Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
30th Sunday of OT, Year B
October 26, 2003
Jer 31:7-9; Heb 5:1-6; Mk 10:46-52
1) “What do you want me to do for you?” Which one of us would not want the Lord to ask us the question he asks Bartimaeus in today’s Gospel? Bartimaeus’ response is one that has become a common aspiration of Christians through the centuries: “Lord, I want to see!” The early saints saw in this expression more than a cry from a physically blind man. They have seen in it the plea of all those in every generation who have been in any type of darkness. “Lord, I want to see?” See what? We learn from Bartimaeus what the purpose of our sight is. The Gospel tells us, “Having regained his sight, he followed Jesus on the way.” Just like St. Peter’s mother-in-law, as soon as she had been cured of a severe fever, used her health to serve others, so Bartimaeus, now that he could see, used the gift of his sight to follow the divine Giver, the Light of the World. Our eyes — both are physical eyes and the eyes of our heart — are gifts of God so that we might see Jesus and follow him. Our whole nature has been created by God so that we might say, like those Greeks in the Gospel who had not yet met the Lord but presented themselves to Philip: “We want to see Jesus!”
2) We want to see Jesus in prayer. We want to see Jesus in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. We want to see Jesus in others, in the faces of those we love, in the faces of those we find so difficult to love. Just like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, whom the Holy Father beatified last Sunday, we want to see Jesus behind the distressing masks of the poor, the sick, the lonely, the homeless, the abandoned, the blind. We want to behold Christ’s face in the beauties of creation. We want to see him behind each of the commandments, teaching us how to love. We want the eyes to see his will in our daily life, in the present and for the future. Ultimately we want to see him forever face-to-face in heaven, smiling on us with love. But so often we’re blinded. Sin blinds us. Worries blind us. Pain and suffering blind us. Hatred and prejudices blind us. The inability to forgive robs us of our sight. Others, including those we love, can sometimes get in the way and remove our line of vision. Today, the Lord comes to us and asks us, as he asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Today we respond, each in our individual circumstances, “Lord, I want to see!,” begging him to take out whatever planks are in our eyes so that we may see him clearly and follow him, like Bartimaeus before us.
3) But there is one area in the Church today where perhaps all of us need God’s help to see Him more clearly: in the priesthood. The priest is ordained to act in the person of Christ, in his preaching, in his celebration of the sacraments instituted by the Lord, and in his shepherding God’s family. But for several reasons, both due to some of the blindspots of our culture as well as to the counter-witness given by the priests whose names have been prominently featured in the media over the past couple of years, it has become harder for many Catholics to see Christ working through his priests. This Sunday is a good time to allow the Lord to give us once again his eyes, so that we might see priests as He sees them, and why He founded the priesthood the way He did for our salvation.
4) To help us, we have today’s second reading, which is one of the few times in the three-year cycle of Sunday Mass readings when Sacred Scripture explicitly talks about the priesthood. It describes first the Old Testament levitical priesthood and then the priesthood of Christ, the true high priest. But what it says is applicable the priests of the New Covenant, those who are ordained to act in the person of Christ the High Priest: “Every high priest is chosen from among men and put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor on himself, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.”
5) The first thing we learn is that priests are “CHOSEN [BY GOD] from among men,” taking on the priesthood “only when called by God.” Priests are not elected or appointed by the people, but are chosen directly and sent out by Christ, who himself has entrusted them with the “things pertaining to God” for the sake of God’s people. He’s entrusted them with the word of God; the priest is, in some respects, the voice of Christ, proclaiming His Gospel. He’s entrusted them with his priestly work in the sacraments, investing them with the power to bring his own body and blood down to earth and forgive sins in his name. He’s made them shepherds of His flock, so that they might be foster-fathers of the family Christ came from heaven to earth to establish. For the sake of God’s people — for YOU — Jesus did this, to perpetuate his saving work. And how important the priest is for this saving work! If the Blessed Mother appeared here live today, she could not give you Jesus again as she was able to do to the shepherds and the Magi in Bethlehem. Even if all the angels and the saints were here, acting as one, not even all of them together could forgive even your least venial sin. The priest is the only person in the entire universe capable of doing this, and he does this, not by his own merits and powers, but because he has been chosen by God and given these powers for your sanctification. He is not chosen by men, because even if all the six-billion men and women in the world got together and elected one person to act on their behalf, they could not give this person the power to change bread and wine into the Lord’s body and blood or to forgive your sins, which only God can do. God calls him, which is why we call the priesthood a vocation, because he is “called” by God himself. That’s the first thing the letter to the Hebrew teaches us.
