THE PRIEST IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE LAMB
By Rev. Fr. Abe P. Arganiosa
One element that makes the Easter Sunday Liturgy unique is the singing of the Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes which is a paean to the Risen Christ as the Triumphator over Satan. That ancient hymn has something more besides the Proclamation of the triumph of Good against Evil. It also reminds all the Baptized that as we share in the new life with Christ we must also share in His Passion as St. Paul says ‘But if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’ (Rom 6:8). Thus, the members of the Church are called not only to be victors of life but also to be ‘victima’, that is, a lamb of sacrifice. If this is true for every Catholic much more so for every priest who is consecrated to follow the Lamb wherever He goes (cf. Rev 14:4).
What does it mean to be a Victim like Christ? It means total surrender of self to the will of the Father for the good of the Church. It means that priesthood must be viewed not as an exercise of power but as a self-offering of love as Pope Francis frequently reminds us. Although we share in the dignity of Christ as King, Prophet and Priest we are not the King but God, we must not proclaim our own personal teachings but those of His Church for we only have one Teacher, The Christ (cf. Mt 23:8-10). We offer our availability for the sanctification of His People because there is only one High Priest of the New Covenant and that is Jesus (cf. Heb 4:14-15). That is the reason why the first act of the Priest during his Ordination is to respond: “Here I am” which re-echoes in time the eternal sacrifice of Christ to the Father, ‘Here I am O Lord I come to do your will’ (cf. Heb 10:5-7) and crystallized on earth in the Fiat of the Virgin, ‘I am a servant of the Lord be it done unto me…’ (cf. Lk 1:38). The priest then must always be available for his flock which is The Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13,27; Eph 1:22-23). The reason why he is celibate and is living in the rectory is for him to be there always for the need of the faithful. An absentee priest is like a tree without fruit (Mt 3:10), a salt without taste (Mt 5:13) and a lamp without light in time of darkness (Mt 5:16).
In our relationship then the center is the Lord and after Him the flock. Just like the fishermen of Galilee who caught no fish despite their expertise in the Lake Tiberias the priest’s long formation can be futile if the Lord is not with him. Jesus must be the focal point of his every pastoral activity and decision making. The cry of St. John the Beloved to the First Pope that fateful night was also directed to all ordained ministers of the Church: Dominus est (Jn 21:7)! It is the Lord! The priest is neither the king nor the boss – but the Lord – and therefore he is called not to be self-centered but to behold the face of Jesus shining with the splendor of God: “I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing” [Jn 15:5 Douay-Rheims]. But what image of God: The Lion in the form of a Lamb. In the Lamb’s Supper Dr. Scott Hahn narrates his moving perspective as a new convert about the book of Revelation. He narrated that St. John wept for joy because the Lion of the Tribe of Judah was able to open the zeal of the Book of Life (cf. Rev 5:5) then when he looked at the Lion what he saw instead was a Lamb… not only a lamb but a Lamb ‘as if slain’ (cf. Rev 5:6). This is the Crucified Messiah now the Risen Lord. This is the living Icon of the Pantokrator (All-powerful) marked with wounds (cf. Rev 1:17-18). The priests then must not be afraid to suffer and be wounded because by doing so they can share the life of the Lamb and can give life to others as well: ‘It is in dying that we are born to eternal life’ (Prayer of St. Francis). By imitating the Lamb of God the Holy Eucharist shall come alive on the Altar of Sacrifice since the priests’ recitation of the Institution narrative is not a mere repetition of sounds but living words manifested in their being ‘persona Christi’: “This is my Body which is for you… This is the Chalice of my Blood for you.”
In addition, the Paschal Lamb teaches His priests the virtue of humility in the form of sacrifice. St. Paul beautifully expressed it in his Christological hymn wherein he professes the divinity of Jesus embodied in humility: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-8 NAB). The rebellious pride of Lucifer (cf. Is 14:12-15) was reverted by the obedient humility of the Lamb so that as the First Rebel was brought down from Heaven (cf. Rev 12:7-8) the Lord Jesus was exulted to the highest and was the one who truly conquered all: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11 NAB).
Together with availability then the priests need humility in order not to fall the way our First Parents did. The priests’ Here I Am and Fiat shall be no different from the offering of Cain unless it is offered to God in humility (cf. Gen 4:4-5). Humility is the advantage of Abel as it was the secret weapon of the Virgin of Nazareth and Joseph the Just. It is no wonder that St. John Paul the Great opened his Post-Synodal Exhortation Letter on Formation of Priests (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #1) with these powerful words from the Father, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jer. 3:15) because the heart of God is that of a Shepherd, ‘Meek and Humble’: “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:29 New Jerusalem Bible).
