Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Hierarchy by Candlelight

When I was ordained a priest, I knew that the age of deference to the parish clerk had passed. Very occasionally, I  will hear, "mornin' Vicar" or, "thank you, Father " but more often than not I am not recognised as a priest. I get the odd look, but nothing more than that.

In many ways this is good. No-one should be compelled to recognise or defer to a priest as part of social mores. I am a human being among others, worthy of no greater nor lesser respect than anyone else. This is exactly what Our Lord wants when he upbraids the Pharisees for wanting all the honorific titles and places of honour for very little. Earthly honors and titles are worth nothing.

In a previous post, I alluded to Boethius and his view on honours. I used to rate the Oxford DD as the most prestigious academic degree. Then Oxford University awarded that very degree to Katherine Jefferts Schori, the woman who has done most to destroy Anglicanism in America as well as besmirch the reputation of Christianity in that country. This is the essence of Boethius' proof that honour and title are not worth seeking. If that title can be given to anyone, deserving or undeserving alike, what can it really be worth? Honours are purely subjective and can have no objective existence.

Time and again do we see bishops, priests, and pastors fat with their own self - satisfaction insist that their message be heard by everyone because they are the bishop, priest, or pastor while, at the same time, either quietly hiding their hypocrisy or justifying it loudly and proudly. This was true in medieval times, and it's true now.

Yet, the priesthood is a gift of God to His people. The existence of the sacerdotal ministry is like a computer's installer. It exists in order to download and install software onto a computer. Likewise a priest is one called by God to give to His people the objective and efficient grace of His Being.

A priest is an alter Christus in that he participates in the single priesthood of Christ making real Christ in the Mass. I was once asked the question, if you meet an angel and a priest walking together down the street whom should you honour most? The answer is the priest who bears Christ in himself and makes Him present at Mass.

Like many people, I rather balked at this. It makes the priest seem superior to angelic beings, more glorious than the Cherubim. But man is lower than the angels, and in the Incarnation, Our Lord was indeed made lower than the angels. The point is that it is the presence of Christ in the priest that His people will recognise. It is His presence that is called "Father" not of the fallible little person that bears Him.

This cuts two ways. If a priest or bishop seeks the accolades proper to Christ for himself, then not only is he defrauding his congregation, he is also committing self-idolatry. That's just what the Devil did!

This, then, is where the priesthood meets Candlemas. The aged Simeon departs in peace after presenting the Christ child to God and thus to the world. Like St John the Baptist, Simeon seeks only his decrease in the light of Christ. In the ritual purification of Our Lady, Simeon's Old Testament is purified in the light of Christ. As Christ becomes the only true high priest at the altar of the Cross, so is this light shone out to the world.

This means that each priest, and more so each bishop, has a truly onerous duty. Every day the priest is confronted with, "how have you presented Christ to the world today? How have you made Him present in this dark some world?" This should terrify each cleric. If it doesn't, then he has forgotten the enormity of his orders. He is under orders, lesser than his congregation whom he serves, lesser than the society he inhabits, because he is always beneath the shadow of the cross that he bears but, by virtue of his sins, he is unworthy to bear. Thanks be to God for the grace that a priest receives in order to do this at his ordination!

The more that a priest shows the light of Christ, the more will people show the honour due not to him but to the One he bears. If people can recognise the presence of Christ, then and only then will the priest be able to depart in peace according to His Word.


Fr Ray Thompson said...

Thank you for that, Father. I have purchased for my Lent reading this year "The Priest is Not His Own" by Fulton Sheen (Ignatius Press). This quote is from the back cover:

Sheen delves deeply into what he considers the main character of the priesthood, and one not often discussed, that of being, like Christ, a "holy victim". To be like Christ, Sheen emphasizes that the priest must imitate Christ in His example of sacrifice, offering himself as a victim to make His Incarnation continually present in the world.

"Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that he was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the Priest a Victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood, if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of His Incarnation."
—Bishop Fulton Sheen

Fr Anthony said...

Indeed, Father, we need to read about the horrors of clericalism here on the European Continent as well as in England. Good priests were killed for the bad priests! We have first to be human beings. I have seen plenty of the mincing about with expensive stuff bought in Rome! The Curé d'Ars went around in a battered old cassock, for nothing was good enough for the worship of God in the liturgy.