January 18, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

In priesthood, prayer is always the link that holds everything else together

On Jan. 20, 1987, my appointment as a bishop was announced in Rome, Memphis and Saint Meinrad.

In the exchange of official documentation at the time, I was informed that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, requested that I emphasize my role as teacher.

One of the practical ways I could do that was to teach in the diocesan Catholic weekly newspaper.

My regular readers know that unashamedly I take pride in the fact that, in my 20 years as a bishop, I have not missed writing a weekly column.

I think that is a pretty good record, and it says I enjoy writing the column. In fact, I view it as a weekly chat with a large audience. It is a teaching opportunity.

It also says something else. Being able to deliver this column weekly—like the many other responsibilities I carry as archbishop—would be an entirely different matter if I also shouldered the awesome responsibility of being a good husband and father. There is no way I could do what I am doing as archbishop and still be fair to a wife and family.

Greater availability for priestly ministry is not the primary reason the Roman Catholic Church asks us who are bishops and priests to promise to live a life of celibate chastity. But it is a good reason.

I promised that the time, love, energy and attention which a husband and father devote to his wife and family would be given to serve “the many” of God’s people.

In imitation of Jesus, “the many” have become “father and mother and sister and brother” to me. Talk about a life full of love and responsibility.

Especially from ancient texts in our liturgy, we can see that the relationship between Christ and the Church has always been understood in the imagery of bridegroom and bride. Priests are configured to Christ by consecration so that they might serve in the person of Christ.

And so the relationship of priest and Church is also viewed as a spousal relationship. When a bishop is ordained, this relationship is made even more explicit when he is given a ring to wear as a sign of his spousal relationship to the local diocesan Church.

The priesthood never was a nine-to-five job. A priest is a priest 24 hours a day. The priesthood is first of all a state of life, a way of being. In that sense, it is not a career or a profession. We only need to think about the kind of duties that flow from priestly ordination to understand the difference.

The first activity a priest undertakes for all the people of God is to pray for them, in their name, and with them. This is the reason a priest promises to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

When I was consecrated a bishop 20 years ago, I said that my first duty to the folks in the Diocese of Memphis was to be a man of prayer. Many said amen to that. When I was transferred to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, so was my first duty.

The first ministry of the priest is prayer. Prayer is ministry, and it is pastoral. It is a service that is often hidden and unsung, yet prayer is the hinge of everything else a priest does in service to the people of God.

Priests do all kinds of things: preaching, teaching, administrating, visiting the sick, helping the poor. But prayer is always the link that holds everything else together.

There is a logic and coherence to the life of a priest: As it was for Jesus, celibacy and obedience and a simple way of life threaded together by prayer are the soil in which fruitful priestly ministry thrives. Celibacy is part of a whole.

First and foremost, as a witness, celibacy speaks of the life to come. The kingdom of God, “where every tear shall be wiped away,” beckons every one of us across the abyss of death.

Yet, Jesus taught us that the kingdom of God is also in our midst.

Once in a while, especially in moments of prayer or in some other way, God’s presence is unmistakable. The celibate priest gathers these passing signs of God’s presence in this life, and with them, gives his very life to say God is absolutely real and actively present at all times.

A celibate way of life is an extra­ordinary reminder that God is real and makes all the difference in our lives.

When a young man sets about to discern whether he is called to the priesthood, it is important to understand that with the call to priesthood God will give him the grace to live a chaste and celibate life.

We are never alone. †

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