When the prophet Isaiah spoke to the Jewish people and said, “You yourselves shall be named priests of the Lord, ministers of our God shall you be called,” he was addressing all of God’s people. So when the Church proclaims this same Word of God in the Catholic liturgy, God, through those words, is speaking to every Christian believer. Because of our baptism, we all share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. In baptism, we are all anointed, that is, “marked” with the sacred oils, which means that we are set aside, consecrated, and dedicated for the work of God.
Some years that work is easier than others. This past decade has been a difficult time for the whole Catholic community, but it has been a uniquely painful way of the cross for every priest.
Life can be a long road of learning, and God sometimes blesses us with special moments of insight into his will and into ourselves. This is especially true when the Lord calls us to conversion. Conversion and renewal are important for every Christian. But they’re crucial for those of us who are priests and bishops, because our vocation calls us to be the spark of God’s love in the hearts of our people. If priests and bishops don’t change, very little in the life of the Church can change.
Earlier this spring, I visited Yeshiva University in New York for a dialogue between Jewish scholars and a group of Catholic bishops, cofounded some years ago by the late cardinal archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger. Yeshiva is an Orthodox Jewish university that includes a focus on the study of traditional religious texts, mainly the Torah and the Talmud. The study is done through daily lectures. But it’s combined with a unique way of immersing oneself in the Word of God, called chavruta, the Aramaic word for friendship or companionship.
In the chavruta style of learning, the young men sit together in groups of two and debate and challenge one another to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. They’re guided by senior rabbinical scholars, but the scholars themselves become, as they walk around the study hall, part of the learning dialogue and expand their own understanding of the sacred text.
I came away from my time at Yeshiva with three main impressions.
What struck me first was the passion the students had for the Torah. They didn’t merely study it; they consumed it. Or maybe it would be better to say that God’s Word consumed them.
When a man and woman fall in love, a kind of electricity runs not just between them, but also in the air around them. The story of every true encounter with God is the same.
Scripture is a romance. It’s the story of God’s love for humanity. When we give our hearts entirely to seeking God in the richness of his Word, we begin to discover and experience that same kind of electricity. I saw this in the students at Yeshiva.
The second thing I noticed was the power of Scripture to create new life. God’s Word is a living dialogue between God and humanity. That divine dialogue mirrored itself in the learning dialogue among the students. The students began as strangers, but their work in reflecting on Scripture and in sharing what they discovered with each other created something more than themselves: a friendship between themselves, and beyond themselves, with God.
Third, I saw in the lives of those Jewish students the incredible durability of God’s promises and God’s Word. Despite centuries of persecution, exile, dispersion, and even apostasy, the Jewish people continue to exist because their covenant with God is alive and permanent. God’s Word is the organizing principle of their identity. It’s the foundation and glue of their relationship with one another, with their past, and with their future. And the more faithful they are to God’s Word, the more certain they can be of their survival.
My point is this: What I saw at Yeshiva should also apply to every Christian believer, but especially to those of us who are priests and bishops. The source of our brotherhood, the seal of our friendship, is the person of Jesus Christ, alive in God’s Word and alive in the Eucharist we celebrate and share throughout the year.
In the Gospel of Matthew, even as Jesus contests with the Jewish teachers of his day for authority to speak God’s Word, he affirms their rabbinic role. The rabbis, he tells the crowds, “have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.” In the Catholic tradition, we see that same rabbinic role as the duty and responsibility of priests. In our communities, God has charged his priests with taking their seat on the chair of Moses.
Those of us who are priests need to do everything we can to purify ourselves of vanity, fear, fatigue, and resentment, and to make ourselves worthy of that responsibility. Our own souls, and the souls of our people, will depend on the fire that should burn in our hearts—a fire of love for Jesus Christ, for the Word of God in Scripture, for the Church as our mother, and for the people God places in our care.
God’s Word never weakens. His promises never disappear. At ordination, he calls every priest to a special relationship of friendship with himself and service to his people. This is the only real privilege of priesthood. It’s the only one we should seek, and the only one we need for a life of fruitfulness and joy.
As believers and as priests, we need to recommit ourselves to trusting in the durability of God’s Word; to renewing our passion for Scripture; and to following the witness of zeal I saw so powerfully in the students at Yeshiva University—the same zeal that should live in each one of us as brothers. The long darkness of the past decade will end. God makes all things new. We need to draw strength from the faith and courage of one another. We need to give ourselves to God without holding anything back, so that through us he will create a new life for our Church, for our people, and for ourselves.
The French writer Francois Mauriac once said that “Anyone who has truly known God can never be cured of him.” I think that sums up the life of every good priest I’ve ever known. Each of us began our priesthood as a romance with the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. That thirst for an encounter with the living God, that hunger for the Word of God to consume and reshape our lives with the same electricity so evident in the halls of Yeshiva University, those yearnings still burn in each of us.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the people of Nazareth that the Word of God found in the prophet Isaiah “is today fulfilled in your hearing.” More than any other passage in Scripture, these words are the center of human history, the pivot on which all of creation turns. Jesus is the alpha and the omega of this world and all worlds, and we need to reclaim him as the alpha and omega of our personal lives and of our priestly ministry. He loves us, he has freed us from our sins by his blood, and he has truly made the Church into his Kingdom.
There’s a line, again from the Gospel of Luke, that I’ve revisited many times in my life as a priest because it speaks to the kind of disciples we need to be. Jesus said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”
The fire Christ meant is the fire of love, the fire of zeal, courage, and hope that converts hearts and transforms the world. We find that fire in God’s Word. As Cardinal Lustiger said, “From the event of Creation to the gift of the Law, the Bible describes man’s vocation and his spiritual nature in letters of fire.”
We need to reclaim the mission God intended for all of us as Christians, but especially as priests, a mission of letter and love, of teaching and serving. We must become ourselves letters of fire that spell out God’s love for his creation. May God grant us the passion to burn up every atom, every trace, every memory of ourselves in a fire of service to God’s will.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the Archbishop of Philadelphia.
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