The Privilege of Priesthood



This morning I did what I always do before going down to breakfast. Just before doing up the final button on my shirt, I took my pectoral cross in my hands, blessed myself, kissed the cross, and placed it around my neck. I then donned the black gilet I tend to wear when I am not in cassock, and just about made my way downstairs. I say ‘just about’, because on this occasion, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and was suddenly struck with the idea of just what sort of honour it is to be a priest. Here I was, a slightly overweight, middle-aged man in need of a haircut, allowed to hold in his hands a cross inscribed on the back with ancient text, and on the front depicting a reality upon which the whole universe turns. Here I was, with the chance to recollect in a tangible way the most sacred truths, before even making the morning coffee. Here I was, a steward of ancient mysteries of which the likes of St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, and St Gregory Nazianzen had themselves been stewards. As a priest, I walk in the steps of the godly and I am utterly, unspeakably privileged.

That said, I am also aware that the priesthood carries with it immense responsibility. There is, of course, the pastoral care of souls for which every priest will be judged. But connected to this is also the all-important but oft-neglected responsibility for the Church’s rites: from Baptism to the Eucharist to the blessing of waters to exorcism. In this respect, I think of Gandalf the Grey, accompanying the fellowship on their quest through the perils of Middle Earth, guiding, teaching, sharing in their troubles and triumphs, but always there as a wizard, always there to do the one thing that only he could do to advance their cause. To extend the analogy, there is the fantastic scene in the Mines of Moria when the nine fellows are fleeing from the advancing Balrog. There is nothing any one of them can do, save to run for his life. No one, that is, except Gandalf. The wizard turns back to face the demon from the middle of Durin’s Bridge, and proclaims what only he could proclaim: ‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’

What are these, except the Church’s words of exorcism? What is Gandalf, except a priest? What is a priest, except one who has been given great responsibility to bear, and great words to proclaim?

It seems to me that, when the wellbeing of so many souls rides on their shoulders, it is incumbent on priests to be as faithful as they can be to the traditions they have received. The modern priest may laugh at the suggestion, but if to priests is given the authority to keep at bay the devil himself, should he not at least know the formulae? Should he not at least be clothed for the occasion? I cannot imagine Gandalf standing before the Balrog in Birkenstocks, a bad polyester cassock-alb and rainbow stole, pleading with him in conciliatory, extemporaneous, tones to leave his friends alone. No. His power is not his to extemporise; what he represents is not his to emasculate in array not fit for purpose. The privilege to call upon God, however joyful a privilege it may be, is not one to be taken lightly or treated frivolously. It demands, rather, that the priest blow off the dusty books and read them, vest himself in a manner appropriate to the spiritual warfare, and realise that he stands as but one in a line extending back thousands of years, with the task of confecting heaven on earth; as opposed to standing by himself and hoping desperately to turn earth into heaven.

The reason any of this is relevant, I think, is that at a time when priests and people of a certain generation are feeling emboldened by the ‘style’ of the current Pope, the incoming generation of priests can stand to be reminded of, and encouraged in, the lessons they learnt from Pope Benedict. As a scholar and priest who understood both the cultural inheritance and the power of aesthetic to show forth profound spiritual truths, Pope Benedict’s legacy is one that must continue to inform those who minister in the Church. Pope Francis undoubtedly has much to teach the world, but for a whole number of reasons, he is no liturgical or historical theologian; Pope Benedict, by contrast, was. And if any of us forgets the lessons of history and the real purpose of liturgical theology, then the Church becomes a good deal less than she is meant to be. As priests, we must never set aside our pastoral purpose; but pastoralia alone can easily become social work. On the other hand, there is nothing about the specific, liturgical, work of a priest that can be undertaken by anyone else. If priests, then, are to undertake their work well – celebrating the Liturgy, confecting the Holy Sacraments, pronouncing God’s blessing, combatting sin – it is necessary for them to be continually reminded of the power, the responsibility, and the privilege of priesthood, and lay bold claim to what it is they can do for the fellowship.


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