Friday, August 5, 2016

Je suis Jesus Christ

Feast of St John Marie Vianney

The recent gruesome murder of French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel by two ISIS-linked killers has caused worldwide shock and outrage. Although the number of deaths in Europe pales in comparison with the thousands that have died in the Middle East, the death of Fr Hamel is different because of who he was and when and where he died. He was a priest slain at his own altar as he was saying mass. And because of that, it has been extraordinarily shocking. The octogenarian priest has probably touched more lives in his death than he ever did in his life. His dramatic execution had propelled him to stellar celebrity fame. There are already calls for Fr Hamel to be officially declared a martyr with many showing solidarity by trending, “Je suis Hamel.” I find this ironic. Especially, when it comes from a country that has been highly secular and possesses deep anti-clerical sentiments. A country who had been guilty of sending more priests and religious to the guillotines during the French Revolution than the ISIS in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, this event, in the light of today’s feast, provides the necessary lens by which we can understand the office of a priest. This priest was killed not whilst he was in the slums administering to the needs of the poor. He was not assassinated while championing the cause of justice. He was not mowed down whilst delivering a moving speech at the United Nations. No, he was killed whilst doing what priests are primarily ordained to do, celebrating mass.  Though this cultic role is often regarded as inferior to his other roles, the occasion of his death brings to the fore the very heart of his priestly ministry.

To say that he was killed in the line of duty while about his sacred work is correct but not complete. His sacred work includes being killed. It is not only the mission of the priest to be present and accounted for whenever the suffering of mankind is most intense. More importantly, it is the mission of the priest to die for his people as the Lord died for His own. He does so especially in the sacrifice of the Mass. You see, the priest is not primarily a pastor, a teacher, counsellor, administrator, or a social activist, though he does all those things. Anyone can be a leader, a teacher, an administrator. But the priest is primarily, by virtue of his ordination, to act in the person of Christ, to do what Christ alone can do. He is configured to Christ at his ordination in a way calling for a permanent and lasting commitment, through a share in Christ’s eternal priesthood.  The priest does not just emulate Christ. He is not just a substitute or a stand-in for Christ. It is no exaggeration to say that through ordination, the priest becomes Christ.

In the words of St John Marie Vianney, the Cure de Ars, “O, how great is the priest! ... If he realised what he is, he would die. ... God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host”.

In spite of the fact that this statement may sound audacious and even narcissistic, St John Marie Vianney’s words of wisdom are a reminder to priests that their ministry is founded not merely on function, talents, personality and abilities. Too often, a priest confuses his function with his identity which ultimately leads to a disavowal of his calling. When priests try so hard to be like the ordinary Joe or just one of the guys, he substitutes Christ whom he represents for the man whom he tries to be for the people. When a priest is embarrassed to be called “father,” he is saying that his personal name is far more significant than his title, which points to his sacramental representation of God the Father. When the image of Christ is erased, what is left is the pure personality of the man. A priest’s worth then depends on his popularity, his abilities and his effectiveness. On the other hand, when priests are able to own and live up to their vocation as holy ministers of God, governing, sanctifying and teaching his flock as Christ would, then their people will learn to live up to their own respective vocations to sanctify the world through their lay calling.

God continues to use this unworthy, wretched and sometimes broken instrument to be his channel of grace of the world. The weakness and sinfulness of a priest does not take away the efficacy of God’s grace but rather accentuates the truth that all is graced and that nothing can be accomplished without the grace and power of God. This is what the gospel hopes to communicate today. Our Lord confers on St Peter a new identity and with it the power of God to free, forgive and absolve. And at the end the very same gospel pericope, St Peter is reprimanded by Our Lord for his severe lack of understanding of the Lord’s mission and the necessity of the Passion. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict, "This audacity of God who entrusts himself to human beings – who, conscious of our weaknesses, nonetheless considers men capable of acting and being present in his stead – this audacity of God is the true grandeur concealed in the word “priesthood.”"

That’s why, when Father Hamel offered the Holy Mass he said “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” He speaks as if Christ himself is speaking which, sacramentally, is exactly what is going on. Father Hamel is saying, “Je suis Jesus Christ!” Every mass, as mundane as it may seem in the eyes of the world, is an act of sacrifice, a heroic act of martyrdom. And this is the sacrifice that Father Hamel was celebrating as he died. He died as a priest, doing what priests do, no more, no less. His killers could not take from him what he had already given through his priesthood and through the sacrifice of the mass. His life had already been forfeit at the altar of his priesthood, and at the altar of the Mass. In every possible way, he had become Christ.

So do not pray for a priest who can tell funnier jokes, or a priest who can sing and dance in the most entertaining sort of a way. Nor even pray for a priest who meets your needs wherever you are. No, rather pray for priests to be holy and faithful, priests who are ready to die to themselves and to the world, to die not just merely in one single act of martyrdom but everyday in the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the mass and in the sacrifice of their priesthood, so that nothing remains of him and all that is left is Christ in his place!

This is what the priesthood is about
This is what the Mass is about
This is what the Catholic Church is about!

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