The Priest as Servant of God, a Steward of God’s Mysteries)
by Lope Coles Robredillo, SThD
LET ME BEGIN with a short story. Fred, Richard, and Martin were classmates since elementary grades. Because they formed a peer group in their parish, all of them became altar boys and eventually entered the seminary. They studied in the same college seminary and theologate, and in 1978, they were ordained to the priesthood at the same time. After then years in the ministry, Father Martin was in the forefront in the fight against mining, Father Richard had a band, and loved to be in company of people who dance and drink, and Father Fred was known for constructing churches, rectories, formation buildings. Martin kept a German shepherd, Richard was fond of cooking, and Fred littered his room with novels.
How come these priests engaged themselves in widely different interests and undertaking? There is no single explanation for this. It is possible, for example, that Martin became interested in defending the rights of the poor because that is what he saw in his parish priest. It is also possible that he became a human rights advocate because that is how he saw his call under the present circumstances. It is also possible that he became engaged in it, for lack of anything else. It is also possible that that was how he saw the mission that the bishop assigned him. But it is also possible that he became involved in advocacy because that was how he saw his priesthood. What we are often reflect what we idealize. The kind of priest we are mirrors our own theology of what a priest should be.
That is why, I think it is important that after we have finished our theology studies, we begin making a serious reflection, guided by our own Catholic tradition, of what our priesthood, what we should be. Of course, I know you studied the sacraments, but as is well known, we often do not digest what we hear, are taught or read in the seminary, partly because what we are interested in is the grade, and partly because we have many other things to study and so we are not able to assimilate what we were taught about the priesthood. If we did not do so, we might have wound up far different from what we were taught in the classroom, and simply grope our way in the ministry. We can end up as entertainers, clowns, activists or money changers!
Of the various images describing the priesthood, I am fascinated by the one we find in the letter of Paul to the Corinthians: A servant of Christ, a steward entrusted with the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1). I find this significant, not just because it is solidly biblical, but because, to me, it summarizes the contemporary teachings of the Church on the priesthood since Vatican II.
First of all, the priest is a servant of Christ. Because in the Bible the disciple is called servant, there are two implications I wish to point out. One, the priest as a servant-disciple is a representative of Christ. “He who receives you, receives me.” No wonder, Paul calls himself “an ambassador of Christ.” The priest represents Christ. (Strictly speaking, he does not represent the Church.) Of course, this description is not new; in fact, it is so common that we do not bother to inquire about its implications.
But let us suppose, say, one was appointed by President Arroyo to represent him before the American people. How would he feel? What will he do? Surely, he will not embarrass her. So, he will prepare himself for that assignment. In fact, he will be aware of how to behave as her representative. I wonder if we priest are conscious that we are his representative. When we talk to people, when we go to the restaurant or theater, when we deal to farmers and drug addicts—do we ask ourselves, how would Christ behave toward them?
When Vatican II, in Presbyterorum ordinis, describes the priest as configured to Christ—that is not simply an ontological characterization independent of life. Indeed, it is something that ought to be real in practical life. We are supposed to be formed after Christ. We are the epiphany of Christ. People see Christ is us. That is why Sacrosanctum concilium says that Christ is present in his minister. We act in persona Christi capitis.
In other words, in the community, we represent Christ as head. Since we are his ministers, we are supposed to act in such a way that it is Christ himself who fulfills the threefold mission. When we preach the Gospel, for instance, do we know that the word of God is not ours but his? Do we make it a point to study so that what we preach should be what we think Christ would deliver to the people? Do we remember that when we stand before the congregation, it is Christ himself who is speaking? The same questions could be ask, when we celebrate the sacraments, when we call the pastoral council to a meeting, when we visit the homes, etc.
The other implication is that, we are ambassadors who are servants. Notice that the New Testament meaning of servant has reference to one who serves at table. But Jesus gave it a further detail—one who not only serves, but who gives his life for the community. In fact, he even identifies it with a slave. Because we are servants of Christ, we cannot be above the Word. We serve the Word. We serve the sacraments. We place ourselves at the service of the community.
