We are almost three weeks into the season of Lent. This is a penitential time of the Church’s liturgical year in which we prepare for the celebration of Easter. It is also a joyful period, for it is filled with promise and hope. In my previous columns, I have reflected on how we need to do something concrete in order that we might listen to the Lord more intensely, not only during Lent, but through the entire year. I will continue in that vein through the words Saint Pope John XXIII. In a discourse at the beginning of Lent, he reflected, “After we have made this necessary spiritual examination during the sacred period of Lent, we must also remember to cultivate and maintain a great respect for the priesthood, which represents the very substance of the Christian life, with all the wealth of grace which, through the Catholic priests, is administered and distributed by means of the sacraments, and the Word of God preached to all men.”
The exhortation of Saint Pope John XXIII is a very good one. During Lent, we examine our spiritual lives and determine to follow certain practices which will assist us in deepening our relationship with Christ. Lent is indeed a very fitting time to cultivate our respect for the priesthood as the priest is essential in helping us to maintain that relationship. A priest is one who acts in the Person of Christ and brings the Person of Christ to us. Indeed, the season of Lent centers on the sacrificial act of Christ, the High Priest, who gave His life that we might have life, which is “the very substance of the Christian life.”
We need the priest because it is his role to help all of us recognize the dignity of our own vocation and to live it more fully. Each of us has been called by God to do something in this life that will build up His kingdom. Our vocations may vary, but they are not exclusive of each other. The 12th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians offers an appropriate Lenten reflection on the various parts of the Body of Christ working together. Saint Paul makes it clear that it is Christ who is the Head of the Body, which is the Church (cf. 1 Cor 12:18). The priest participates in Christ’s headship in a unique manner. His participation is not one of lordship over the Body, but of service to the Body. It is precisely the service of coordinating the different functions of the members of the Body and helping them to realize their importance. Lent gives us an appropriate opportunity to reflect on how well we are living our own vocation, and we need the priest to help us in this discernment.
We need the priest in order to be holy. We are all called to holiness of life. A priest’s life points to holiness. A holy person is one who sees the world as God sees it and in whose presence one can feel comfortable to be oneself. Such a vision and accompanying attitude mean a union with God in prayer. The priest is called to a holiness which puts him in a special relationship with Christ. We look to the priest because we know in him there is a direct line to Christ. This does not make the priest better than anyone else, but it is the reality of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which Christ has given to us so we all can become holy. We can all think of the many times we have asked the priest for his prayers because of the unique configuration he has to Christ.
The priest’s holiness is ultimately based on the center of our faith, the celebration of the Eucharist, “the very substance of the Christian life.” Here, the priest is called to help all men and women to see the world through the eyes of Christ, who gave His life so that we could have life. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this well when he reflected, “You cannot walk constantly with the Lord, cannot ever anew pronounce these tremendous words ‘This is my Body and my Blood,’ you cannot touch the Body and Blood of the Lord, and again and again, without being affected by Him and challenged by Him, being changed and led by Him.” The celebration of the Eucharist is the most important moment of the priest’s day, the center of his life and the very substance of his life. Pope Francis recently expressed that the daily celebration of the Eucharist is the beating heart of priestly life. We need the priest at whose voice, in the words of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Lord comes down from heaven! Lent is an appropriate time to grow in holiness, and we need the priest to help us grow in holiness, especially through the Eucharist.
We need the priest because we need Christ. It is truly as simple as that. The sublime vocation of the priesthood is not that of the individual priest but that of Christ. While the priest shares in the priesthood, there is only one priesthood, in which we all share in different degrees. Through the sacramental actions of the priest and through his teaching and preaching, we are led more closely to Christ and into His one Priesthood. Without Christ, there would be no priesthood. Without the ordained priest, we would not all be able to share in that priesthood. Lent offers us the time to reflect on how much we need Christ and need the priest to bring us to Him.
We, in the Diocese of Palm Beach, hold our priests in high regard. I am privileged to be the Bishop of a wonderful presbyterate and to minister with my brother priests in southern Florida. I am also very much aware of the many responsibilities our priests have today and of the great burdens that they carry. They do so with great grace, which makes them the fine priests they are.
As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, it is most appropriate to reflect on the priesthood, especially as we anticipate the Chrism Mass during Holy Week. Let us continue to pray for our priests as they pray for us. Let us also continue to offer our priests all of our support, just as they give all of theirs to us. We need them in their unique role that cannot be replaced by anyone. Our Lenten journey will lead us to Christ and, on whatever road we take, we will find the priest, “the very substance of the Christian life.” Let us greet him with joy and cherish him as we would Christ Himself. By so doing, may we all live more fully the vocation God has entrusted to each of us.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 10, 2023