FOUNTAINS FROM THE WELL-SPRING OF SALVATION
By Rev. Fr. Abe P. Arganiosa
* Actually this is not a homily but a written article which is Fr. Abe’s personal reflection on the value and dignity of priesthood in the Life of the Church in relation to the Holy Trinity and the Salvation given by the Lord Jesus.
“We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” [2 Cor 4:7 NABRe]. Here, St. Paul synthesizes the grace of being a priest. Being human a priest is created out of clay [cf. Gen 2:7] and therefore subject to limitations as others yet out of his mortal body flows the blessings of God incomparable with anything else to the point that our Saints speak of the dignity of the priesthood as something of envy even for angels. Through the consecrated hands of our priests heaven opens every day to give us the Body and Blood of the Lord giving us a pure sacrifice that sanctifies the sinful world from the rising of the sun to its setting [cf. Mal 1:11]. The priests are ‘dispensers of the mysteries of God’ [cf. Canon Law #276] and especially chosen by the Lord for the edification of His Body the Church [cf. Canon Law #275].
Some people think that priesthood is invented during the Middle Ages and critics attribute its existence to human origin. That is very far from reality. It was established by the Father from the Old Covenant, perfected by Christ in the New, and is guided by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages. Thus, we proclaim the divine origin of the priesthood. The Father established Priesthood as an Office (Ex 29: 9/ Lev 16: 32) acquired through Consecration by Anointing (Ex 29: 7/ Lev 8: 12/ 16: 32). Let us take a closer look at the grandeur of this sacrament not only from its essential nature but also on its external appearance. The Lord God ordered that holy vestments be made for them “…for glory and for beauty” [Ex 28:2 Douay-Rheims]. These vestments are the tunic, robe, white linen garments, girdle and even mitre. It seems that the ancient book is not referring to Aaron but instead to our Pope in full regalia or the Archbishop during the Chrism Mass [cf. Ex 28:4]. The colors are even specified: “gold, violet, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen… embroidered on cloth of fine linen twined” [cf. Ex 28:4-5]. It is basically the liturgical colors of the Roman chasubles. Imagine, these were not yet the rituals in the temple of Jerusalem rather of the Tent of Meeting during the Exodus Journey, yet the People were already told to glorify God in liturgical manner. So, the beautiful vestments of our priests are not for vain glory, rather they are intended by God to manifest His glory. Of course we must not spend gold for vestments beyond our means to the neglect of the works of charities, but it is also the duty of the believers to beautify the church through the liturgy. The beauty of God is not only manifested in architectural designs and in the obra maestra of the masters but also in the liturgical life of the Church through which we take a glimpse of heaven.
Those chosen to the priesthood must be consecrated by anointing of the holy oil [Ex 30:30] and through this anointing the priests are sanctified by God: “Honor him as sacred who offers up the food of your God; treat him as sacred, because I, the LORD, who have consecrated him, am sacred” [Lev 21:8 NABRe]. This is exactly how our priests are being ordained. The Lord God specified an all-male priesthood [cf. Ex 28:41; 30:30] without discrimination to women who were given different forms of service. Our rite of ordination is very ancient. The Jerusalem Bible beautifully expressed it: “This is what you will do to them, to consecrate them to my priesthood.” Here the priesthood is rooted not in the person of the candidates but in the Person of God who consecrates them by His Spirit. The priests are sharing in the priesthood of God who is the source of all holiness so that in turn they can sanctify the people. Our priests are fountains sharing from the single Well-spring of Salvation that is why the Church sings from generation to generation: “Thou shall draw waters with joy out of the saviour’s fountains” [Is 12:3 Douay-Rheims].
