Friday, July 24, 2020
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)

Continued in Part 2

hese days, with the increasing awareness of the role of priests in the church and society, there may be need to revisit once more our knowledge of the essence of ministerial priesthood in the church in relation to Christ's priestly heart and mediation. In confronting this topic, we will be inspired above all, naturally, by the Letter to the Hebrews, which presents Christ to us as our High Priest and, introduces us to a profound understanding of his priestly oblation and mediation.

The main aim of the article, however, is to highlight the importance of ordained priests in the Church and in the society as a whole. That is, the importance of priests living according to the priestly heart of Christ as they go about their priestly ministry in the Church and society. It is also to help us see the differences between the Priesthood of the Old Covenant and that of the New Covenant, the relationship between the two priestly Covenants, where they meet and where they depart. What are the spiritual and social implications for the ordained Priests in the Church and society today? As Cardinal Albert Vanhoye puts it, "the relationships are very close because the New Covenant, for the service of which the priesthood is ordered, has the heart of Christ for its centre and source." (Cf. Albert Vanhoye, Christ Our High Priest, Gracewing, Herefordshire, Uk 2010, 151).

Between the Priesthood of the Old Covenant and of the New Covenant

The discussion on the Priestly heart of Christ and the ordained Priesthood becomes clearer when we compare the Priesthood of the Old Covenant and that of the New Covenant. In the Letter to the Hebrews, in making comparison between the Priesthood of the Old Covenant and that of the New Covenant, it is noted that the Priesthood of the Old was external, devoid of a relationship with the heart.

In the Old Testament, the heart of the King is often spoken of: Solomon, for example, asks God to give him "a docile heart", that is, "an understanding mind" (1 Kings 3:9), and the Book of Proverbs says that "the King's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord" (Proverbs 21:1). In the Old Testament, however, the heart of the priest, on the contrary, is never mentioned; the old worship had no relationship to the heart. The Law defined the worship; it was performed by means of conventional, external rites; the immolations of animals were offered. The Priest had to fulfill the rites and nothing more.

However, in the New Testament, Jesus substituted this external and conventional worship with a personal and existential worship that starts from His heart. "The Priesthood of Christ brings about the New Covenant that consists in the gift to believers of a new heart into which a new Spirit is poured, namely: the Holy Spirit." Furthermore, in establishing the New Covenant, Jesus accepted a sacrificial transformation of His heart.

In other words, in the New Covenant, the problem of the Priesthood and of Worship is a problem of the heart. In order to come near to God, "it is necessary to have a heart that is worthy of God, one that is purified, holy, truly open and docile to the relationship with God and to the love which he gives."

In fact, the sad realization of the whole Old Testament, as Cardinal Albert Vanhoye helps us to understand, is that this heart did not exist: "the hearts of all have been led astray and there was no one who was truly just. All have been stained by sin and are, therefore, far from the Lord and unworthy of a relationship with Him because their heart is not perfect."

In an oracle of Jeremiah, God promised a transformation of the heart, saying (paraphrased): "Behold, the New Covenant will be like this: I will write my Laws on their hearts." A Law written on stone could not bring about true union between God and His people. As such, it was presented as being external both to God and his people. A prophecy of Jeremiah announces, therefore, that the believers will have a docile heart that will be ready to accomplish the will of God with love; it will be a heart that is disposed to enter into profound and authentic relationship with God.

In expressing the same thing but in a more radical way, Ezekiel, in God's name, promised a new heart and a new spirit since it was not enough to write the Law of God on an old heart; the heart needed to be radically changed. Therefore, God said: "A new heart I will give you and a new Spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

In order to receive the Spirit of God, it is indispensable to have a new heart. The Bible teaches us that the Spirit is received in the heart. The heart is where the Holy Spirit dwells in us humans. The heart is the indwelling place of the divine presence of the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ, in us humans. God can only dwell in a heart that is pure, holy, docile and loving.

