Loving to the End, Holy Thursday, April 20, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Marienhaus, Germany
Holy Thursday
April 20, 2000
Ex 12:1-8,11-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Jn 13:1-15

“Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

This whole Gospel, this whole feast, is full of the deeds of Jesus’s loving us to the very end. He loved us to the end in showing us the example of service in washing the apostles’ feet and sending them out to wash the feet of everyone through time down to our own age. No greater sign was there of Jesus’ loving service to us. He who had humbled himself to come among us as a man to save us, was, though our Master and Lord, going to humbly serve us all the way to the very end. He washed our feet with water, but this was just the beginning. On the following day, he would wash us entirely with his blood, shed out of love to the very last drop. And then he commanded the Eleven, and through them us, to go to out and do the same, promising us, “Blessed will you be if you do it!” Later in the evening he will give them a new commandment, to love each other, not just as they love themselves, but as he had loved them, to the very, very end, to the gift of his own life. No greater love has a man, Jesus said during this same meal, than to lay down his life for his friends. And he laid down his life out of love for each one of us and taught us the true meaning of life, to love others in the same way.

But — as hard as it is to believe — Jesus loved us even more than that. Dying for us wasn’t the end of Jesus’ love. In addition to dying for us, Jesus also wanted us to share in this sacrifice of love rather than just watch it, read about it, or benefit from its fruits. Jesus wanted us to be able to SHARE in it through, with and in him. And to bring about that reality, he gave us his own body and blood in the Eucharist. In the first Covenant Passover, the Jews were freed from slavery through following the instructions God gave to Moses: killing an umblemished lamb, spreading the blood over the door post and eating the lamb. Jesus, in augurating the new Covenant, fulfilled each of these elements. He was to become the umblemished Lamb sacrificed to free us from the slavery of sin and death. His own blood was going to be the sign to avert the God’s Angel of Death from taking our lives and those we love once and for all. And most remarkably of all, Jesus allowed himself to be the Lamb who would be consumed. If the ancient Israelites in Egypt had merely killed the lamb and spread the blood on their doorposts and then gone to bed, when they awoke they would have found their first-born sons dead! It was necessary to eat the Lamb. In the same way in the new and eternal Covenant, it is necessary to eat the lamb. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” Jesus tells us earlier in Saint John’s Gospel, “you have no life in you.” To make it possible for us, therefore, to share in the eternal life of this new and eternal covenant in his blood, Jesus, in a miracle that simply exceeds the capacity of the human mind to comprehend it, transubstantiates completely the Passover seder elements of bread and wine into the true flesh and blood of the Lamb of God. This allows us truly to be present in the Upper Room with the Eleven — at the very same offering of Jesus — and truly to be present at the foot of the Cross on Friday when this Passover liturgy is consummated. Jesus didn’t consider it enough to be able to save us from the outside. He wanted to save us from the inside. And whereas Adam and Eve lost their friendship by eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, we gain salvation by eating Jesus, the fruit of Mary’s Womb, who on the tree of the Cross conquered Evil once and for all. It wasn’t enough that Jesus humbled himself to take on human nature within the immaculate womb of the Blessed Mother. He loved us so much that he humbled himself in far greater kenosis, transubstantiating mere bread and wine into his real presence for us to eat as our spiritual nourishment and our passover meal. What a sacrament, a sign and reality of love, this is!

But Jesus loved us even more! John says he loved us “to the end,” but he really loved us without end. And he showed this more than anything in his institution of the priesthood this very night in the Upper Room so that his presence practically may be continued throughout time. This sacrament was an even greater kenosis than taking flesh in the womb of the Immaculate Virgin, or changing the substance of bread and wine into his body and Blood. The sacrament of Holy Orders actually takes sinful men, without abolishing their freedom, and turns them into the presence of Christ, so that when they act in celebrating the Eucharist or forgiving sins, they act in the person of Christ, and Christ acts through them. Through ordination, these often weak men are so conformed to Christ that they can act in his name. Priests are the ones who are called most of all to continue the presence of Christ’s love in the world and allow him to carry out his plan of salvation. So great is the dignity of the priest when seen from eternity that the patron saint of priests, St. Jean Mary Vianney (the Curé D’Ars), said if we truly understood what God does to men in the sacrament of Holy Orders, we would die, not out of fear, but out of love. Jesus loved us so much that he created a means by which his work of salvation, effected once and for all in the Upper Room, on Calvary and in the Tomb, would be brought throughout the world, throughout all times, right until this chapel, this night, here and now. It was in the priesthood that Jesus willed that his love could be brought to the ends of the earth and the end of time. How central and indispensible to the mission of Christ is the priest? If the Blessed Mother were here in this chapel right now, she would not be able to make Christ present in the Eucharist. If she visited you on your deat bed with all of the choirs of angels and you were dying in a state of mortal sin, neither she nor they could forgive your sins. Only the priest can. The priest has the vocation, despite his weakness, to continue the love of Christ which we see shown so clearly in the Upper Room throughout all of time until Christ the High Priest returns.

