Tuesday, 4 September 2018

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

The theme for this Sunday’s Mass is the Eucharist as the Bread of Life. In saying so, we might have missed out a component without which the Eucharist can never be the Bread of Eternal Life. This is not Good Shepherd Sunday but it might as well be because the Gospel appears to lend itself to thinking about the priesthood and vocation. In general, this is a vocation losing its appeal as the priesthood is held up in contempt simply because of the sins of some us. 

If this can be described as re-branding, I assure you it is not. It is, if at all, to re-vision what it means to be a priest, why it is necessary that we have the priesthood and what goes into the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

As Church, we cannot run away from what is happening in the world because the Church and the world do not inhabit different spaces but are in fact sharing the same space. What we find in the world and perhaps detest, we find it in the Church as well. How many of you follow the Britain’s Got Talent franchise? America’s Got TalentIndia’s Got TalentAsia’s Got Talent. Hell, even Tg Pengerang’s Got Talent. Under a diversity and non-discriminatory narrative, there is a strong belief that such talent hunting is truly an exercise of democratic equalisation? Under the rule of the common, it is believed that everyone can be talented, or have access to showcase it. If you watched Ratatouille, you would know that everyone can cook. Talent scouting has uncovered some hitherto hidden talents—Susan Boyle for example? But behind this noble quest hides an insatiable chase for celebrity status. Celebrity is, as Hugh Jackman sings in the Greatest Showman, “... for years and years, I chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more...”  And the step-sister of celebrity status is the personality cult. In a rugged-identity era, what are these but the search for individuality. Is the cult of personality not a reason for our fascination with the talents of our priests? Father X can sing like Josh Groban. Father Y can cook and curse like Gordon Ramsay. Fr Z can dance like Michael Jackson.

We want our priests to have pizzaz... holy pizzaz, hopefully. But what was a genius of the Tridentine Mass, the missa ad orientem, a Mass disparagingly described as priest with his backside to the people? Firstly, the missa versus populus which has been described to be more people-friendly has the disrespectful corollary in that it is 100% all right for the priest to show his backside to God. If it is not alright to show my backside to you, it is definitely alright to show it to God? Secondly, the priest weighed down by the heavy vestments finds his so-called personality in a manner of speaking shrouded in order than the faithful may perceive that truly Jesus Christ is present in the alter Christus and the only duty worth the priest’s salt is to do the one thing which Christ depends on him to and no one in the congregation can do—confect the Blessed Sacrament. No one in the crowd unless one is a priest. The bulkiness of the vestments is not because we like flowing robes. It is so that the personality of the priest might disappear under the vestments in order that Christ may become visible—He must increase, I must decrease.

Is that important? Through the fallible instrument of the priest, Christ gives us Himself so that we may avail of His strength to continue the work of salvation. St Paul in the 2nd Reading speaks of changing the world. Be the change you want the world to be. Redeem the world and in order that the work of redemption started by Christ can continue, we need the Eucharist and this mission cannot be done without the Catholic priesthood. 

Hence, either God is stupid or we are missing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is how can Jesus insist on the necessity of the Eucharist if He cannot find a way to provide it? If there are no vocations, it is not because God has stopped calling. We may have stopped listening.

The priesthood is not a club of the meritorious. It is not a reward of those who are saved. In the early 70s, the Society of Jesus asked this question “Who is a Jesuit”? The answer given was “A Jesuit is a sinner, yet called by God”. A Jesuit is a sinner because many a Jesuit come from broken families and chances are, people who are from broken families can be manipulative or sick. Is it any surprise that those who hold our trust fall prey to sin? Yes, one should expect that those who are in charge of the kitty do not steal. But Judas did and there have been Judases all through the centuries. In the same manner, we do not pick our priests from the tree of purity. A priest is definitely not your saviour, only Jesus is. But, despite the priest being a sinner, he stands alter Christus, as another Christ, so that ex opere operato, he can confect the Eucharist. 

Does the priesthood then need purification? Yes, it does. But so does society at large. If you want good priests, widen and deepen the pool of good families. But, for now, we need to understand that without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist, without the Eucharist, there is no Church. Without the Church, there is no salvation. That is ex opere operato.

A little clarification is needed. There is no guarantee that good family equates to good priests. The general rule we follow is that a good tree produces good fruits. Thus, the portraits of many of our priest are also testimonies of God’s grace. He takes the weak and make them strong to bear witness to Him.

Nevertheless, judging from sad state we are in, the Devil is laughing all the way down in hell because the destruction of the priesthood falls within his nefarious plans against God and humanity. Whilst there should be vigilance against clerical abuse—of all kinds—financial, sexual and even liturgical, we must be on guard not to sin against the priesthood. Not in the sense that priests should be put up for adulation, but rather in the sense that we must not lose faith in the necessity of the priesthood for the salvation of souls.

The best priest is not one who can cook or sing or dance or even do “great things”. The best priest is one who knows how to provide the sacraments when needed—especially the forgiveness of sins and the confection of the Eucharist. He is at his best when performing these actions because his priestly anointing sets him apart for this sublime duty—to make Christ present through the sacraments, especially through the Sacrament of sacraments—the Eucharist. For after all is said and done, when all scandals are exposed as they should be, when every wound is healed but the end result is that the laity has lost faith in the priesthood of Christ, the question to ask is, what is to become of the Body of Christ? I ask this question not to stifle whatever that needs to be done. (This might have been the same question asked by those who covered up the abuses, which explained the culture of silence). 

I ask it because in seeking to reform the culture associated with our priesthood, we need to recognise that priests are not plucked from the tree of perfect families. It calls for a conversion of the whole culture that provides for vocation. For example, the more divorces we have, chances are the more broken the priesthood will be. Ex opere operato, we will get the Eucharist even though it is celebrated by the most sinful priest because the priest is merely an instrument and it is Jesus Christ Himself who guarantees the “reality” of the sacrament. But ex opere operantis, we will have a credibility deficit—whereby faith is challenged not so much by the message but rather by the medium, that is, the Eucharist may be real but the priest who confects it makes it hard for people to believe that Christ can be present at all. In short, without a reform of family life and our culture, we will have shot ourselves in the foot!

The Church needs more holy priests. It must begin with holy families.