Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reflections on the theme of priesthood

At the beginning of this week, I mentioned that among our illustrious group here in Victoria, we count not one but two of our three liaison bishops.

On Monday evening, His Excellency, the Most Reverend John Corriveau, OFM Cap., currently the Bishop of Nelson (BC) was invited to address the gathered assembly.

Since the theme of this year's gathering is Honouring our Priesthood: Where we meet God, we invited Bishop Corriveau to share some thoughts on the subject of priesthood today. Having served for many years as the Superior General of his Order, we were sure that he would have some good advise, and we were not wrong.

His Excellency has generously allowed us to reprint the text of his reflections, so here, in its entirety is the text of what he shared with us on Monday night:

Oh, by the way, his address is entitled 'Priesthood':

To celebrate the institution of the ministerial priesthood on Holy Thursday, the Church chooses the Trinitarian hymn from chapter one of the Book of Revelations:

“Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.”

St. Bonaventure reminds us that God is a mystery of humble, self-diffusive goodness. Why humble? Because the turning of the Father toward the Son is the Father’s humility. Humility is not a quality of God, rather, humility is the essence of God as love According to Bonaventure, the one and same embrace of the Father which reaches out to the Son, reaches out to us as well. Even more, God bends low to embrace all of creation in humility. In Bonaventure’s view, the incarnation occurred not because of sin, but because of the overflowing, abundant and humble love of God. Trinitarian relationship breaks into time and history through the Incarnation and the Cross to become part of our human experience, and humility is its principle characteristic.

St. Francis saw with great spiritual clarity that the Feast of the Annunciation is not primarily about the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Feast of Christmas is not primarily about Jesus, but both celebrate the humble love of God, our Father. Francis writes that in the womb of the Virgin Mary, “this Word of the Father ... received the flesh of our human frailty.” [2LtF, 4 (Armstrong, I, p. 46)] In the incarnation, God reaches beyond divinity to embrace us in love.

Embracing the cross, Jesus mirrors the total self-giving love of the Father. As the Father bends low to embrace humanity in the incarnation – on the cross, Jesus reaches to embrace the Father in total, self-giving faith and love: “Father, into your hands I recommend my spirit.” (Lk 24:46) On the cross, Jesus reaches out in humble love to embrace our humanity even in the depths of sinfulness and alienation, he embraces our humanity caught up in the web of violence and betrayed and broken relationships. The cross is the infallible sign planted in history which indicates that no expression of our humanity is alien or separated from God’s redeeming love. An ancient icon of the Church shows Jesus rising to the Father holding Eve by one hand and Adam by the other. Jesus does not return to the Father alone, he bears all of humanity in his redeeming embrace. This total, self-giving love creates the Church. “(He) who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood ... has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.”

We are accustomed to the images of “the kingdom” to describe the Church, but Revelations adds the qualifier, “priests for his God and Father.” This qualifier takes deeper significance in the other readings of the Chrism Mass. The first reading of the Chrism Mass is Isaiah 61: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly.” (Is. 61: 1) Scripture commentaries point out that when Isaiah speaks of his mission to “the oppressed ... the brokenhearted ...captives ... prisoners”, he is not speaking about a social class! Rather, he is speaking about a religious group, those who are faithful and, because of their faithfulness, have been pushed to the margins of their society. Isaiah 61 signals a dramatic shift in the history of salvation: It is not the temple, it is not the sociological nation of Israel, but it is this faithful remnant of believers who will receive the presence of the Lord God and reveal that presence to the nations.

The gospel for the Chrism Mass is Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.” (Lk 4: 18). It is obvious that the church wishes us to interpret Luke 4 in light of Isaiah 61. Jesus mission to the poor is not that of a social reformer. He does not take the role of a zealot, marching at the head of an army of the disadvantaged demanding justice and vindication. Rather, He appealed to the deep yearning for God in all whom he met: Nicodemus, the rich young man, woman at Jacob’s well, the apostles and disciples, Zacchaeus and the woman who washes his feet. Jesus continues to reach out even when his appeal is met by hostility – scribes, pharisees – or cynical indifference – Pilate. His miracles touched the same yearning for God in the human heart – think of the woman suffering from haemorrhage: “If only I can touch his cloak, I shall get well” (Mt 9:21) – the Samaritan leper who returns to thank him – Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. Jesus assumes Isaiah’s mission to form a new people. Through his saving death and resurrection this scattered band of persons is transformed into a new people, his Church, “priests for his God and Father,” that is, signs of his healing, redeeming love for humanity, a hymn of praise for “his God and Father,” a ferment of change, a leaven capable of transforming a world of alienation and division:

“Peace be with you. ... As the Father has sent me, so I send you. ... If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” (Jn 20: 21 - 23)