6) The second reality is that the priest is chosen from “among MEN.” He’s not selected from the Angels. He’s fully HUMAN just like any other man in this Church today. This truth has a good side and a bad side to it. The good side we read in Hebrews: “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” God has chosen “earthly vessels” to minister his sacraments, and this is another one of God’s great gifts. To preach the great news of forgiveness from sins, the Lord has chosen to send out ordinary reconciled sinners, men like St. Peter, whose first words to the Lord were “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” They are meant to be unintimidating human instruments, subject to weakness, who trust in and receive the Lord’s mercy. I’ve noticed sometimes that the best confessors are those who are recovered alcoholics, especially when their parishioners know that they’ve recovered. These men clearly know the struggles human beings can go through and hence, with the Lord’s own power, they can be “deal gently” with other sinners. Please never be afraid to approach a priest because you think a priest would be “too holy” to understand your sins. God has chosen to entrust the sacrament of mercy to reconciled sinful men, not to angels, so that you might find mercy and understanding whenever you go. That’s the good side to the priest’s humanity.
7) But there’s also a bad side: just like any man here, the priest is capable of sinning. And we’re all painfully aware of the damage a priest can do when he sins. The newspapers of the last two years have taught us all that. The scale of the priestly scandals of the past few decades that have come to light in the last 20 months has caused many Catholics to wonder, “Can God make mistakes?” “Can God choose the wrong man?” We know, theologically, that the answer to that question is no. God chooses someone out of love and invests him with these incredible gifts, but the priest he has chosen and to whom He is faithful can be faithful in return or not. God chooses men, not angels, and men prone to sin at that. When we look at the first twelve whom Jesus himself called, we learn the risks God takes in establishing the priesthood as he did. Before Jesus called his twelve apostles, he spent the whole night in prayer to His Father. He formed them for three years. He gave them power to cast out demons. He gave them power to cure the sick. They watched him work countless miracles. They themselves in His name worked many others. Yet, despite all of that, one of them was a traitor. One, who had followed the Lord, who had had his feet washed by the Lord, who had seen him walk on water, raise people from the dead, and forgive sinners, betrayed the Lord. The Gospel tells us that he allowed Satan to enter into Him and then traded the Lord’s life for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus didn’t choose Judas to betray him. He chose him to be like all the others. But Judas was always free, and he used his freedom to allow Satan to enter into him, and conspired to get the Lord brutally killed. The reality is that sometimes GOD’S CHOSEN ONES BETRAY HIM. But we’re also called to remember that that’s not the whole story. There were the other eleven, who were weak men who had run away when the Lord was arrested, but who eventually turned back to the Lord and served him faithfully the rest of their lives and on account of whose work, preaching, miracles, and love for Christ, we are here today. Ten of those eleven died for the Lord and the other died in his nineties after having poured himself out in the proclamation of the Gospel. So when we look at the bad-side of the human reality of the priesthood, the great risk that someone whom the Lord has entrusted His own salvific work may betray him and hurt those whom he was called to love, we’re called to SEE the whole reality, that, yes, there are some who betray the Lord, but then there are so many more who remain faithful, whose names don’t appear in the newspapers, who are still offering their lives to serve Christ and to serve you out of love.
