Photo: Felix Carroll
Pope Benedict XVI has declared the year that began June 19, 2009, as a Year for Priests. The faithful are asked to pray for vocations and for the spiritual renewal of priests. We asked several of our Marian seminarians what the priesthood means to them. The following is the response from Br. Jim McCormack, MIC:
Sacrifice and Victim
The characteristic function of a priest is sacrifice. The duty of Old Testament priests and even pagan priests was to offer sacrifices. However, Christ, in His sacrificial death on the Cross, was not only the priest, the one who offered the perfect sacrifice to the Father. He was also the victim because He offered Himself. Every Catholic priest, by virtue of his ordination, is another Christ, an alter Christus. Thus, the priest, too, is also a victim. Like Christ, he offers himself, his entire life, to the Father. The priest lives no longer for himself but entirely for Him.
This aspect of the priesthood is the central theme of a book by Bishop Fulton Sheen, The Priest Is Not His Own, which I have been reading in preparation for my priestly ordination. As I look forward to my ordination [expected July, 2010], I greatly desire to give my life entirely to God through a life of hard work in my priestly ministry. I especially look forward to the sacrifice of the Mass, in which the priest unites to Christ's one perfect sacrifice his own offering — his prayers and intentions and his very life — along with the prayers and intentions of all his people. The Mass is, therefore, the most perfect expression of priestly self-sacrifice.
For me, this dimension of self-sacrifice fits perfectly with my Marian vocation, which calls me to work hard for the greater glory of God, the salvation of souls, and the good of the Church. Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz (1871-1927), who led the renewal and reform of our Congregation, expressed the self-sacrificial dimension of Marian spirituality when he wrote, "Lord, give us the courage and strength to forget and deny ourselves; to die to ourselves so that we may not be afraid to lose ourselves in the Community for the greater glory of God and the good of the Church; to shine forth like a candle on the altar; to be consumed for the glory of God like grains of incense which give off a sweet fragrance; let us not be afraid to be worn out, used up, diminished for the greater glory of God" (Journal, 88).
Although Bl. George's prayer is a model aspiration for every Marian, it expresses perfectly the self-sacrificial dimension of the priestly vocation.
Intercession and Mediation
This brings us to two more aspects of priestly ministry: intercession and mediation.
A priest intercedes with God on behalf of mankind, asking God for pardon for himself and others. A priest is also an intermediary to men and women on behalf of God, distributing to human beings the graces God gives.
Christ, our High Priest, is the perfect intercessor and mediator. On the Cross, He intercedes with the Father for sinful man: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). He is also the mediator who reveals to mankind the Father as Merciful Love and gives to them the very life of God: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).
Every Catholic priest, as an alter Christus, shares in Christ's intercessory and mediatory mission. Through his prayers, especially the Mass, the priest intercedes for his people, bringing them and all their intentions — their hopes, joys, and dreams and their sorrows, difficulties, and fears — to the Father. In return, the priest brings to his people the Father's merciful love and forgiveness, especially through the Eucharist and Confession.
In my own vocation to become a Marian priest, I also sense an invitation to participate in Christ's intercessory and mediatory mission — to intercede for people and to bring the Lord's mercy to them, especially through the Eucharist and Confession. As a Marian, I also look to Our Lady as a model and exemplar who, like her Son, intercedes for and mediates graces to all people.
Priests are spiritual fathers in a way that is analogous to our biological fathers. We call God "Our Father." He is the ultimate source of our being and providential guide of our lives. But we also call spiritual and biological fathers "father" because their fatherhood derives from God's fatherhood. That is, both priests and biological fathers are chosen by God to participate in His divine fatherhood, each in their own limited way. Biological fathers co-operate in God's paternal and creative action in transmitting biological life to their children and in providing nourishment and formation; so, too, priests, as spiritual fathers, cooperate in God's paternal and creative action in bringing the new life of grace to men through Baptism, nourish that life through the heavenly food of the Eucharist, provide spiritual formation, and restore souls to life through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
As I consider my future priesthood, I look forward to being such a spiritual "father" for souls. My awareness of my own need for God's mercy has led me especially to appreciate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I find myself longing to be a merciful father, similar to the one in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who welcomes back with love and even runs to meet his wayward son.
There is another aspect of spiritual fatherhood that priests in a religious congregation possess in varying degrees. It is the role of forming and educating the new members of the congregation. It may be done through two means. Some are a living example of the congregation's spirit. Others are chosen to be involved in formation work. Father Mark Garrow, MIC (1955-2007), was a father to several of us Marians in both of these senses. His gentle guidance, encouragement, and fatherly love made him a stellar example of what it means to be both a Marian and a spiritual father. He was also my novice-master. One of Fr. Mark's greatest qualities was that he was not a father over others but a father for others; that is, he was the kind of father who served as Christ served, by laying down his life for love of his men, especially the novices and seminarians whom he warmly regarded as his spiritual sons. That kind of fatherly love for others is a beautiful gift for the building up of the life and unity of the religious family. Father Mark was the best of spiritual fathers, and I pray that, in time, I may be able to share even a fraction of that kind of fatherly love with others.
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