Therefore, the problem was one of having a human heart that was fully opened to the Spirit of God and disposed to a true covenant with Him, in the Priesthood and any other Christian vocation and witness, without putting any obstacles in the way. In other words, the Spirit of God seeks to dwell in such hearts like that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. A heart, which would exclaim to the message of the divine-call as the Blessed Mother Mary did: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your words." (Luke 1:35-38).

To the question of Jesus to the Twelve Apostles on their call (vocation) to follow Him, Simon Peter said: "Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life." Thereafter, Jesus began to teach them with greater emphasis about the loving heart of God the Father and the need to keep the word of God in their hearts: "Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him." (John 14:23).

Thus, we can see from the foregoing that Jesus has accepted the transformation of His heart so as to bring about this promise of God, that is, to produce a new heart. In this sense, we can say, that the heart of Jesus was a perfect heart even from the beginning. "It was united to the Father and disposed to sacrifice itself for men; it is a human heart that has, nevertheless, accepted a transformation in order to fully realize God's design and to be able to communicate to us a new heart."

As St. Paul says, the Son of God, Jesus Christ has taken human nature, "... the likeness of sinful human flesh", precisely so as to effect in us, this an interior transformation of the heart and to obtain for man a new heart. This heart would be docile to God and open to His love, which is also for others.

This transformation has been effected in the passion of Jesus. We all know that Jesus' passion was a moment of great suffering, of great sorrow and of Interior struggle. This was especially true of his agony. In it, we see that Jesus truly had a human heart that was exposed to suffering and anxiety; in this anxiety and anguish, he assumed an attitude of complete docility to the Father: "Not mine, but your will be done" and this for the salvation of the brethren. 'Jesus assumed all the pain of the passion as an occasion of an extraordinary docility of his own heart to the will of the Father. The Letter to the Hebrews says that: "He learned obedience through what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). He willed to learn, not for his own sake, but for us, so as to form in Himself a docile heart on which the Law of God could be written. This heart would be completely new. It wants nothing else but to obey the Father, to do His will and to put oneself at His disposal for the salvation of the brethren.

We must seriously consider what Jesus has accomplished in the redemption: "He has truly accepted that his heart would suffer profoundly so as to be transformed and then to be at the disposal of all believers as a new heart that communicates to us a complete openness to God and to the brethren."

Here is the Priesthood of Christ: Christ is priest and as such is the Mediator of the New Covenant that consists in the transformation of the heart. Jesus has become the perfect priest thanks to his passion, by means of which his human heart was transformed. This heart would become the centre and the source of the New Covenant.

Again, when we speak of the heart of Christ, we are indeed at the centre of the revelation of the New Testament. It not only concerns about theoretical revelation. It also concerns a divine accomplishment that is effected in the human heart of Jesus. We do not really allow ourselves to reach this point; we tend to remain superficial and unable to fully appreciate the richness of the redemption that now lies at our disposal in this new heart.

The great revelation is precisely the love that is manifested in the Incarnation of the Son of God and in his passion. Without love, the passion would have no value. It would have been just a tragic and scandalous event. All has been transformed from the interior, that is, from the heart. That which was most externally opposed to love has become the occasion of the greatest love, thanks to the generosity of the heart of Jesus.

It is not possible to imagine more contrary circumstances for a development of love: the injustice, the cruelty, the betrayal, oppression, ethnic-cleansings, religious violence, racism, discrimination, meanness, all the things which are opposed to love - these have become the occasion of greatest love in the context of an extraordinary victory. The secret is in the heart of Jesus, that is, in his love.

When we speak of the heart, we speak of love. However, this is a love experienced by a man; it is not a divine love that precedes the Incarnation but a love experienced by the Son of God in his human nature, involving human suffering, human feelings and affections and even human decisions. It concerns a heart that is so generous that it accepts the most contrary circumstances in which to make love superabundant.

