Grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus, the "great priest over the house of God" (Hebrews 10:21). From 19 June this year, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, till 19 June next year, Pope Benedict has invited the whole Church to celebrate a Year of the Priesthood. For all of us it will be a time to focus upon the mystery of the ministerial priesthood and the great gift it is at the heart of the Church.
We begin to understand the mystery when we see that Jesus is the only priest. By Baptism, the whole Church is drawn into the mystery of Christ's priesthood, and from within the Church some men are called by Christ to share in that mystery as ordained priests. But what does it mean to say that Jesus is a priest? In religions that know a priesthood, the prime function of priests is to offer sacrifice. This sacrifice takes many forms, but in Jesus it is unique. He sacrifices himself on the Cross. He is both the priest and the victim. On Calvary, we see the perfect self-sacrificing love which is eternally the heart of the Trinity and therefore the heart of all things. Between the Father and the Son there is an eternal dynamic of perfect self-sacrificing love which overflows into the creation and into the human heart as the Holy Spirit who draws all into that eternal dynamic. On the Cross, the eternal self-sacrificing love enters time; and into that same love the whole Church is drawn from age to age as a priestly people. But some men are called into that love in a special way for the building up of the priestly people. When Jesus calls a man into this mystery of self-sacrificing love as a priest, he is calling him above all to live the mystery of the Cross. As the Bishop says in the Rite of Priestly Ordination: "Model your life on the mystery of the Lord's Cross". If this does not happen, if the priesthood is not an experience of self-sacrificing love, then inevitably it will become a kind of loveless clericalism, more concerned with power and prestige than with the priesthood of the crucified Lord.
At the altar, which is the epicentre of the priesthood, the priest speaks words which are not his own. He gives his body over so that the words of Christ can be spoken: "This is my body given for you". The bread becomes the Body broken for the life of the world. "This is my blood poured out for you": the wine becomes the Blood which is shed for the life of the world. Christ calls priests not only to speak these which are his words, but also to live the mystery of the Body and Blood which is his own sacrifice. Again as the Bishop says in the Rite of Ordination: "Imitate what you celebrate".
The call of Jesus is total, as was his death on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead. His call claims the mind, the heart, the soul and the body of a man - which is why the ministerial priesthood is much more than a job. The priesthood is hard work, but it is not just a job. It is a job and a marriage rolled into one with something extra as well. That something extra is a special call to holiness. In the Bible, to be holy "as I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2) means to be separate for the sake of service - not just separate for the sake of being separate, but separate for service. Again, if service is not there, then the priesthood will decay into clericalism.
The priest serves primarily by living the mystery of the Lord's Cross, sacrificing himself in love for the building up of the Church. Through this Year we will celebrate and ponder the gift of the ministerial priesthood. We will pray for the priests we have and give thanks for their tireless service of which only God can take the full measure. We will also ask the Lord to send us more priests who can fill the Church with the glory of Christ by emptying themselves in his name. Each parish will think of ways to celebrate the Year of the Priesthood, and there is also a committee considering ways in which we can celebrate the Year in the Archdiocese. May the gift of this Year lead us all to know and love more deeply the mystery of the priesthood of Jesus who "has appeared once for all...to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26).
+ Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia
9 June 2009