In the New Testament, the office of the priesthood was not abolished by the Lord instead He had it changed and elevated [cf. Heb 7:12]. The prophets of old already announced that the Kingdom of the Messiah shall be characterized by saints and priests: “Let thy priests be clothed with justice: and let thy saints rejoice” [Ps 132:9 Douay-Rheims]. Priesthood is Perpetual [Num 25: 13/ Ex 29: 9/40:15] as solemnly decreed by the Father and therefore the Lord Jesus upheld it. First, by assuming the office of the High Priest forever: “…we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession” [Heb 4:14 NABRe]. Second, by implementing the Priesthood of Melchizedek rather than that of Levi [cf. Heb 6:20]. Lord Jesus perfected the priesthood from being a mere office into being a sacrament. He converted the sacrifice from the holocaust of rams and bullocks into the one Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood as Melchizedek offered bread and wine for Abraham [cf. Gen 14:18-19]. As the Father chose Moses and Aaron as priests over the people of the first covenant so the Lord Jesus gave us St. Peter and the apostolic college as the priests of the new covenant by ordaining them to the same Sacerdotal Order empowering them: “Do this in remembrance of Me” [cf. Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24].
There is a saying that one can choose his own wife but not his own priest. For that reason we are always called upon by Church to love each and every one of our priest regardless of look, talent, color or nationality. The grace of priesthood though voluntarily taken by the person is always above and beyond him. It depends on the Lord: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you…” [Jn 15:16]. That is why defiance against the authority of the Church through the person or office of the Pope, the Bishop and the priest is always a terrible offense against the unity of the Church and against God. Thus, St. Jude in his very brief yet powerful epistle reminds every baptized to refrain from committing the Rebellion of Korah [Jude v. 11]. What is that? He wanted to make himself equal with the authority of Moses by his insistence to offer incense which is exclusive to the priests. His pride and disobedience caused division in Israel as if the mutiny of Lucifer were being reenacted [cf. Rev 12:7], and as the Deceiver fell from a state of grace Korah with his followers were swallowed by the earth. Today there are many who defy the authority of the Church and we thank God that in His mercy they are not being swallowed by the earth. We pray for their conversion because in their pride they are causing wounds in the Body of Christ [cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13,27; Eph 1:22-23]. It is unfortunate that there are lay people who are acting as if they are priests and worst as if they are higher than them in authority. It is also equally problematic if a priest is acting and thinking as if he is a lay forgetting the distinct character of his ordination.
I once read a book detailing the history of the Church in Korea. The Church suffered severe persecutions therein so that during certain periods no missionaries were being sent. In the absence of priests the Korean Catholics gathered together in a room every Sunday, setting up the Eucharistic altar complete with chalice and the vessels, unleavened bread and wine. Then, in front of that altar they knelt for hours crying to God in supplication to grant them a priest. In their distress they never tried to defile the Sacrament by illicit ordinations; they never dared to violate the authority of the Pope and the Bishop. Instead, they called on the eternal High Priest to have mercy and He did. Today that Church is one of the fastest growing in the world. It is very sad however to know that in some places people reject, disrespect and malign their priest while on the other hand some priests fail to bring Christ to their flock and create scandals instead. That is why to see a holy priest, a fatherly priest, a scholarly priest and a priest who is a loving pastor, is like beholding the face of God. The face of the saintly priests shines like the face of Moses after conversing with the Almighty on Sinai [cf. Ex 34:35].
One of the radiances coming out from God and manifested in the ministry of our priests is Chastity. This virtue is very misunderstood in our world today because we are living in the midst of a sexual revolution where thanks to Freud sex and pleasure are supreme. It is frequently asked ‘Why are priests celibate when in fact St. Peter was married?’ Well, we must not forget the fact that St. Peter is our first Pope but he is not our Lord. Jesus is Lord [Phil 2:11]. This same Lord is also the One and Eternal High Priest. We follow in the footsteps of Jesus [cf. Rev 14:4] and not the footsteps of Peter or any other saint. The saints are models of sanctity because they followed the Lord but our gaze is focused on Jesus. Our Lord chose not to get married to a single woman, but instead offered His Body completely for the sanctification of the Church. For this reason we mystically speak of the Church as the Bride of Christ [cf. Eph 5:22-23; Rev 21:2; Jn 3:29]. The goal of the priest to follow Christ sets him apart from among men, by doing so the priest truly shares in the very life of his Lord: The Priest and Victim. Every adoration we proclaim it: “O saving Victim, open wide The gate of Heaven to man below; Our foes press on from every side; Your aid supply; Your strength bestow” [1st Stanza, O Salutaris Hostia, English trans.]. By His being a Victim the Lord Jesus gave us salvation and by this same sacrifice He vanquished Satan. Our priests being in total union with Christ are also doing the same by the sacrifice of their lives, and by their Eucharistic offering are bringing about the triumph of the Gospel and the downfall of the Devil. The defeat of Satan can only be achieved through the Holy Eucharist ‘the Blood of the Lamb’ and by His Word given as testimony proclaimed in liturgical worship [cf. Rev 12:11].