A humble priest shall be a powerful speaker because his few words shall penetrate the heart. We have the example of St. Padre Pio who never left us long discourses in Theology yet the images of him celebrating the Holy Mass with such simplicity and reverence are so moving. In the same manner a humble priest can relate with the children because he is constantly young at heart like St. Jerome Emiliani and St. John Bosco. He knew how to be with minors without losing the dignity of his old age and the nobility of his priesthood. A humble priest shall be a miracle worker to the sick because he knows his own wounds. Henry Nouwen beautifully expressed it as ‘The Wounded Healer’. Like Jesus who heals all illness he is doing so while Himself was wounded for our offenses: ‘…by his wounds we were healed’ (cf. Is 53:5; 1 Pt 2:24). A prideful person does not accept his own faults, is blind to his weaknesses and therefore is prone to delusion. Only a wounded healer can be effective to heal the wounds of the heart, to erase the hurts of the mind and to right the injuries to the soul. St. Jude Thaddeus is known as a saint of the impossible because he gloried in being ‘the forgotten saint’ despite being a blood cousin of the Lord and one of the original Twelve. He wrote the least among the writers of the New Testament yet what is lacking in his pen he abundantly expressed in lowliness. Finally, a humble priest shall truly attract people to be active in the faith because humility diffuses itself while pride repulses. The faithful of Ars narrated that during the early days of The Cure in his parish he spent long hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He was not there only to pray or to meditate but to cry and to beg while striking his breast: ‘Lord, convert my parish. Convert my parish. Only you can convert my parish. But if my people will not be converted it only means that I am not worthy of it’ (cf. The Cure d’Ars, St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859) by Francis; Graf, Ernest (trans.) Trochu (1977). We all know the fruit of those humble words.
Today our priests are confronted by irreverence to God and religion. Day in and day out our faith is being challenged and young people are being lured away from the Church. There is apathy to things that are of God in many, yet they are to teach the truth of Faith whether in season or out of season. St. Paul already warned St. Timothy of the dangers of spiritual sloth and as a solution he courageously admonished him “Ministerium Tuum Imple’ [Fulfill your ministry, cf. 2 Tim 4:1-5]. One Spiritual Master whose name is lost in my memory once said, ‘When people are not listening to the Gospel we must speak to the birds. If the birds are not listening then speak to the plants. If the plants refuse to give their ears then shout to the rocks. Then the people will listen.’ It sounds bizarre. It seems crazy yet St. Francis did exactly that. When people were considering him a fool he talked to the birds and to the flowers and to the sun and the moon then the people listened. The prophet Elijah did the same on Mt. Horeb when all the other priests of God turned to Baal and the crows responded by bringing him bread (cf. 1 Kings 19). St. Athanasius shouted to the rocks when almost the entire empire became Arian. In contemporary time, in the height of atheistic Communism in the East and the growing secularism in the West St. John XXIII wrote to all people of Good Will and they heard. In the same manner when the Church seems to be at her weakest due to the indifference of the young, St. John Paul the Great called out to the Youth of the World and shouted ‘Be Not Afraid’ and they listened by thousands, by hundreds of thousands… by millions. He was a lion roaring in winter yet the wolves were terrified and the faithful responded.
The challenges facing our priests today is no less great than those of the past. In every age the priest is always a sign of blessing for the faithful yet a sign of contradiction. That is the cross of priests because such is the Cross of the Lamb on whose footsteps they follow and whose words they carry. The priesthood is not for the cowards but for those who got the courage to fish from the Lake of Tiberias into the Sea of Mediterranean as Peter journeyed form Galilee to Rome. That is his Duc in Altum. Peter thought that the command of the Risen Lord to go into the deep is to return to Capernaum and fish only to the people of Israel around that small lake instead God prepared him for the Mare Nostrum which opened the door of faith from Rome to the various nations of the world. Thus our priest must continue being a father to the children despite the danger of being maliciously accused. Our priest must dialogue with women to see in them the presence of the Lord and welcome them to be actively involved in the Church. Our priest must visit our sick not only to anoint with sacred oil but also to gain from them spiritual strength for his weaknesses. Our priest must comfort the down-hearted because he believes in the power of the Divine Mercy which is greater than sin. Our priest must not refuse to be assigned in poor parish because poverty can also be an opportunity of encounter with God as the First Family experienced in Nazareth.
Relating with people as Rector, Curé, Chaplain and others is always full of challenges. Challenges are like waters, terrible when rushing like floods but can be controlled to produce energy and can be navigated to reach the distant isles. As ministers of the Lord the priests must never be afraid of these waters; they must learn to control and to navigate as Peter did to that small bark in Capernaum. Together with the ancient Mystic they should instead sing to the Lamb: ‘Deep waters cannot quench love nor floods sweep it away’ (Song 8:7 NAB) and tell the people: ‘Set me as a zeal on your heart, like a zeal on your arm’ (Song 8:6).