What is a priest? That’s the first question.
The second question is a terrible one.
Is he a pervert? Normally not, emphatically so, thanks be to God. But there’ll be rooms he enters where that will be the unspoken question.
So, what is a priest?
Tonight, oils are blessed and chrism consecrated. In a certain sense, this gesture makes possible the sacramental life of the Church for the coming year – at least some very central aspects of it are enabled: baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick, ordination, the dedication of altars and churches. And priests are ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’, and the mysteries of God include the sacraments.
So, it is a good night to ask, what is a priest?
Tonight, too, priests publicly renew the promises they made at ordination. So they are at the centre of this liturgy. This Mass is linked to that of the Last Supper, on Maundy Thursday, linked to the words of the Lord to his apostles, ‘Do this in memory of me.’
So, what is a priest?
Once a frighteningly intelligent American psychotherapist said to me, ‘A monk is a monk is a monk. It’s something ineluctable.’ ‘Ineluctable’ means you can’t skirt it, avoid it, escape it. I think the same goes for being a priest. Of course, it’s a free choice of a finite good, and free choices of finite goods are always reversible. But I think that any priest knows there’s more at play here. There is the ineluctable. He’s a prisoner of Jesus Christ, like St Paul. He knows that if he doesn’t love as a priest is called to love, if he doesn’t live ‘pastoral charity’, however quirkily or inadequately, he’ll wither, he’ll die, he’ll be lost. His eternal salvation will be at risk. Quite seriously. He lives his priesthood under a ‘must’, an imperative, as Jesus did. ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’
Gerard Manley Hopkins caught this I think:
‘Thou mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread;
… and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee’
(The Wreck of the Deutschland).
What is a priest, then? Someone ‘mined with a motion.’ It’s Hopkins again. What an image! ‘I love being a Catholic priest,’ someone here once said to me, ‘I’m an old man in a hurry.’ Yes, ‘mined with a motion’.‘I spent the whole of yesterday on the gutters,’ a priest said to me recently. Perhaps even gutters can run with pastoral charity. But let’s keep to the question: what is a priest? And I’d like to go on with the poets. The theologians and the Popes, never mind them for the moment. We have our radiant Pope Francis. In two weeks times, John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonised. They are all icons of priesthood. And they say good things. But so can poets. I’d like just to pick up odd phrases from the not very many moments poets talk of priesthood or say things relevant to it.
Here’s R. S. Thomas on the country clergy:
‘They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes: rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.’
Yes, a priest, a carrier of sublime words. Words sublimer than himself, of course. And words ‘too soon forgotten’ in the whirl of other words and the dancing images all around. And so he has to learn patience. ‘God in his time / Or out of time will correct this.’ ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’
So what is a priest? Yes, a minister of the word.
‘It’s folly, it’s still we who are responsible, it depends on us and us alone
To assure the words a second eternity,
An eternal eternity.
A remarkable perpetuity.
It belongs to us, it depends on us to assure the words
An eternal perpetuity, a carnal perpetuity,
A perpetuity nourished with meat, with fat and with blood.
We who are nothing, who will not last,
Who practically speaking won’t last at all!
It’s folly, it’s still we who are responsible to preserve and to nourish the eternal
The spoken words, the word of God’
(Charles Péguy, The Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue).
We might think of Christ again: ‘My word is not mine, but the word of him who sent me.’
And here there is something I must say. As bishops and priests, we are under this word. We are obliged, in conversation, in homilies, in the confessional, to pass on this word that comes to us through Scripture and Tradition and the teaching of the Church. Words other than those are everywhere. They are in possession. Our people don’t have to go looking for them. They’re in the air. They’re entitled to something else from us. Ours is the still small voice, the voice less heard. We’re bound sometimes, in some areas, not to like it ourselves. But it’s up to us to give it a chance to be heard and believed and obeyed. We are servants of Christ and the Church and the faith, and our word is not ours, but the word of him who sends us.
So, mission ineluctable, mission impossible, mission uncomfortable. A priest is someone overpowered, ‘deeply defeated’ (Rilke), by demands, by something, Someone greater than himself. But what a wonderful thing – Hopkins again – to ‘proffer a vein of the Gospel’!
It is to do with hope. It is to do with keeping something alight, with slipping a specific difference into people’s lives. With listening and then, within the limits of the possible, and often only as a question, making an indication.
‘They went impossibly / on with their kneeling,’ said Rilke of the saints. Let us go impossibly on with our kneeling, with our prayer, with our priesthood, with our care.
Here is a prayer for priests from our own diocese – from George Mackay Brown and Orkney:
‘Magnus, pray for priests
In this time of hate
(Never such hate and anger over the earth.)
May they light candles at their altars
This day and all days
Till history is steeped in light.
It was a cold night, your vigil
In the kirk in Egilsay.
At dawn an old priest lit the paschal candle:
Introibo ad altare Dei’ (Song for St Magnus).
Let us go on lighting the candles, go on going up to the altar of God. There is the Eucharist, there is Christ, there is the question’s answer.
‘Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest :
Poor priest ! thus am I drest.
Only another head
I have another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest :
In Him I am well drest.
Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e’en dead ;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest’
(George Herbert, Aaron).
St Mary’s church, Beauly.