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, starting with the Apostles. 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 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 chose 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 chooses 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.
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 totally wild with no respect for anything. 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 next day he was to be buried. At the graveside the other priest came disguised as a woman to bless him. Sean spotted him and put a gun to his head, but the gun jammed. Fr. Kilger 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, but as he was about to kill him, another man intervened and 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. A sapling then grew up and split the tomb in half. It is still there today and is a very eerie sight.
I think it is good to hear these stories, which 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 receive it 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.
What if the priest is not a very good or holy man? Is God any less present in the mass if it is not a holy priest? Of course not. God would never allow his power to depend on the goodness of a human being, because none of us are good enough, or holy enough, to begin with. 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. 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 and thank God for that!
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, scandals, etc, and yet it is still here. Think of all the great empires and dynasties that have come and gone and they were much better organised and impressive, but they are gone, and yet the Church is still here.
Finally, if you find yourself becoming disheartened by the bad example of priests or indeed anyone in the Church, remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:2: ‘The priests occupy the chair of Moses, so you must listen to what they say, but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach.’ In other words, we must try and listen to the teaching of Jesus passed on through the Church and through his priests, but don’t be put off when they don’t always live the way they should. What is important is the teaching of Christ and not the example of the priest. The teaching of Jesus is what we hold on to.
I have to confess that these readings always scare me a little when God warns his priests about the responsibility they have been given. The Scriptures are also full of very stern warnings to the priests to live as they should and not abuse their position. We will be accountable as God’s priests.
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).