8 ) This two-fold reality of the priesthood — called by God, from among men — was indelibly depicted in art and architecture in the most famous Church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Over the central and principle door through which everyone has to enter, there is a sculpture of Christ’s handing the keys of the kingdom of heaven to St. Peter, symbolizing the divine foundation of the papacy and the incredible gift entrusted to the Pope and to the priests united to him: to bind and loose on heaven and earth. Catholics, Protestants and non-believers alike see this message proclaimed to the world as they enter through the visible face of the basilica erected as a physical representation of the Church Christ built on top of St. Peter the Rock. That’s the first half of the reality, Peter’s having been chosen by God from among men. Above the inner side of the central door, there is the corresponding image that every visitor is meant to see upon leaving the basilica. It’s a mosaic of St. Peter’s walking on the water, at the very moment when he has begun to sink. You remember the scene. Christ was walking on the stormy seas toward the apostles who were in the boat. They first thought the Lord was a ghost, but Peter cried out, “Lord, if it really is you, bid me to come to you across the waters.” The Lord told him to come. And Peter hopped over the side of the boat and began — he, a human being — to do what was humanly impossible, to walk on water. And he did just fine until he “took account of the winds,” and took his eyes off of Christ and began to sink. It was then that this fisherman cried out, “Lord, save me!” and the Lord stretched out his hands, grabbed him, and brought him back into Peter’s boat (which was always a symbol of the Church), after which the storm died down. Why is this scene depicted here? Because just as the Church wanted everyone entering the basilica to see the divine foundation of the papacy in Peter’s receiving Christ’s keys, so the Church wanted everyone LEAVING the basilica to see the HUMAN side of the papacy. When the Pope keeps his eyes on Christ, basically all things are possible. But when he takes his eyes off of the Lord, he can fall to abysmal depths. Hence that mosaic has always been a poignant invitation to the pilgrims to pray for the Pope, so that he might keep his eyes on the Lord and thereby help keep the faithful’s eyes on the Lord too. This same two-fold reality of divine institution and human frailty we find in the priesthood as a whole.
9) What are the faithful of the Church called to do in the face of this two-fold reality of the priesthood? The first thing is to be grateful to Christ for the gift of the priesthood and for the divine gifts He gives us through the priesthood. Without the priest, there would be no Eucharist. Without the priest, we would have no way on earth of assuredly having our sins absolved. Without the priest, we would probably not even have unity among believers. We need first and always to thank God for the gift of the priesthood, for the sacraments the Lord makes possible uniquely through it, and for the priests who have said yes to the Lord’s call. We’re also called, at Christ’s own command, to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send more of these laborers into Christ’s vineyard to continue and expand this salvific work. That’s the first thing we’re called to do, in response to the “divine foundation” of the priesthood.
10) In response to the human reality, the faithful are called to pray for priests, that they remain faithful to the Lord, that the Lord heal them of any spiritual or moral blindness so that they can keep their eyes always on the Lord and help God’s people keep their eyes on the Lord as well. The great priest-saints of the history of the Church have said, very humbly, “But for the grace of God go I.” Priests are always in need of prayers that they remain faithful to this grace. If you want holier priests, I encourage you to pray more for them. WE NEED YORU PRAYERS! But that’s not the only thing I would recommend. By your own faith, please encourage priests TO WANT TO BECOME HOLIER so as to serve you better. The second greatest joy in a priest’s life is to give you God’s gifts in the word of God, in the sacraments, in loving faithful service. Do you know what the greatest joy is? When they see the faithful LONG FOR and RECEIVE those gifts from God with zeal and love. During my years as a seminarian in Rome, there was a waiter in a very nice restaurant where a few fellow seminarians and I would go on big occasions. We were pleasantly shocked that he used to cut the bill for us in half, sometimes even more than half. After he had done this a few times, we had to ask him, “Rocco, why are you being so good to us?” He explained, simply, that he loved to see people enjoy the food that he and his colleagues prepared. He knew that as seminarians we would never have the money to come to that restaurant often if we were charged the full bill, so he cut the bill so that we could come and he could have the joy of seeing us appreciate it so much. It’s much the same way with priests. We want to feed you with God’s word, with God’s love, with God’s flesh and blood. Nothing gives us greater joy than seeing Christ’s faithful people show up HUNGRY for God’s word in Sacred Scripture, HUNGRY to be fed by the Lord in the Eucharist. Nothing inspires priests to add more times for prayer than scores of lay Catholics who come to Holy Hours. Nothing encourages priests to want to give more and work harder in loving service than an sincere thanks. Prayer and this type of faithful encouragement in response to the human reality of the priesthood will do wonders.
11) Today, guided by the letter to the Hebrews, God has helped us to see more clearly the two-fold reality He see in the priesthood He instituted. The response the Lord wants is that we, having greater vision, follow Him on the way as he leads us through the works and ministrations of his sacred ministers. As we approach the supreme act that the Lord Jesus has sent out his priests throughout the world to do in his memory, let us ask the Lord to cure us of whatever blindness we have to this reality, so that we might see Him in the priest saying, “This is MY body,” “This is the cup of MY BLOOD,” and then lovingly receive that same Lord Jesus within. Lord, we want to see!