Perhaps one of the strangest things that Jesus did before he ascended to heaven, 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 Lord 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 (Cf. Judg 6:11 ff). 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 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 totally 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! What a miracle!’
I believe that God picked 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, ordinary men, to make it all the more obvious that the Church is still here because of him and not because of priests.
St. Paul also speaks about this in one of his letters. He writes, ‘We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us’ (2 Cor 4:7). God uses ordinary cracked pots (‘cracked-pots’) to carry his message, to make it obvious that it is from him.
|A 'mass rock', where masses were celebrated in secret during times of persecution.|
When the priest says the words of consecration at each mass the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly comes down and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. God acts on the words of a human being! I don’t understand it, but I believe it. And when the priest says I absolve 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 act on the words of a human being.
Satan does not want us to receive the Eucharist, because he knows it really and truly is the body and blood of Jesus and throughout the centuries he tries to stop us. If you want to prevent people from receiving the Eucharist, the easiest way is to get rid of the priests, since you cannot have one without the other.
I want to share with you the story of one such incidence which took place in the west of Ireland in the early 1700s. During this time the British government passed what were called the Penal Laws, which made it illegal to be priests, or for people to attend mass. Their reasoning was that if they could crush the people’s faith, they would be able to control the people. It was a very difficult time for the people, as they had to practice their faith in secret. Many priests were hunted down and killed.
During this time there was a young man called Sean Malowney, who became known as Sean na Sagart, which means ‘Sean of the priests.’ As a young man he was very wild with no respect for anything or anyone. Eventually he was caught stealing a horse and sentenced to death. As he was about to be hanged, instead of showing any remorse, he continually cursed and blasphemed. The local sheriff Bingham, who was under great pressure to get rid of the priests, noticed the fearlessness of this man and he offered him a deal. He would release him if he agreed to hunt and kill priests. Sean happily agreed to this and was set free. He would get £5 English pounds for every associate pastor (curate) killed, £10 for every pastor (parish priest) and £20 for a bishop. £1 at that time would buy 15 cows, which was a huge sum of money.
Sean then began to hunt and kill priests and he was particularly good at it. He would cut off their heads and bring them to the court where he would get paid. He then threw the heads into a nearby lake, which is called Loch na gCeann, which means the Lake of Heads and it is still there. The local people could not stop him because he was protected by the British soldiers.
In one particular town there were two priests by the names of Fr. Kilger and Fr. Burke. Sean knew of this but he could not track them down as the local people hid them. So he devised a scheme to catch them. One night he went to his sister Nancy, who lived in the area and made as if to be dying. He told her that he knew if he died that night there was no chance for his soul and he wished to repent and confess his sins. Nancy was skeptical at first, but eventually he convinced her and so she went to find the priests. When she told the priests they knew it could be a trap, but they also knew they couldn’t refuse him if he was truly repentant. Fr. Kilger went to hear his confession. Sean pretended to be very weak and could only whisper. As Fr. Kilger came close to hear him, Sean stabbed him in the heart.
|The grave of Sean na Sagart, now split in half by an ash tree|
The next day he was to be buried. At the graveside Fr. Burke came disguised as a woman to bless him. Sean spotted him and put a gun to his head, but the gun jammed. Fr. Burke fled, but Sean pursued him and the chase lasted all day. Eventually Sean got close enough that he was able to throw his knife which stabbed him in the leg and disabled him, but as he was about to kill him, another man intervened, shouted to the priest to throw him the knife and then killed Sean with his own knife.
The soldiers had Sean buried in the local cemetery, but after they left, the locals dug up his body and threw it in the lake. The priest, however, said that he should be buried properly and so they found Sean’s body and buried him. Normally Christians were buried facing East as a sign of waiting for the risen Christ, but they buried him facing north, which was a pagan burial and a sign of no hope as it never faced the rising sun. An ash tree sapling then grew up and split the gravestone in half. It is still there today. I got a friend who lives near by to take some photographs of it just a few days ago and although it is Spring and everything is in blossom, there are hardly any leaves or buds on the tree. It is a very eerie sight.
I think it is good to hear these stories. They remind us of the risks people were willing to take to receive the Eucharist. It helps me to remember what an extraordinary gift it is. It is easy to take it for granted, because we are free to come to mass, to receive the Eucharist and practice our faith. I am sure if we were faced with persecution like that, people would still risk their lives, because what could be greater than being able to receive the body and blood of Christ. I think it can also help us to remember the respect we need to show when we come to receive Holy Communion; how we approach it, how we dress, how we receive.
To receive Jesus is to receive life itself. May we always have a sense of the greatness of this gift.
‘This is my Body which will be given up for you.’