Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This month marks the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood (on the nineteenth of May, to be exact). My secretary urged me to have some kind of public celebration, but I demurred. It’s only five years, I thought to myself. I still have holy cards from the ordination I haven’t given out yet.

Looking back, though, these five years have been quite memorable in the life of the Church, and not always for happy reasons. Just weeks after my classmates and I were ordained, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out. Then there was the McCarrick scandal. Then the Amazon synod. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the first time I presided at an Easter Vigil, I was alone with just three other priests. In the midst of that shutdown and the riots in American cities, I was sent as an administrator, then pastor, into the heart of one of those cities. I arrived in a parish where, just weeks before, the smell of tear gas had wafted over families as they sat huddled in their backyards.

Much of that chaos has, thankfully, receded. But the scars of those cataclysmic events—not to mention the crisis of faith at the heart of the Church—haven’t fully healed.

On ordination day, after carrying out the essential elements of the rite—the laying on of hands and prayer of ordination—Archbishop Chaput accepted a chalice and paten prepared for the celebration of Mass, placed them in each of our hands, and said, “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” In this symbolic act, we come face-to-face with the sublime mystery of the priesthood.

On the one hand, this ritual act demonstrates that through baptism and confirmation, every Christian has been made a member of a priestly people. No longer, as in other religions, is it a specialized caste who offers sacrifice. Rather, in the Church of Jesus Christ, all must offer themselves and all they have to God, from whom they have received it. This is why the Presentation of the Gifts is not just an audience participation opportunity. Rather, it implies that those carrying forth the bread, the wine, and the offerings for the Church and poor are really offering themselves. It signifies that we must unite our own sacrifices to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ. He accepts them—as small as they often are—and makes them holy, bringing them to the Father through the activity of the priest. Here one sees what it means to “understand what you do.” The ministerial priest—set apart by ordination to offer this sacrifice—is uniting, by his celebration of the Eucharist, all these sacrifices of the holy people offered to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the ministerial priest does not occupy a higher caste, but receives the gift of a hierarchical charism, a grace given for others, so that the entire people can fulfill its own priestly mission.

Sadly, in these last five years, in addition to many years before, failures on the part of some clergy have been brought to light, including some at the highest levels of the hierarchy. It can be easy to grumble about some widely known figure in the Church brought down by scandal—grumble, and then carry on as before. But those scandals—and many others that never make headlines—affect real people, often in small communities of the faithful. They demoralize and dishearten good people, discourage brother priests, and make our outreach to families and others so much more difficult because it makes God’s priestly people seem untrustworthy.

For this reason, the last part of the exhortation must echo in my heart and that of my brother priests each day: Conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross. In the end, we can talk all day about necessary changes in canon law, better formation programs, and better methods of collaboration between priests and laity. Don’t get me wrong—we need all those things. But I also think we have made great progress. The real question, the sine qua non, is whether men choose every day to conform their lives to the mystery of the Lord’s cross. This involves making the Eucharist the true center of one’s life. Other than, of course, preparing the homily well or celebrating reverently, one must also learn to offer oneself, to place oneself upon the altar along with the bread and wine. It means living pastoral charity in imitation of Christ, so as to model a life of joyful service for those entrusted to our care.

Through baptism, every Christian is sent on a mission to act in persona Christi. But only ordination to the priesthood empowers a man to act in persona Christi capitis et sponsi, “in the person of Christ the head and spouse” of the Church. When priests use this headship for their own gain or self-aggrandizement, or live as bachelors rather than spouses, we become like the “hired man” Jesus warns the disciples about, the one who “has no concern for the sheep” (John 10:12-13). Archbishop Chaput brought this home for us at our ordination in choosing the Gospel passage that states: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).   

As I celebrate five years since that day, I recognize the yawning gap between these words and my own life as a priest. Nevertheless, if such milestones are worth anything, it is simply to remember who and what Christ has made us to be, and to recognize that our time to live this gift and mystery in this world will not last forever. Only those who have their eyes firmly fixed on the eternal liturgy and the heavenly banquet will be able to function amid the trials of our age—or of any age. Only then will we serve our people as Christ intended, as expressed in the words of our ordaining bishops: Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.

Rev. Eric J. Banecker is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. 

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Matthias Ulrich licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles