I hope I still remember my Latin studies enough to correctly spell what I learned was the role of the priest in my Church and now understand as applying to those who lead other Christian denominations as well. As a child (before I ever heard the designation) I knew that the priest was very special and that he was the one who stood “as the person of Christ” in our parish. We looked to him – to them, since in those days we had five – to teach by example what Christ taught and to be Christ-like in all things. We expected a lot of our priests but gave them honor, respect and admiration as a matter of course. We did not question their loyalty, their competence or their holiness.
Times have changed and we are more realistic now. We see priests (and doctors and teachers and other professionals) not as super-human images of God but rather just like the rest of us: some more talented than others, some with more charisma and ability to preach, some good business people and all in some way imperfect and fallible. That’s good, I think. It not only makes them more approachable; it also brings Jesus closer when we read Scripture texts like this morning’s gospel from John 17. He is praying to God for the disciples as he prepares to leave the earth, “the ones you gave me,” telling God essentially that he has done his best with them and given them everything he could so that they would carry on his mission. And so they did – but not perfectly, of course.
Last evening I was reading the short summaries of the life and ministry of priests in our diocese who are celebrating “jubilees” – anniversaries of 25, 40, 50 or 60 years of priesthood. This issue of our diocesan newspaper is an annual occurrence which I usually read, but this time I was struck by the breadth of the work that these men have accomplished in their lives – not just their leadership experiences in parishes but all of the “extra-curricular” things they have done and the extra education they have sought to enhance their capacities. More engaging was the final comment from each of them about the most significant thing about being a priest. To a person they did not speak of accomplishment but rather of their joy in the privilege of serving God and relating to people.
In coming to the realization that our Church is just as flawed as other institutions in society and living through scandal that is not only demoralizing but unthinkable for those who were taught to consider priesthood as imaging Christ in ways that none of us could achieve – especially if we were girls – it has been a rocky road of late. I have been blessed to know many exemplary priests in my life, all of whom have their faults and failings but whose purpose is clear and steadfast: they are here to serve God. I was reminded of that and of my responsibility to support and respect them as partners on the journey that we share. The truth is that we are all called to stand in persona Christi and there are no pedestals reserved for any group along the path to God, just an occasional word of thanks for service rendered. And that is a good thing for us all.