In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Exactly seven years ago – today – I knelt down in front of Bishop Henry Louttit, in St. George’s Church, Griffin Georgia, the church where I grew up – where I was baptized and confirmed, where I made my first communion. I knelt in front of Bishop Louttit while the congregation sang the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” – asking the Holy Spirit to come into our midst. There followed a time of silent prayer, after which Bishop Louttit prayed:
God and Father of all, we praise you for your infinite love in calling us to be a holy people in the kingdom of your Son Jesus our Lord, who is the image of your eternal and invisible glory, the firstborn among many brethren, and the head of the Church. We thank you that by his death he has overcome death, and, having ascended into heaven, has poured his gifts abundantly upon your people, making some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry and the building up of his body.
The Bishop Louttit laid his hands on my head, and continued:
Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Will; fill him with grace and power, and make him a priest in your Church.
May he exalt you, O Lord, in the midst of your people; offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you; boldly proclaim the gospel of salvation; and rightly administer the sacraments of the New Covenant. Make him a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise councilor. Grant that in all things he may serve without reproach, so that your people may be strengthened and your Name glorified in all the world. All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
And with that, I became a priest. It is a high calling, and anyone who has been at it for any length of time will readily admit that he has failed as often as he has succeeded in living up to the calling in perfect fidelity. There is, in the end, only one priest: Jesus. Toward him the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament pointed. And the priests of the New Covenant exercise their priesthood only with his authority, by his power, and in his name. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.”
Yet “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Or, as St. Paul said, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us,” (2 Corinthians 4.7). The priesthood of the Catholic Church – and notice that Anglicans have never claimed to make “Anglican” priests, but Catholic priests – the priesthood of the Catholic Church has been given to us by God to mediate that transcendent power that belongs to God alone. Priests are there to be channels of that power, as the ordination prayer says, by offering spiritual sacrifices, boldly proclaiming the gospel of salvation; and rightly administering the sacraments of the New Covenant. Indeed priests do many things, but there are just two things that only a priest can do: consecrate the bread and wine at the Eucharist, and absolve penitents in the sacrament of confession (cf. 1 Cor. 11.23f & John 20.23). These two things are of the essence of priestly ministry, and the Lord gave the sacrament of holy orders to his Church so that we could experience his presence, his power, and his forgiveness, in this way.
Jesus sent his apostles out into the world to do what he did: to declare his healing and forgiveness, and to make him present to his disciples. And the succession of priests from the apostles – around the world and down through the millennia – is like the circulatory system of Christ’s Body, the network through which the salvation that Jesus accomplished once for all on the cross, courses through time and space. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church. The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood… (CCC 1545)
This is good news for priests. Just as the Church’s holiness is not her own, but is a gift from her Lord, so too the priesthood and all of its attendant graces do not belong properly to individual priests, or even to the Church, but to Jesus alone. The efficacy of the sacraments, and ultimately of every priestly and every Christian work, comes from him. Priests are fallible, just like everyone else. We are sinners in need of God’s mercy (as I’m sure you’ve occasionally noticed). But the sinfulness and fallibility of God’s servants does not impede the flow of God’s grace – thanks be to God. Priesthood and the Eucharist (and all the sacraments) function “ex opere operato” – through, as it were, the working of the work, and not through the personal holiness or power of the worker.
On this anniversary of my ordination as a priest these two related realities have struck me most: my utter dependence on the Lord, and my gratitude to him for the gift of the priesthood, a means by which his ageless mercy courses through the world, overwhelming the fallibilities and frailties of the men who have been entrusted with God’s very own power in the priesthood of his Son. For “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Notice in today’s Gospel reading this whole dynamic playing out – I mean the dynamic of humility and susceptivity to the Lord’s grace: flowing in the wake of a humble willingness to receive what Jesus would give: the power of Satan is driven out, ears are opened to hear, and mouths to speak, and the crowds confess the name and the power of Jesus: “He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak,” (Mark 7.37).
This is what Jesus wills to give his people through the agency of his priests: his own presence in our midst, a presence liberating us from the power of Satan; opening our ears to hear the word of life; and loosing our tongues to confess his name.
I close with the words of a French Dominican, Raymond Leopold Bruckberger. They well express my feelings on this anniversary:
What a risk it is to be a Christian and a priest among men of flesh and blood. I claim to live in familiarity with the Almighty God, to have, through the Blessed Sacrament, authority to bring Him to dwell among us in His Body. And I never give proof of it, never, never. Such a high assurance, and never a miracle. His strength is intact in its infinite amplitude, but absolutely set like a lever on the freedom of men, on my will to love Him if I wish and only if I wish. His almighty power is intact, if I wish to bear its inflexible pressure. Jesus is resurrected at every instant, in all his victorious might, in the free allegiance and the free self-sacrifice of those who believe in Him and who love Him and who act in accordance with His life and His death.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.