Holy Gospel reading places us again and again, before the great and wonderful mystery of priesthood.
In one, insignificant and sinful man, two extremes seem to clash. Extremes which are difficult to fathom for the human mind. Such a man is called to the holy and most sublime rank of priesthood, he is called upon to enter, as the prayer at the service of Unction says, “into the holiest of holies, where angels would wish to venture and hear the evangelical voice of the Lord God, to gaze upon the Holy Offering with their own eyes and to rejoice in holy liturgy.” A priest is made worthy to officiate the holy heavenly mysteries, to offer up the gifts and sacrifices for the sins of the people and their ignorance and to intercede for the reasonable flock of Christ.
From such sublime heavenly heights a priest is very often pushed into the mud of the everyday world. This is how St. Paul the apostle sees it: “For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death, for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men… to the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed we entreat. We have been made the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.” (1 Corinthians 4:9, 11-13)
It is indeed difficult to accept these extremes and reconcile them within oneself.
We are reluctant to talk about ourselves and to speak about our problems in public. Yet there are too many of them to list. But, as the saying goes, even a mother will not look upon her child until it cries and so, brothers and sisters, I think it is opportune for me to say a few words about myself from time to time. While we priests avoid talking about ourselves, there are many out there who have no scruples to do so. In fact they say all kinds of things behind our backs.
Gospel reading places us before two facts that are related to the holy mystery of priesthood. The first fact, or truth if you will, is that priesthood is accompanied by sacrifice. The second one is that a priest is a priest because of God’s will.
Christ came upon Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and called them and “they immediately left their nets and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:10) And when the Lord saw the other two brothers, Jacob the son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat together with Zebedee mending their nets and He called them, too. “And immediately they left their boat and their father and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:22)
This is very easy to listen to, yet hard to conceive how great a sacrifice this must have been for them to leave their family members in poverty and hunger, an old and ailing father and a desperate mother, and follow the Lord to an even worse poverty. St. Luke the evangelist writes that these wretched fishermen had never caught so many fish as on that day, and the catch was so great that their nets started to tear. They called their friends from another boat and they filled both boats with fish t the extent that both boats almost sank under the weight of the catch (Luke 5:1-11). Just as their hopes were beginning to come true, just as their business was beginning to bloom and an opportunity to improve their life was at hand, they abandon everything and follow the Lord whom they barely knew. Just as it was in those days, so it is today and always will be. Priesthood is accompanied by sacrifice. I remember when I was a young lad, practically still a boy, I was taken away from my family and my village together with other boys to the seminary to “study to be a priest.” It took a long time for us to adjust and to accept reality. Nothing could have prepared us for the difficulties and challenges that awaited us.
Priesthood is a gift from God. It is a calling. When God chooses someone and places His mighty hand on His head, this person must leave everything and follow Him whether he wants to or not. Prophet Jeremiah is a witness to how much he struggled and fought not to follow God’s calling. “Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, ‘Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.’” (Jeremiah 1:4-5) The prophet attempted to avoid the call saying that he was too young and had a speech impediment, but to no avail. In the end he relents. “O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.” (Jeremiah 20:7) “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jeremiah 20:9)
When the Lord calls one and leads him on a journey of sacrifice and suffering, he never abandons the chosen one nor does He leave him defenseless. He is always at his side and helps him. “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee.” (Jeremiah 1:19) The prophet knows this and this is what gives him strength not to fall down and give up. “For I heard the defaming of many, fear on every side. Report, say they, and we will report it. All my familiars watched for my halting, saying, Peradventure he will be enticed, and we shall prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him. But the Lord is with me as a mighty terrible one: therefore my persecutors shall stumble, and they shall not prevail: they shall be greatly ashamed; for they shall not prosper: their everlasting confusion shall never be forgotten.” (Jeremiah 20:10-11)
A priest is a fellow worker of God in the Church, God’s field.. (1 Corinthians 3:9) This is why a priest answers first to God, his master. St. Paul says: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself… He who judges me is the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4) The Lord promised His first disciples that He would make them fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19). Just as He never asked the prophets, He also did not ask them whether they wanted to be fishers of men or not. God sees to it that they have the resources to do so. St. Paul calls himself “an apostle through the will of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:1) He begins his epistle to the Galatians with these words: “Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through men, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead). (Galatians 1:1)
A priest is a servant (2 Corinthians 6:4) and an ambassador of God (2 Corinthians 5:20), regardless of his own unworthiness. He will answer for his deeds before God the High Priest (Hebrews 3:1). This does not, however, lessen our obligation to receive him and hold him in esteem. (Philippians 2:29)