Where do you fit in, sisters, to this plan of the Lord to love the world to the end of time, to the ends of the world? You certainly have the charisms of service in Christ’s name which you carry out so faithfully, mercifully washing the feet in service of others in so many sectors of human life. You certainly carry it out as well by your prayer and devotion to Christ, particularly in his real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. But what I would like to focus on tonight is your CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT connection to the priesthood. This connection is obviously not seen by women religious who are pushing for women’s ordination, because they think they — who are excluded from the priesthood — are thereby excluded from the ministry of the priest. This is not true, as we’ll see. But this connection is very often not seen by, shall we say, more traditional or faithful women religious either. And so I think it is very fitting for us to spend some time tonight on the role of women religious in priestly vocations.

The priesthood is all about love. It’s a vocation of love, in imitation of the Lord’s love. And if you want holy priests, what you’re asking for is LOVING priests, priests who love God with all of their heart, mind, soul and strength and love others as Jesus loves them. This is holiness. But sisters, and this might come as a major shock to you, men in general — and priests too — often find it very hard to love God and therefore to love others. That’s really where you come in. Anthropologically, woman teaches man how to love, to love himself, to love others and to love God. And women religious fulfill that glorious vocation with religious men in the Church. If you look at Adam in the Garden, he had God and all of creation all to himself, he was in the state of grace, the state of original justice, and had immortality — everything anyone could possibly ask for — but he didn’t have love. Remember this was BEFORE the Fall! He had God all to himself but he was LONELY in his presence. God recognized that it was not good for man to be alone and hence created Eve. Finally Adam rejoiced that he had a fitting partner, someone whom he could love. Within the Church, religious women continue this original vocation of Eve, by teaching everyone how to love God truly: they teach young children in schools and promote so many vocations; they teach the suffering and dying in hospitals and thereby help them co-redeem the world and save so many souls; they teach each other in so many ways; and they in particular way teach priests, who without them would completely miss the point of the spiritual life. Men by nature work and build and, left to themselves, the spiritual life would be a self-centered Pelagianism, the heresy of Christian spiritual workaholism. Women religious, in particular, teach priests that the most important thing is not what they can do for God, but what God has done for them. They teach them the receptive dimension of the faith, how much God loves them, and inspire them to love God in return. If you can help a priest learn to love — to love God, and to love himself and others in God, and to recognize how much he is loved by God — you will vicariously preach through them to thousands upon thousands the Great News of God’s love through their homilies and through their loving, merciful care of all of those with whom they come into contact. And you just might help to save their souls as well, because as St. Paul writes,

1Cor. 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to the torturers, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

If a priest does not experience love, if he is not helped to love and doesn’t love, he has nothing. But it is worse than this: due to this lack of the experience of love, he can — often unintentionally — do great damage to himself and to others because, without love, the realities priests deal with every day are sometimes too much to bear! Hence, without love, priests will often not know how to deal and cope with such realities, and will often be extraordinarily susceptible to the temptations of the devil to turn to sin, to booze, to sex, to ambition, to greed, to all types of vice. We’ve all unfortunately seen this happen too often. But each of these vices, I’m convinced, is a direct result of a priest’s failure to experience the love of God in his life, a love that can inspire him to bear the hardships of priestly life, the contradictions, the crosses, and to continue in his loving service in imitation of the Lord to whom he is configured.