Hence, servanthood is not only related to the building up of the community; it is likewise related to the two other offices of Christ—that of being herald of the Gospel, and of being dispenser of the sacraments. We are therefore not simply servant-leaders in the community; we are also servant-preachers and servant-presiders of the sacraments. In all these, we are not supposed to seek recognition or praise; Jesus must increase, we must decrease.
Secondly, St Paul uses the word steward. That is to way, we are managers of the things that Jesus entrusted to us. When the Gospel speaks of stewards, we notice that it is always linked with the idea of faithfulness or unfaithfulness. So, we have the parable of the unfaithful manager. We have the parable of the servant who remained faithful until his master’s return. The parish is not ours—it is only entrusted to us by Christ through the Bishop. The seminary is not ours—it is only put under our care. And precisely because these things are not ours, we are asked to manage them according to the intention of the owner.
The implications are enormous, but we may be content with a few. When we preach, do we remember to make sure that we are orthodox in our communication, because we are only stewards of the Word? In celebrating the sacraments of baptism and marriage, do we record them immediately, knowing that we are stewards of the records of our people and the books of the parish? It is regrettable that when one priest assumes office as pastor, he undoes almost everything that his predecessor did—as if the parish belonged to him! Because we are stewards of the parish, we have to take care of the parish properties—the parish church, the cemetery, the rectory, the school. We show our people that we can be trusted to take care of them. Here, we might make reference to the funds of the parish. Our stewardship is better shown when we involved our finance councils in the management of parish properties and funds. In remitting to the Diocese, we simply signify that the parish is not ours—it belongs to the local Church, and our monthly remittance is a token to show our stewardship.
Let me say something about our being stewards of the mysteries of God. It will be noticed that I have mentioned our being stewards of properties, money, and everything connected with the parish, and perhaps you will wonder if there is anything mysterious about it. But in his letter to the Corinthians, what Paul means by mysteries are those that are connected with salvation in Christ. These could refer to anything that is connected with our ministry in the work of salvation.
And that is precisely my point. As priests, we need to see the mystery of salvation in the work we do. Mystery is not only characteristic of the Word or the Eucharist; it should be characteristic of all that are linked with our mission. They are mysterious because they partake of the mystery of God. If we do not see mystery there, we reduce these things to secular matters.
Sure, time and familiarity sometimes rob things of their mysterious aspects. The first time a priest baptizes, he could feel the mystery of salvation in the rite. But when becomes accustomed to baptizing 50 more babies, one might forget about the mystery, and think only about how to get over with it.
But the sense of mystery will not be lost if one is always in contact with God, either through personal prayer, or through the Word of God. When one is in contact with God, everything becomes mysterious. But of course, one prays because he has faith. Prayer and faith go together. Our faith affects our prayer life, and our sense of mystery. If we have them, we will sense mystery even in the most ordinary things in the ministry, like giving a few coins to a beggar, or even in saying the grace before meals.
The recognition that there is something mysterious, that God is at work, is usually revealed in the effects. Allow me to cite one example. As Sunday approaches, we often prepare our homilies. We read the Bible, commentaries, and even prepared sermons, because we want to make sure that the congregation has something to bring home. And so, after having studied, we make an outline of the points that we wish to stress.
But have we realized that sometimes, what touches people’s heart, is not the point that we emphasize, but something we said only incidentally or in transition? For me, the reason is that we only deliver the message, but it is God who gives the occasion to touch the heart of our hearers. Those who win conversions are not always the likes for Fulton Sheen. St John Mary Vianney’s sermons were not theologically superb, but they will souls. Why? Because God’s Word has power in itself, even in spite of us. It does not need our intelligence and wisdom to be an agent of conversion.
As stewards of the mysteries of God, the most mysterious, the most profound that has been entrusted to us is the Eucharist. The Eucharist may not be the only thing that makes us priest, but there is no doubt that it is in the Eucharist that we are profoundly shown as ministers in persona Christi capitis. That is to say, our being configured to Christ is nowhere more profoundly revealed than in the act whereby we repeat the words of Jesus himself: “This is my body, this is my blood”!
