanical, obedience proper to the traditional Jesuit ideal, to understand that they are not, in their particularity, pertinent for  us.

No, we find the source and ideal of obedience proper to us waiting for us at the high altar of Sacrifice where our conformity to Christ is sacramentally expressed and fulfilled. If Christ there lifts the priest beyond the limitations of chronological time and gathers him into that single moment of His eternal sacrifice, it is only that the priest may be the living extension, present in the world and amongst men, of that obedience to the Father of the Son who says, for all time, 'Not My will but Thine be done.' Thus obedience in the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter can be appreciated, first,  as rooted in that personal intimacy with Christ established through Holy Orders and deepened in the context of a living and consistent fidelity to the liturgical traditions of the Church, above all in the traditional form of the Holy Mass and, second, as directed outward toward the service of the Church through a profound and wholly open collaboration with the one High Priest in working for the salvation of souls within the context of that tradition.

Fr Calvin Goodwin
Professor at OLGS, Denton, Nebraska

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