How do you, as a woman religious, help a priest, concretely, to love? The best and surest way is to love the priest and show it. It’s not enough merely to pray for priests, although this is surely an ever-urgent need. It’s also not enough to love the “priesthood,” or to love priests “in general.” It means loving particular priests, priests you know, priests with whom you come into contact. And it means showing you love them in deeds. In Rome, several of my young brother priests and I know a lot of women religious, and we can easily tell the difference between those who love priests and those who don’t. But what is very curious is that those who routinely say that the sisters of their order or they personally have a great love for priests are very often the ones who treat priests like disposal sacramental machines, who seldom make the effort to learn priests’ names (calling everyone merely “father”), who criticize priests much more than they compliment them, who set up a stone wall around their emotions – out of a LACK of the virtue chastity – so that they don’t show the priest any affection at all, as if they fear them. It cannot be this way with you! If you love Christ you will love his priests, each of them, for they were called by him, whatever his reasons be, as his most intimate co-workers. And please show it! If you want to have good, holy priests – priests that remind you more of your Spouse, the High Priest – then you’re going to have to help them learn how to love.

This is something that really only you can do for priests. Even if they’d like to, most lay people — we have to be honest — do not understand the gift of celibate chastity that we both live, you by vow, we by promise. And they probably will not. This gift of celibate chastity is meant to help us, religious men and women, to learn how to love, to integrate our love fully, so that we can love others with great passion — with the passion of Christ, with the passion of the Blessed Mother — so that we can love with the eyes and heart of Christ. Priests and women religious are called to love with this chaste passion, not to suppress this love. I only began to love with chaste passion, and to come truly alive as a priest, six months after I was ordained, when a woman religious told me chastely that she loved me. Six weeks later a second one from another congregation did. A week after that a third. What an amazing turn of events this was for me and one of the greatest blessings of my priesthood! Through their chaste eyes and hearts, I was able to experience — not merely theologically realize — that I was lovable and loved by God as a priest. I was also able eventually to tell them in return that I love them in the Lord.

When I told the first, I recognized that I hadn’t said those words “I love you” to anyone other than parents and elderly relatives in over two decades. Imagine a priest, who is called to love everyone with the heart of Christ, not having told ANYONE he loved them! As absurd as it seems, I’d bet that many priests since their priesthood have not said those words to anyone other than relatives. We’re programmed almost in the seminary and in religious life to fear love, to fear expressing our sexuality in chaste ways, and this does great damage, I think, to men and women religious both. And it really does affect the proclamation of the Gospel. A priest who represses the deepest impulses of his priestly heart to say that he loves others is really incapable of preaching the whole truth, because he can’t even express one of the deepest impulses of his personality. I found after having been able to tell these women religious that I loved them, that I was now for the first time truly capable of preaching the whole truth about the Gospel, which is ultimately the Gospel of love. Since that time, our friendships have greatly deepened in the Lord. I treasure them as the Brides of Christ; they treasure me as the Friend of the Bridegroom. We’ve exchanged prayers that we pray for each other every morning in a spiritual sisterhood and brotherhood modelled after the friendship of St. Therese with the young priest Maurice Bellière. I know for sure my priestly life has bloomed, I’ve become much more free and charitable with others, and I’ve experienced a profound, unending sense of priestly joy. Each of them has told me that through my priestly friendship and priestly support, their religious life has flourished as well, their friendship with the Lord has deepened greatly, and they’ve been able to bear some very heavy interpersonal Crosses with a deep spirit of peace.

I take the time to go through all of this tonight, sisters, in the hopes that someday you may do for other priests what these sisters have done for me and my priesthood. The Lord himself has done this for me through them, so that I may carry out the mission he has entrusted me: to love all people with the love with which he has loved us, to give his merciful love to others in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, and to bring others by that love of the Lord within me to the One who loved me, loved you, and loved them to the very end. I thank the Lord tonight for the gift of priesthood. I thank the Lord for those religious women whom he sent to teach me how to love as a priest. And I ask him grant you the grace to love priests in the same way, so that you and those priests may be sanctified in love and one day both enter into that eternal kingdom won for us by the Lord in the events we celebrate beginning tonight, in this Upper Room, here and now. God love you!