What a profound mystery! In consecration, we are really acting in the person of Christ himself! We pronounce the words of consecration, as Christ himself did, in order to feed his people and lead them to holiness. Oftentimes, we overlook this point, not knowing that not even a judge has ever told us that we can say to people “you are innocent” and our words would have the same effect as his, when he sits in court! And yet, here we are, able to repeat the words of Christ, and our words over the bread and wine have the same effect as his—they become the Body and Blood of Christ!
Have we ever thought of that? Let me explain. If, say, President Arroyo comes to your home, and perhaps borrows a ball pen, or sits at your table, I am sure you will treasure that particular ball pen and place it on your glass cabinet for posterity, with the words: “The President of the Republic used this ball pen in her visit to our home.” You will even treasure the chair she sat on, properly marking it with the words “The President sat here at the dinner tendered in her honor.” If this could be done with things that are connected with the President, how much more with things or persons connected with the Eucharist? It is not just whimsical that we are asked to fast before we celebrate. We do so in order to be aware that what we are to receive is not simply an ordinary bread!
But precisely because the work of salvation is accomplished through us the priests, it is not surprising that Vatican II would demand that even though the words of consecration can be uttered by sinful or unworthy priests, we have to be more docile to the promptings and direction of the Holy Spirit. We have to endeavor to better our lives, we have to aspire to be holy because we are entrusted with the most holy reality—the Body and Blood of Christ.
Holy things call for holy persons and holy lives!
Let me add something. I hope you will not take this as a case of ritualism. Since it is in the Eucharist that we exhibit ourselves more profoundly as priests, acting in persona Christi, I believe that the sacrament demands not only that we are holier than ever, but also that everything connected with it should showcase his presence.
Would you agree with me that our chalice, precisely because it holds the Blood of Christ, should always be clean and shiny, that our purificators and corporals ought to be as white as can be? Do you think it is fitting to use alcohol containers for our holy water, or shampoo containers for our water and wine? Do you think it is enough to wear sandals during celebration of the Eucharist, or wear thin chasuble-albs over printed T-shirts, or use crushed candle wax for incense? It is my personal conviction that these liturgical symbols and things that are connected with the Mass are really symbols—they are supposed to call to mind the presence of Christ.
One wonders if that purpose is served by settling for the minimum. I do think we have to go beyond the question of mere validity or licitness in celebrations. We should never be satisfied with what is cheap, when it comes to the mystery of the Eucharist!
I may be wrong, but I have the feeling that our concern for these things is in proportion to our faith and prayer life. I have this gut feeling that our appreciation for the sacred somehow corresponds to the depth of our prayer life and faith. Appreciation for the sacred is always nurtured by faith and prayer. If one does not care for prayer and faith, he will neither care for things connected with the Body and Blood of Christ.
As I already noted, although the priest is a steward of God’s mysteries, yet it is as steward of the Eucharist that he expresses more intimately and profoundly his configuration to Christ, and his priesthood, because the Eucharist makes him more Christ-like. Moreover, the whole spiritual good of the Church is the Eucharist itself. Nothing in the world could be greater than the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is for these reasons that the core of his ministry is the Eucharist, without which we cannot speak of him as steward of God’s mysteries. It is the center of his life.
As John Paul II points out in his Pastores Dabo Vobis, “For the priest as well, the truly central place, both in his ministry and spiritual life, belongs to the Eucharist, since in it is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church.” And because it is the center, it follows that everything in the priesthood comes from it, and is directed toward it. Therefore, it makes sense when Vatican II says that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the life of a priest.
Because it is the whole wealth of the priest, because it is the center of his life, does it not follow that a priest should love the Eucharist? Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Hence, the Eucharistic celebration should be central object of our priestly ministry. Oh, the consequences are endless! When we love something, we want to repeat it, and we want to do it well. If you love cooking, it is not only that you buy the best utensils; you also cook frequently, and take care to do it well.