Priestly heart is heart of love

St Paul teaches us that this is the centre when he speaks of "Agape", that is, of the love of charity (1 Cor 13). For the Corinthians (as for some priests and many Christians today), there were other things that seemed more interesting and more important than charity, namely: prophecy, extraordinary charisms, the gift of miraculous healing, gift of tongues, the 'gnosis' or knowledge. All these things seemed more important to them, more divine. St Paul did not hesitate; he said: "Knowledge has no value apart from love, 'Knowledge puffs up but love builds up."' (1 Cor 13:2). Paul has put love at the centre, which has its own source in the heart of Jesus.

The whole of the New Testament continues in this sense and more precisely, in the sense of the union of the two dimensions of love: love for God and love for the brethren. This is the most specific point in the New Testament. The Old Testament already required the love of God "with all one's heart", but did not unite the love of God with the love of neighbour so closely (cf. Exodus 32:26-29). There was a joining, but it was not strong as Christ required it to be.

Again, in Christ there are two dimensions of the cross, namely: the vertical dimension that expresses relationship with God; and horizontal dimension, which expresses relationship with us. These form a unity: they are the two dimensions of love, united at the centre of the heart of Jesus which intimately unites these two dimensions in spite of the extreme tension which it undergoes. In this way, his heart has become a priestly heart, the heart of the High Priest, the heart of the Mediator of the New Covenant.

The ordained Priesthood is the sacrament of Christ's Priesthood. It is the sacrament of Christ's priestly mediation. Through the bishops and the priests, Christ makes his Priesthood present as the mediation of the New Covenant. Through it, he makes his heart available to all.

Therefore, the ordained Priesthood has an intimate and even profound relationship to the heart of Christ. What some spiritual writers call, "the Sacrament of the Priestly heart of Jesus." Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant, exercises his mediation, which is established in his heart, through "the ministers of the New Covenant" as St Paul says (2 Cor 3:6). In fact, Christ, the good Shepherd, who has loved even to the point of giving his own life for the sheep, takes care of his flock through the shepherds of his Church who are called to "tend the flock of God", as St Peter says in his First Letter (1 Peter 5:2) and as St Paul also says in a discourse of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 20:28).

The ordained Priesthood, like all other Sacraments, is an extraordinary creation of Christ and an expression of his love. Of course, the most important Sacrament is the Eucharist, but the Eucharist is not possible without the Priesthood. In the Eucharistic celebration, there is not only the body and blood of Christ; there is also the sacramental presence of Christ in the priest. This is the reason for the wonder and amazement! We see that Christ has created his sacramental presence, not only in objects and substances, but also in our persons, although they are unworthy. We must be so conscious of this and have such a sense of our responsibility. Is this not what Pope St John Paul II had in mind when he described Priesthood as "Gift and Mystery" (Pope John Paul II, "Gift and Mystery: On the 50th Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination", Pauline Publications-Africa, Nairobi 1996).

In fact, priestly vocation is so very sacred that one does not like to speak of it. Always associated with one's sense of unworthiness, what Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen calls, "sense of the gift of a treasure was the frailty of the earthenware pot which was to house it." (Fulton J. Sheen, "Treasure in Clay", Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1980, p. 30). Elsewhere, Sheen writes that two telling touchstones of a priest's life are his attitude to the Crucifix and the Eucharist:

"In every age where humility, purity and loyalty decline, there is a thrusting aside of the recall of the Cross and the Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The Crucifix is a reminder of our sins if we accept not its forgiveness. The three possible attitudes to Christ on the Cross are: antipathy, apathy, empathy" (Fulton J. Sheen, "Those Mysterious Priests", St Pauls, New York 2005, p.100).

For Cardinal Vanhoye, associating ordained Priesthood to the heart of Jesus is to affirm without any contradiction, that Jesus wanted from the beginning, to unite his priests to those two fundamental relationships of his heart. With the relationship with the Father, we see Jesus' insistence in saying that he has come not to do his own will, but to do the will of the Father (John 5:30; 6:38). We see above all, that he wants to unite the Apostles to his disposition of complete docility (cf. Mt 26:41-42).