Celibate life is very important in the life of the Church because it is our following of Christ [Sequela Christi]: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” [1 Cor 11:1 NABRe] says St. Paul and he is a ministerial priest: ‘to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the holy Spirit” [Rom 15:16 NABRe]. He is also celibate: “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do” [1 Cor 7:7-8NABRe]. Through celibacy the Lord and His priests testify that life is not limited to material things and sexual desires. There are higher values. Man does not live on bread alone [Mt 4:4] and neither for money nor for sex. Celibacy was practiced by Jesus because even here on earth He was living a heavenly life: “When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven” [Mk 12:25 NABRe, cf. Mt 22:30; Lk 20:34-36]. The Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph lived in chastity because their hearts and minds were attracted by the highest good that is Jesus. Living with Jesus day in and day out made them feel ‘heaven on earth’. If one is completely absorbed by the presence of God the desire for sex disappears, the attraction of power vanishes and the lure of money fades away because the person already possesses the supreme value. That is why later on in life St. Peter spoke in behalf of all apostles: “Behold, we have left all things and have followed thee. Who said to them: Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left home or parents or brethren or wife or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, Who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” [Lk 18:28-30 Douay-Rheims]. The Apostles left ‘all’ and in that all includes having wives, children and homes of their own. They became the first of those men who followed the Lamb [cf. Rev 14:14]. What others see as a burden is actually a source of joy for those who were called: “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people… O Lord, I am your servant, truly Your servant, Your handmaid’s son” [Ps 116:14,16 Christian Community Bible].
There are arguments that the crisis of priesthood is due to celibacy. There is nothing further from the truth because even though the Catholic Church experiences difficulty finding vocations in certain areas there are also abundances elsewhere. Much more, the Catholic Church is numerous either by the number of her baptized members or priests. There are groups whose ministers are married yet they are shrinking into oblivion while the Catholic Church is growing in spite of the challenges. The Catholic Church is 1.2 billion today not only because of our married lay but also due to our celibate priests who work as missionaries, catechists and educators in difficult lands. These priests are living and dying with the people because they are celibate. Married couples are very difficult to assign from one place to another and much more so for an entire family. By being alone our priests are free to serve and be transferred by the Bishop. This brings tremendous dynamism in the Church that is unequalled anywhere else except in the military. The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of education and medical services in the world [cf. Agnew, John (12 February 2010). “Deus Vult: The Geopolitics of Catholic Church”. Geopolitics 15 (1): 39–61.] In 2010, the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers said that the Church manages more than a quarter of health care facilities in the world, including hospitals, clinics, orphanages, pharmacies and centers for those with leprosy.[cf. Catholic News Agency. 10 February 2010. Retrieved 2012-08-17]. All these Catholic institutions draw water from the Spring of Salvation through their priests who give the sacraments, serving as their spiritual father. Mother Teresa said it best: “The first requirement for me to establish a convent or an institute for the poor is to have a priest and to secure a daily Mass for without the Eucharist we are nothing.”
