Today we celebrate the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. It is the official church of the Pope, even though the Pope lives in the Vatican at St. Peter’s basilica. Celebrating the dedication of the Lateran Basilica is a recognition of the unity of all churches throughout the world with our mother church in Rome.
Perhaps one of the strangest things that Jesus did before he ascended to heaven at the end of his earthly life, was to entrust his Church to priests; ordinary, sinful, weak human beings. This is something that we do not understand, but we believe. Through the gift of the priesthood He gave us the most extraordinary gift of all, the gift of the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself really and truly present in the form of bread and wine. There is no gift greater than this. But the fact that he made it depend on priests is what is so strange.
I am sure that one reason in particular why he did this was to make it obvious that it is God who is at work and that the Church is in no way dependent on the gifts or skills of human beings alone, especially not us priests.
There is a great story in the Old Testament which explains this; it is the story of Gideon. Gideon and his people were being wiped out by the Amorites and it was a time of great suffering for them. Then one day the angel of the Lord appears to this man Gideon and says, ‘Hail valiant warrior. The Lord is with you.’ In reply Gideon says, ‘If God is with us how come we are being wiped out?’ A fair question! The angel goes on to tell Gideon that God has specially chosen him to lead his people to freedom from their enemies. But Gideon asks an interesting question. He says, ‘Why would God pick me since I am the weakest member of my family and my family is the weakest family in my tribe?’ In other words, why would God pick the weakest of the weak to lead his people to freedom? It doesn’t make any sense by our way of thinking. But then the angel convinces him that God has chosen him and he will be alright. Gideon is then told to raise an army and so he gets together 30,000 men. But then to his astonishment God tells him to reduce the number of men to only 300 and he tells him why, and this is the crucial bit: lest the people think that it is by their own strength that they have won victory over their enemies. God chooses the weakest man around with only a handful of men to conquer the enemy so that it will be obvious that it was the power of God that made this happen. If Gideon had been a great warrior and he conquered his enemies with a huge army, then no one would be surprised. But when the most unexpected person leads a handful of men and conquers a huge army, then everyone says ‘Look what God did! It’s a miracle.’
I believe that God chooses various men to be priests for the same reason, so that it would be obvious that it is God who is at work. So He picks weak men to make it all the more obvious that the Church is still there because of him and not because of us priests.
It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was taking over Europe he met the cardinal of Paris and he said to him, ‘I am going to destroy the Vatican.’ The cardinal assured him that he wouldn’t be able. But Napoleon insisted: ‘You will see; I will wipe it out completely.’ But the cardinal said: ‘We priests have been trying to destroy it for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able! So you won’t be able either.’
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things of all about the priesthood is that the Holy Spirit of God obeys the words of the priest. When the priest says the words of consecration at each mass the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly obeys the words of the priest and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. I don’t understand this but I believe it. And when the priest says I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit immediately wipes away those sins. God is so humble that He will obey the words of a human being.
Jesus said to Peter:
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.
What if the priest is not a very good man or is in fact quite a sinner? Is God any less present in the mass if the priest is not a holy man? Of course not. God would never allow his power to depend on the goodness of a human being because none of us could ever be good enough or holy enough. Even if the priest is a terrible sinner, God is just as powerfully present in the mass, in confession, and wherever He calls the priest to work. Of course it is a great help for our faith if the priest is a holy man, but either way God is just as much present, because God gives himself completely to all of us in this extraordinary way through the priesthood and it doesn’t depend on the priest being good enough. Thank God!
I think one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God is simply the fact that it is still here in spite of the fact that there have been centuries of bad example, bad preaching, scandal, etc, and yet it is still here. How can this be? Because it is the power of God at work in his Church. There is so much we don't understand about how God works among us, but we believe that God continually gives us everything we need and one of the greatest gifts He has given us is the priesthood, because without the priesthood we would not have the Eucharist.