Oneness in Christ: the heart of the priesthood

Oneness in Christ: the heart of the priesthood

Fr John W. O'Neill PP

There was once a religious brother from Victoria who found himself sports master in a Sydney school. He had been brought up on Aussie Rules but he had to coach Rugby League teams. Then he wrote a book on the subject, although he had never played the game.

So this poor priest is "having a go" at writing about something much more than a game which he has tried to "play," God alone knows with what success.

Coming straight to the point: the heart of the priesthood of the Catholic Church can be discovered in that mysterious incident when the fishing partners, Simon and Andrew, James and John, were cleaning their net after a night's work on the Lake of Galilee.

Eternal love

Down the shore comes this so-called "new prophet", Jesus, from Nazareth. They had met him before down by the Jordan and perhaps had heard him preach. Whatever the cause of their view of him, he was certainly looming large in their lives, so large indeed that "they left all and followed him."

The healthy, manly, not unprofitable, outdoor life of the fisherman on beautiful Lake Galilee had no attraction now: Jesus of Nazareth wanted them with Him, and that was all that mattered now. That was what their future boast would be. He would be their life and He would be their glory.

So it must continue for the priest today.

At the core of his being there must be an awareness of Jesus Christ loving him in that special way by which He, the Divine Master, is lifting him by the Sacrament which priested him, into that loving which knew no beginning, nor will it know any end, that Eternal Love which gives infinite joy to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It was this joy which moved God to create, and when man's plight was hopeless, moved Him to save and make holy.

God walked the earth, and called fishermen to walk with Him; even more, He gave them, on that last night with them, His very self. They would now be Him, in and for the world, for mankind. He would stay among His children through them.

This union with Jesus Christ, more than a bond - more like the absorption of the drop of water into the wine at the Offertory of the Mass - establishes the priesthood. Because of this, all the priest's actions should shine with the presence of Christ; the priest needs to carry at all times the consciousness of Christ's presence in him.

Prayer is thus more necessary to the priest than to anyone, bearing in mind that prayer should be very little about us and everything about letting God reach into us.

Towards the end of his life, the head fisherman, the Rock, spoke of the fruit of his prayerfulness, his faith, which had allowed the Master to stay with and in him: "You shall be filled with a joy that cannot be described." And Peter was not talking about waiting for Heaven, he was talking about having that joy now, while we are still on earth.

If this oneness in Christ is not seen as the heart of the priesthood, then the seminarian's philosophy and theology, all his study of Sacred Scripture, Liturgy, Canon Law, languages, history, all will be a waste of time, like following old tracks that disappear into drought-stricken country, leading at best only to dry old ruins, the worn out faded attempts of human learning to fulfil itself without the life-giving presence of God as teacher and goal.

If this oneness is not there, then who will have their hearts lifted by a priest's dryness in the celebration of Mass, his murmured absolution, his directionless preaching, his merely efficient administration of Sacraments, his "hail-fellow-well-met" relationship with all whom he meets. All the learning and the talent will point not to God, but fruitlessly inward towards himself. And the self has not the power to save.

The Curé of Ars

The great Père Lacordaire, France's most famous preacher, humbly went to Ars. He came away saying, "Today, I saw God in a man." That man in Ars was not a man of great learning or talent, but we all know his name. Who, except experts in history, could tell us the name of the Archbishop of Paris in the 1850s, or the Archbishop of Lyons, or the Bishop of Belley with due respect to them? But everyone knows who was the parish priest of Ars.

It is not the office which gives grace, but Christ's presence in the man who bears it.

May our laity pray for their priests. Without Jesus of Nazareth in us, we are merely "sounding brass or tinkling cymbal".

Fr John O'Neill is the parish priest of Doonside in the Parramatta Diocese.

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