In the gospel of John, details are important. “He showed them his hands and his side.” (Jn 20: 20). Why does the glorified body of the resurrected Christ keep the ugly signs of the passion? Our world spends billions to wipe away physical imperfections! “He showed them his hands and his side” because they are signs and proof of his divinity! We see this at the beginning of chapter 20 of John. Peter and John run to the tomb. Peter enters first, he sees all of the signs that the resurrection of Jesus was not an improvised event! “He observed the wrappings on the ground and saw the piece of cloth which had covered the head ... rolled up in a place by itself.” (Jn 20:6-7). John very pointedly says nothing of Peter’s reaction. Why? Because Peter does not believe! When John enters, “He saw and believed.” (Jn 20: 8) Why did John believe while Peter did not? Because John stood beneath the cross. He witnessed the awesome redeeming love of the cross. It gave sense to the empty tomb. Only God loves like that. He showed them his hands and his side and then, “He breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 20: 22). Through the Holy Spirit he entrusted to his Church the transforming power of his cross, that love which overcomes death itself. Again, details are important. “He breathed on them.” Scripture scholars refer us back to Genesis 2: “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). The Church, “priests for his God and Father” mediating the power of the Cross, bears within itself the power of bringing about a new creation.

According to Bonaventure, the one and same embrace of the Father which reaches out to the Son, reaches out to us as well. Therefore, just as Jesus is the “Word of the Father” made flesh, Bonaventure speaks of the human person as the “little word” of the Father. When that “little word” is spoken in and through our lives, God is made visible in the world. Does not the imagery of Bonaventure help us to understand our priesthood? Jesus is the one high priest, anointed to bring good news to the poor, to form a new people, “priests for his God and Father.” But we, too, have been anointed in our priestly ordination. In our priestly ordination, Jesus breathed on us and imparted to us his Holy Spirit, the power of his cross for the transformation of the world. To insert ourselves again into the imagery of Bonaventure, we are God’s “little words” anointed to form a new people, “priests for his God and Father”, through the power of the cross.

We return again to the Holy Thursday readings. It is significant that the Church turns to Chapter 13 of the gospel of John to commemorate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper because John, better than all other gospels, brings together Eucharist and Priesthood. The first 12 chapters of John’s Gospel highlight two important images: life and light. From Chapter 13 onward, love dominates. Two symbols bring love alive: the cross and the washing of feet. Commentaries tell us that these symbols are really one. In the washing of feet, John is teaching the Church how to bring the saving power of the cross to the world. The cross is saving power. By washing feet, the Church releases this saving power to the world. The meaning is all the more clear as Peter says to Jesus: “You will never wash my feet,” to which Jesus replies: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn 13:8). If the Church does not wash the feet of the world, the world will never understand the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is understood and experienced through service. The Gospel of John (13:13) presents Jesus as the head, “the Lord and Master,” who bends low to wash the feet of others. As Jesus himself indicates in the Gospel of John, he was never more head of the Church than when he was washing feet. The priest is never more “other Christ” than in his acts of service and love. The mandatum has to be more than a liturgical gesture.

In John’s Gospel, imagery is very important. Jesus rises from the table and takes off his outer robe. This act symbolizes the stripping away of all signs of privilege and dominating power. In the same way, we must strip ourselves of every vestige of clerical privilege and domination in order to present the face of priestly service to the world. There is little need for us today to “take off the outer robe” of clerical privilege! That has already been done for us by the secular society in which we live. The secular world in which we live places full trust in its technologies as the principle instruments of human liberation. Technologies – products of our own human genius – contain within themselves all that is necessary to realize full human autonomy. God is not necessary. We are “omnipotent”! Religion is relegated to the realm of personal myth. Our world seeks to build a new humanism with no reference to God. The events of recent weeks expose the achilles heel of secularism. In secularism, the economy ultimately guarantees its goal, namely, full human autonomy. But our secular society is founded on an economy of greed which is far from egalitarian! The events of recent weeks confirm anew that the demon sin continues to confound the towers of Babel which our arrogance has sought to construct from the time of Genesis. In order to form his kingdom, “priests for his God and Father”, in this world, w e do not have to take off the outer robe of priestly privilege. However, we must constantly confront the desire to dominate which is endemic to the world in which we live. Paul reminds us, “Your attitude must be that of Christ (who) ... humbled himself, obediently accepting even ...death on a cross.” (Phil. 2: 5-6, 8) Contemplating Jesus in the mystery of the Eucharist and the Cross, our life and service becomes the “little word” which reaches out to those emarginated by the consumerism and greed of our world, those seeking the experience of God which only the selfless love of the cross can reveal. A priesthood modelled on the humble Christ builds a kingdom, “priests for his God and Father”, in our secular world. For only a humble Church can impart salvation to an arrogant world.

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