In the readings for Holy Thursday, Moses instructs the people on how to slaughter the Passover Lamb and keep a memorial of the Passover each year thereafter. For the Jews, to keep a memorial is not a matter of stale dates on a page… It’s a bit more like… ?time travel? Because each time you memorialize an event, the realities of the original action become fully present again. It’s no coincidence then, that Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of the new covenant would instruct his disciples in how to keep a memorial of the event. His instruction, understood in its proper Jewish context, testifies to the reality of Transubstantiation: our belief that bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus in all their reality each time we keep his memorial (that is, at Mass).
So Holy Thursday is a day full of memory. It’s not just the events of Calvary that we memorialize, but also the establishment of the Priesthood. Jesus – the High Priest – hands on to the Apostles the capacity to offer His unique and saving sacrifice for the rest of human history. The Apostles in turn hand that capacity on to their successors and assistants, the bishops and priests of today’s Catholic Church.
Now each time a memorial sacrifice is offered, among the many things that go on, two stick out: the offering of thanksgiving, and the offering of expiatory sacrifice (that is to say, sacrifice for the obtaining of mercy). And so as we keep this Holy Thursday, I propose that we engage in memorializing the priesthood with thanksgiving and supplication.
We give God thanks for the High Priest Jesus Christ, who not only opened for us the doors of salvation, but also invited us to collaborate with him. He gave us the ordained priesthood of the clergy to lead that process, but he also gave us the royal priesthood of the faithful to be the lived substance of that sacrifice visible to the world each and every day! Thank you Lord for the Priesthood of Jesus Christ! We also offer to the Father, the Body and Blood of that same High Priest asking his pardon for our sins, our many sins.
We remember and we give thanks for our priests here on earth. Their presence in our lives is an enduring spark of hope in a world that is all too often so conscious of its own limits, its own mortality. Think of the priests you’ve loved. The priest who baptized, you… who excited you with a great homily… who hears your confessions week in and week out… the priest who visited you or a loved one at the hospital… the priest who ministered to your family at the death of a loved one… the priest who offers masses prayers and other sacrifices for our needs whatever they may be. These good men give us hope in darkness. Some shine more brightly than others, but the virtue common to all that ministry is HOPE… not just earthly optimism, but a real hope of heaven.
We also need to remember and ask mercy for the priests who have failed us. News headlines remind us all too often of the extraordinary cases, but for vast majority of us, priestly failure comes in the form of mediocrity. When a priest becomes bound to the earth, he stops inspiring, stops giving hope of heaven. And while that’s not a crime, per se, it’s a failure from which the faithful suffer terribly.
I remember the priest in my neighborhood parish. For decades, he was there boring us all to death… a nice enough man, but there was nothing about him that made me want heaven. I returned to my home parish after ordination, in cognito as it were, to attend one of his masses. I thought that my new identity as a priest might make me more understanding, or help me to see him in a different light. Sad to say… it didn’t. I couldn’t believe that in 20 years NOTHING had changed. When a new priest finally arrived, the parish began slowly returning to life.
I recently heard a true story of a priest in Southern Maryland, in the days of Jim Crow who ordered seminarians to knock over the headstones of African American Catholics. It was a crime against the dead and against God. It was sacrilege. Nonetheless, if we’re going to be a better Church than that, we must pray and offer memorial sacrifice for his forgiveness.
Priests have no spouses, no children, no one to remember them after they’re gone. The fate of their souls is in the hands of the faithful… and so whether horrible or mediocre, we need to ask the mercy of the High Priest for them… because Hell isn’t something we should wish for anyone, even a bad priest.
This Holy Week, keep the memory of the priesthood… of the High Priest Jesus Christ, and of his earthly servants, good and bad. Pray that one day we may all be united at the wedding banquet of heaven there to contemplate his sacred countenance forever more.