We who are still on earth stand between things which seem too wonderful to believe and things too awful to contemplate. On the one hand, what "No eye has seen nor ear heard ... what God has in store", and on the other the unsaid and logical conclusion of the modern mind: we have only the frustrations of our few short years.
At the heart of things, unavoidably, stands the risen Jesus Christ, who offers us the eternal wonders and insists that we reject a future full of nothing. So we should leap at his words: "I am with you always." At this promise, the priest, especially, trembles in his soul. Why?
Jesus Christ remains active in the world in various ways: as God, he is everywhere, keeping everything going; and as our intimate companion he joins us lovingly "where two or three are gathered". But he is most actively obvious through the lives of those he lifts up to his level when he ordains them into his priesthood.
The priesthood of Jesus Christ is not some non-essential addition to his Church: it is his Church. Did he not take human nature to himself so that he could devote it to bringing the Father to man and man to the Father, using it to teach, to govern and to sanctify, as "the way, the truth and the life", culminating it all on Calvary when he placed his life, used for these sacred ends, before the Father in Heaven as the sacrifice that makes our sins forgivable.
Did he not come for all of us, in every age and place? Indeed, and so he had to remain here: "I am with you always." He does this through his Church: that is why she must have his truthfulness to teach, his authority to govern and his person to make his people holy.
And so the priest must stand in awe, for by ordination he is lifted into Christ, becomes Christ, the Priest, the most obvious means by which the Son of God "is with us always." Was it Saint Francis who said that if he met an angel and a priest he would greet the priest first?
It is strange how it can take so long for the wonders of our Catholic faith to strike home to us, but God knows how to time things. Our Lord promised "another Advocate, who will bring all things to your minds whatever I have taught you". And so it is, when he sees we need it, that the Holy Spirit will flash into the prayerful mind a clearer realisation of a truth he has revealed. In truth, those who want Jesus Christ are like mountain climbers who struggle ever upward, pausing for their rests and seeing greater glories around them the higher they climb.
The priest, indeed any believer, is never too old to enjoy the spiritual youth of greater understanding of the goodness of God's nature for the soul should never age. How true those words in the Extraordinary Rite: Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meum ("To the God who gives joy to my youth"). The discoverer of God never ages.
Because this is all true, the priest is made to realise, when those words "I am with you ..." strike home to him, that he is actually the means by which Jesus Christ stays with his people always. In this writer's case, Father John O'Neill is one of the means by which Christ remains with the people of Saint John Vianney's parish! He stands between things too wonderful to believe, and things, if he is proud, too awful to contemplate.
But a proud priest is an unthinkable thing for he can do good only through Christ's priestly action made possible through the human priest by ordination. To trust in himself alone makes him blind to the glories Christ can achieve through him, making them impossible so that there is no harvest.
But realising what ordination has given him, the priest has to come before Our Lord with a kind of numbness, feeling nothing in himself because he is "lost, all lost in wonder" at Christ's condescension, his power and his love. He needs to imitate Michelangelo's brush: just a brush, but what wonders it achieved resting in the hands of the master.
Perhaps the saddest thing I ever heard was the following incident.
There was a priest, way back in the 1970s, at a priests' seminar. At a morning tea break among a group of friends, one asked him what he thought was the most important thing for priests "in this modern age." "Same as always," he replied. "And what's that?" "A personal love for Jesus Christ." (Laughter) "Oh, that's a bit old-fashioned, isn't it."
The priest, more than anyone, stands between the wonderful and the awful. We all stand there, but Christ stands there, too, not to make the awful possible, but to save us from it. He alone can do that, but what do we see so very much in our Church today? Conflicting things: bureaus and committees, institutes for this and institutes for that, and all kinds of new spiritual movements, some good and some very dubious, all clogging up our mail boxes and interrupting us through the non-stop bleating of telephones (and the more silent emails!)
Much of this activity arises from the ridiculous conviction that man's abilities make the Church.
However, for those who pause, and look around for endeavours that please God, they can still find that fruitful Catholic remnant, peacefully confident in their mutual trust and successful apostolates by means of which people return to God.
Those who do not understand this keep inventing new things, of which they soon grow tired; and so they search for other novelties, all because they cannot seem to grasp the words: "Without me, you can do nothing" and "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me."
Fr John O'Neill is parish priest of St John Vianney Church, Doonside, Parramatta Diocese, NSW.