Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
30th Sunday of OT, Year B
October 29, 2006
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 the purpose of our sight. 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 (Mk 1:30-31), so Bartimaeus, now that he could see, used the gift of his sight to follow the divine Giver, the Light of the World (Jn 8:2). Our eyes — both our 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!” (Jn 12:21).
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. 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 blind spots 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 several 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. He’s entrusted them, whose role is to offer Christ’s own self-gift and sacrifice for sins, with the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins in his name (Jn 20:19-23). 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 archangels were here, acting in unison, 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 (Mk 2:7). 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.” The priest has human emotions, desires, struggles. God has chosen “earthly vessels” (2 Cor 4:7) to minister his sacraments, and this is 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!” (Lk 5:8 ). They are meant to be un-intimidating human instruments, subject to weakness, who trust in and receive the Lord’s mercy. Priests do not stand outside of the human mess of sin, but are in solidarity with sinners and are meant to tangible witnesses that forgiveness and liberation from sin is possible. They’re first sheep, and then shepherds; first disciples, then apostles. 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 being tempted, giving into temptation and sinning. The newspapers of the last four years have made us all painfully aware of the damage a priest can do when he does sin. When the scandals came to light, many Catholics began to ask, “If priests are chosen and called by God, how is it possible that they would become monsters like Father James Porter or John Geoghan or Paul Shanley?” They began to question, “Can God make mistakes?” Moreover, a great many Catholics have known at least one priest who abandoned the priesthood. They also have asked, “Is it possible that God chose the wrong man?” We know, theologically, that the answer to these questions is no. God cannot and does not make mistakes. The reality is, however, that the men God chooses, invests with priestly gifts and powers, and to whom he is always faithful may be faithful in return or not. God chooses men, not angels, and men prone to sin at that, and sometimes like other Christians they choose to sin. We can see this lesson about the bad side of the priest’s humanity from the beginning. Before he chose his twelve apostles, Jesus spent all night in prayer to his Father (Lk 6:12). He taught, formed and loved them intimately for three years. He gave them power to preach in his name, to cast out demons, to cure the sick, even to raise the dead (Mt 10:7-8 ). He called them “friends” and treated them as his friends (Jn 15:15). Yet, in spite of all this, one of them betrayed him, 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 Him. The Gospel tells us that this apostle allowed Satan to enter into Him and then betrayed Christ for money. Did Jesus choose Judas to betray him? No! He chose him to be like all the others, but Judas was always free, and he used his freedom to consent to Satan’s temptations and we know the rest. 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; on account of their 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 ) 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 so that Christ’s work of salvation may continue and be expanded (Mt 9:38 ). We’re called to do this in response to the “divine foundation” of the priesthood, the fact that priests are “chosen” and “called by God.”
9) In response to the good side of the human reality of the priesthood, the faithful are called to remember that priests are not angels, but are chosen from among men, men just like the men we know. There are young men here in Church today who might think that because of all their imperfections, the Lord could not possibly be calling them to be priests. They and all of us in the Church are called to remember that the Lord might be calling them not despite their imperfections, but because of them, so that they, aware of their weakness may be able to “deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward.”
10) In response to the bad side of the human reality of the priesthood, the faithful are first 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.” One of the great saints of all time, St. Philip Neri, used to wake up every morning and turn to the Lord very humbly in prayer, saying, “Lord, it’s me, Philip. Please help me so that I do not betray you today.” Priests simply 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 YOUR PRAYERS!
11) The last thing I’d mention in response to the human reality of the priesthood is to remember that like any other human beings, priests are susceptible to encouragement and discouragement, and the actions and expectations of the people they’re sent by Christ to serve are perhaps the greatest source of encouragement or discouragement for a priest . If you want better priests, holier priests, more faithful priests, then help them become so through the example of your own faith working through love (Gal 5:16). Nothing gives a priest greater motivation to study the word of God and put more effort into preparing his homily than when the people of God show up to Mass hungry for that word and to apply it to their lives. Nothing helps a priest prayerfully celebrate the Mass more than when parishioners respond with enthusiasm to the prayers of the Mass, when they behave in a way in which they proclaim, “Nothing in the whole world is more important than the Mass for me, because in the Mass I encounter Christ.” Nothing inspires the priest to pray more than when people ask him to pray for their specific intentions, when scores of lay Catholics who want to come to adore the Lord ask him to implement Eucharistic Holy Hours. Nothing encourages priests to want to give more and work harder in loving service than people who volunteer and show by their actions that they realize both that the priest can’t do it all and that they share in the responsibility of stewardship in the parish. The more Catholic lay people by their faith and love of the Lord encourage the priest to become who Christ calls them to be — “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1) — the better, holier and more faithful priests they’ll have.
12) Today, guided by the letter to the Hebrews, God has helped all of us to see more clearly the two-fold reality He sees in the priesthood He instituted. Now that we have greater vision, the Lord wants us, like Bartimaeus, follow Him on the way as he leads us through the works and ministrations of the sacred ministers he has called and chosen despite their human weakness. 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 Him 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!