In order to shine with the Face of Jesus and be a fountain of God’s grace the priest must give Authentic Witness. He must be an exemplar of holiness because God is holy [cf. Lev 11:46; Lev 20:26; 1 Pt 1:16]. He must emanate goodness because God is good [cf. Lk 18:9]. Jesus is the Good Shepherd [Jn 10:11] and the priest must mirror this goodness by being a shepherd according to the heart of God [cf. Jer 3:15] who is meek and humble [cf. Mt 11:29]. The Lord Jesus differentiates the good shepherd with the hired one; the latter escapes in times of danger [Jn 10:13] while the former lays down his life for his sheep [Jn 10:15]. In a Deanery meeting one of our elderly priests came to me and touched my hand saying ‘Thank you Father for coming here to serve our people. Actually I should have retired years ago but I don’t want to do so because of the great need for priests.’ I looked at him. Almost all his hair was gone, his face wrinkled and his hand was a little shaky as it held mine. His voice was firm, almost bordering into a whisper, yet this old but noble heart still serves even though his body is already frail. Already weak, still he empowers others. He put me to shame because I am relatively young yet there were occasions when I was doing things halfheartedly. After listening to his words of wisdom I answered back: ‘It is me who should be grateful to you Father, you have shown me the Gentleness of David and the Wisdom of Solomon.’ This elderly servant of God is slowly fading, he is dying with his earthen body yet he is strong in spirit. With the Blessed Virgin he became a Vessel of Devotion. In just few minutes of talking to him, I felt like a deer that found a running stream. What a paradox. When we are weak then we are strong and when we are dying then we enter into everlasting life.
The Sacred Scripture concluded with the Book of Revelation and its final chapter is very interesting. It opens with rich imagery: “Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” [Rev 22:1-4 NABRe]. St. John speaks of a River whose water is life-giving. It is interesting because the opening statement of the first book of the Bible speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the water [cf. Gen 1:1-2]. Well, I said to myself that is why when there is water there are signs of life and habitation, while the place with less water is deserted. But, lo and behold, it is no ordinary water. The River flows from the Throne of God and of the Lamb. This is the Holy Trinity: The Father is there with His Son – the Lamb – and then the Holy Spirit is the water that flows from the Father and the Son. That is why our Creed says: ‘He proceeds from the Father and the Son’. The water is the graces coming from the Holy Spirit. They are gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit and they are the Sacraments of the Church all coming from the very Throne of God, from the Heart of God and of His Son. This is the way the Triune God gives us life, sanctifying us and making us holy.
What is the relation of that imagery to the Priesthood? Maybe it is not obvious for our lay but for us priests it is pretty clear. These graces are being given to us by God through the Sacrament of Priesthood and of the Holy Eucharist – The Holy Mass. It says that the River of Life waters the Tree of Life that bears fruit. That is the water of Baptism and the tree is the Church. It is the smallest of all seeds yet it grew to be the biggest of Tree and it bears fruit and gives life in return to countless people through her preaching, teaching, values, works of charities, arts and sciences unmatched in the history of the world [cf. Mt 13:31-32]. The Tree gives fruit each month of year. This is the Liturgical Season through which the Church as a Mother and Teacher feeds us with the Word of God and the Bread of Life throughout the year. The sinful world is not being condemned to destruction because our priests in all Monasteries, Convents, Seminaries, Parishes, Chapels and Oratories are interceding to the Father by the Blood of the Lamb [cf. Gen 18:22-23]. The Water of Life is crystal clear not only because God shines in glory but also because our priests are explaining to us with clarity the Gospel which is the Water that wells into eternal life [cf. Jn 4:13-14].
In our everyday Mass our priest celebrates by sitting before the Altar of the Lamb representing the Fatherhood of God: The Throne and the Lamb, the Authority of the Church and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. That is why we call him ‘Father’ because he makes present for us not only the Once and For All redemption of Jesus but also the God who is the source of all Fatherhood [cf. Eph 3:15] and the God who is Dives in Misericordia [rich in mercy, cf. Eph 2:4]. That is why we see our priests sitting in persona Christi during the Sacrament of Confession wherein the Judgment Seat of God is transformed into a channel of Divine Mercy. Through our priests we are being enfolded into the merciful embrace of God who forgives our sins.
To have a priest is to enjoy a fountain of living water of the Spirit directly from God who is the Well-Spring of Salvation. We experienced this when we were baptized, when we received Holy Communion and when he pardons our sins. St. John added: His name shall be on their forehead. That is exactly what our priests are putting on our head each time he gives blessing: May Almighty God bless you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we go to Church and see our priest instead of looking at his weaknesses let us put our mind beyond the earthen vessel because the eyes are deceiving. Instead, we remember this wisdom of old: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, and that preacheth peace: of him that sheweth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign!” [Is 52:7 Douay-Rheims].
[Date: April 17, 2014 Holy Thursday]