December 6, 2007
Some weeks ago, the Editor of Catholic New York asked me to write an article for this edition of our Archdiocesan newspaper about what being a priest means to me. I agreed with some hesitation, since the priesthood is something very precious and personal for me. I would not want to diminish it with uncareful or, worse yet, self-serving words. All the same, here is my attempt to do what I was asked to do.
For me what defines a priest is sacrifice in two senses of that word. The first and essential of these two senses is a matter of prayer. I have always considered sacrifice—the offering of something of value to God as an expression of worship—as the zenith of prayer. It has been so for eons in every corner of the world where human beings have sought to adore, thank and seek forgiveness, blessings and protection from their God.
On the cross, the Son of God Made Man, Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, sacrificed Himself in an act of obedient worship that surpassed all sacrifices of all times. He was the Priest. He was the Victim. And He left no doubt about this whatever, for example, when in His discourse on being the Good Shepherd, He declared: "I lay down My life that I might take it up again. No one takes it from Me. I lay it down of Myself." (John 10:17-18)
In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, what transpired on Calvary's cross is a reality once again in an unbloody manner. Jesus Christ is the Priest. Jesus Christ is the Victim. However, just as the Victim is present under the appearances of bread and wine, so the Priest—the Eternal High Priest—is present in the person of the ordained priest who stands at the altar as an instrument in the hands of the Savior.
For me, this is the priesthood in its essence. This is what defines a priest of the New Covenant. All else in my understanding of that to which I have been called must fall into place under this rubric. I am the one who, in the most intimate union with Jesus Christ, offers the Sacrifice of Sacrifices, the prayer of prayers, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
There is, however, a second sense of sacrifice in the life of a priest. In the providence of an all-loving God, no one can be a worthy, faithful priest of Jesus Christ unless he is willing, in a genuine spirit of sacrifice, to deny himself whatever is not in accord with priestly service and generously give himself to doing all that such service requires. I view celibacy in the Latin Rite of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in this light, just as I view in the same light all demands—whether heavy or light—that emerge as one lives out one's life as a priest. To be an authentic, effective priest, sacrifice in both senses must be operative—the sacrifice of the Cross at the altar and the sacrifices that priestly life inevitably imposes day by day.
When I am asked about the meaning of priesthood, I start with sacrifice.
But there is more.
To be a priest who serves His God and the People of God as they are to be served, one must be deeply committed to preaching the mind and will of God as revealed "in season and out of season." (II Timothy 4:1-5) Nor is this a duty free of challenges. It requires attentive study of Scripture, Tradition and the teachings of the Church, prayerful meditation on them all, and assiduous preparation of what is to be said about them and how it is to be said. There are no shortcuts, and making one's peace with this reality is an expression of priestly self-sacrifice.
Moreover, the priestly preacher must always be honest with his people. His calling is to announce what has been made known for our salvation. He is to add nothing. He is to subtract nothing. He is to repeat revelation whole and entire with love for what he is repeating and with all the skill he can muster. If sacrifice is a focus of his life and authentic proclamation of what God has revealed is an enthusiastically embraced duty of his life, his priesthood will be a blessing for him and for all whose lives he touches.
Still, there is a third essential element in my understanding of what a priest is and must be. One who stands at the altar in the place of Jesus Christ and stands in the pulpit announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ needs to live the life that Jesus Christ taught us to live and live it without half measures. We all, of course, know what that life is. It is a life of honor, justice, charity, cleanness of heart, and prayer; and we must all live it, whether clerical, religious or lay. A priest, however, has a further obligation. He is to lead others to live it as well.
The task is often burdensome. When the fashionable agree that innocent lives can be taken if people "choose" to take them, it is awkward to be out of step. When the powerful insist that the warlike are uniquely patriotic, it is troublesome to dissent. When the comfortable maintain that all is well, it is unwelcome to point to the uncomfortable for whom all is anything but well. Criticism, ridicule, rejection and worse can be the price one pays for daring to take stands "in justice and the holiness of truth." (Ephesians 4:24) And the price mounts when one invites others to do the same. Nonetheless, this is part and parcel of what the priestly calling must entail; and when it does, priesthood is complete.
Fifty years ago when I was ordained in Rome, I committed myself to this understanding of what it means to be a priest. I share it here in the fervent hope that the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York will join me in begging the Savior for a growth of vocations in our midst. At this moment in our history, there is no other need so great. May the "Lord of the harvest" hear our prayers and answer them abundantly.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York