The same is true with the Eucharist. Here, we do not have to repeat what we said about good liturgical vestments and objects. The point I wish to stress is that our daily celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of our love for it. But even more important, we have to celebrate it well. Let us not hurry up our celebrations! We owe it to God, to Christ who gave us this gift. Let our Sunday celebration of the Eucharist be a profound expression of our love and thanksgiving to God. Let it manifest the presence of the whole people of God—complete with altar servers, choir, commentator, readers, collectors, psalmist, and other ministers.
Precisely because it is the source and summit of the life not only of priests but also of all Christians, our Sunday celebration should not only be well prepared, but it should likewise express the presence of God in the community. This is because the community finds its expression as God’s people of the new covenant when the people gather as one for the Eucharist. This teaching is not met by simply multiplying the Mass on Sundays, but by the presence of all the parishioners. That is why people are to be encouraged to participate in the Eucharist in their own parish church, for nowhere will they express their being part of the covenant than in the Eucharistic celebration.
And when we say participation, we are not simply speaking about their presence; more correctly, we refer to their active participation in the liturgy. They do the parts and only those parts that the liturgy assigns them—listening, standing, keeping silence, kneeling, singing, receiving communion, etc. Gone are the days when they were simply spectators of the celebration. They have to be present from the beginning, when the community makes the sign of the cross, to the end, which is the blessing. Of course, priests have to be model of active participation. On account of this, there is nothing to justify the action of a priest who joins a concelebration, say, when the gospel is already being read, or when the gifts are being prepared.
As part of our pastoral ministry, we should also encourage our people to have devotion to the Eucharist outside the Mass. While it is true that the Eucharist is kept in the tabernacle primarily to be of service to the sick and the infirm, yet, because Christ is there present, he has to be adored. We have therefore to promote the cult of Eucharistic presence. I wish therefore that pastors would continue the practice of exposing the Blessed Sacrament every first Friday, or even every Friday. I commend those parishes that have adoration chapels, although I would emphasize that the Eucharist cannot be exposed in the absence of adorers. I hope you will also encourage your BECs, your charismatic and other communities to set aside an hour or two during the week for the adoration of the Blessed Eucharist.
But of course, as priests we ought to be the first to cultivate devotion to the Eucharist. Indeed, if we need a specific form of spirituality, it is not essential for us as priests to follow the Franciscan spirituality, Dominican spirituality, Ignatian spirituality or Basilian spirituality, even though having them is a good thing. One spirituality is enough—and that is, the Eucharistic spirituality. Eucharistic spirituality, of course, does not mean frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, or wearing precious vestments during mass, even though it can include them.
By Eucharistic spirituality I identify it with what St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians: “It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me.” Here, Paul expresses the meaning of acting in persona Christi capitis. Only one who is configured to Christ can say that Christ lives in him. Only one who has lived a Eucharistic life can declare that the life he lives is not is own but Christ’s.
How is such spirituality revealed? Primarily in its effects—in our love and compassion for the poor, in our humility, in our acceptance of the lowest place, in our suffering in silence, in our preference for what is ugly, demeaning, useless, in our forgiveness, etc. It is therefore not Vatican II says that priests must above all be solicitous for the sick and the dying.
It is time to wrap up. I started by saying that there are priests and priests. Some find meaning in being involved in advocacy, others in being in company with people, still others in other fields. But whatever our interests may be, or wherever they may lie, these should not cover, still less substitute, the core of our ministry—the Eucharist. The Church has a variety of charisms, and she encourages us to grow and mature in them. But since the Eucharist is the center and wealth of our priestly life, we are not priestly ministers in its absence.
Indeed, without the Eucharist, our teaching, however profound, could just be like the indoctrination by Marxists. Without the Eucharist, our action on behalf of the poor is simply social work. They become priestly when their source and term is the Eucharist. They become part of our priestly ministry precisely because they are connected with the Eucharist. We are priests, because we make the Eucharist the core of our priestly ministry and service.
I hope that your understanding of who is a priest, or you theology of the priesthood, does not veer from this—THE PRIEST IS A SERVANT OF GOD, A STEWARD OF GOD’S MYSTERIES, WITH THE EUCHARIST AT THE CENTER.*