Secondly, and on the other hand, Jesus wants to unite his priests to his heart in his mercy towards sinners. We often see this in the Gospels, in particular, in the calling of Matthew (Mt 9:9ff). The Apostles are in this way associated with the movement of mercy in Christ's heart, even from the moment of their calling. No longer will the external ritual worship of sanctification by means of separations be sought after; this is the old system. Now the new worship will be effected in a movement of mercy toward the brethren in full docility to the love of the Father. The sacrifice of Christ was in no way a sacrifice according to the old manner. It was an act of extreme mercy, that is, a capital punishment transformed by the heart into an offering of mercy.

Furthermore, it is also possible to analyze the Priesthood in another way. The Priesthood of Christ brings together the three dimensions that correspond to its three functions. These are the three "munera": that of prophet, priest and king. This becomes part of the Letter to the Hebrews concerning Christ's Priesthood (see also the visit of the Magi to the newly born King, Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 2:12).

  1. Christ communicates the Word of God better than the prophets; after all, he is the Word. God has spoken to us in the Son and now the Word of God comes to us through Christ. This is the fundamental aspect of his Priesthood.

  2. As priest, Christ sanctifies us by communicating the divine life to us.

  3. As King, Christ governs the Church and assures it communion in unity.

These three 'munera' belong to the Priesthood of Christ the High Priest and are communicated to the ordained priests who must communicate the Word of God as the fundamental aspect, who must communicate the divine life through the Sacraments and who must assure unity in governing the people of God. We see in the Gospels that in accomplishing these three priestly responsibilities, Jesus wants to associate the Apostles with his heart (cf. Mk 6:34; Mt 28:19-20).

The second 'munera' which is to communicate the divine life, is illustrated in the Gospels in the episodes of the multiplication of loaves (Mt 14:16ff; Mk 8:1-6). These scenes clearly prefigure the Eucharistic gift. The Gospels make this relationship clear. At the Last Supper, Jesus has placed his own body and blood into the hands of the Apostles and later, his bishops and priests, so that they might distribute the divine life to all the faithful. This comes from his compassion, from his heart. It is clear that the Eucharist is the most extraordinary gift of the heart of Jesus. Jesus makes his own heart available to the priests who have the mission "to distribute" this heart, just as he has broken the bread and distributed it. Fundamentally, the Christian life consists in receiving the heart of Jesus. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said that, "Evangelization is carrying Jesus in your heart and bringing him to the hearts of others."

Lastly, the third aspect is to assure communion in unity. This aspect is expressed in the Gospel of Matthew which begins with a description of the ministry of Jesus Himself, saying: "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every infirmity" (Mt 9:35). Afterwards, Jesus notes the human dispersion (diaspora) and "feels compassion." (Mt 9:36ff).

The mission of the twelve is recounted immediately after (Mt 10: 1-5) and is found in this light. It is understood to be as a result of the compassion of the heart of Jesus for the crowds and of his desire to associate chosen men with this charitable work of them together as one family in His name.

This is precisely one of the essential tasks of the Priesthood: "to structure and pattern unity" in diversity and equity, and to make this unity possible through the ecclesiology of communion and autonomy of the churches, with the See of St Peter as the centre of communion, presiding in charity over the whole Church of Christ on earth.

The unity of the Church, expressed as communion and autonomy of the churches scattered across the globe, but in communion with the See of St Peter, which presides in charity, is a major task of the Priesthood. To gather men and women together in the Church and to govern cannot be a work of ambition or of domination or of discrimination on whatever basis. It must be a service in humility, inspired by love of Jesus. Jesus himself said this to his Apostles when they quarreled for first place:

"You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it must not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to give his life for ransom for many" (Mk 10:42-45; cf. Lk 22:25-26).