Priestly Renewal and the Call of Lent
Lent calls us back to being faithful and zealous disciples of Jesus Christ
Father Jeffrey Kirby Comments Off on Priestly Renewal and the Call of Lent
As priests, we sometimes hear from (or about) spouses who are so busy with work, family and children that they begin to forget themselves and their nuptial union. In trying to serve their families, they begin to lose their marriage. The hustle and bustle of important and pressing duties, responsibilities, commitments and expectations have overwhelmed the one sacred thing that has been divinely entrusted to them — namely, their marital vocation. They have buried their marriage under so many other things that an unearthing, a full resurrection, is sorely needed.
As priests, we can relate to such a state of frenzy and forgetfulness. As with one vocation, so with them all. We all live in a fallen and fast-paced world. As priests, we can just as well bury our priestly vocation under so many things that, in a similar way, we also need renewal and resurrection.
As we enter the penitential season of Lent, we can use this blessed time as an opportunity for renewal and rejuvenation. Such renovation begins in our own Christian discipleship. As priests and spiritual fathers, we oftentimes wear ourselves down in service to God’s people and, at times, this can adversely affect our own following of the Lord Jesus. While our priestly formation teaches us to catch these slips and slides, the liturgical year is also given to us as an additional help and grace. The opportunities of the liturgical year remind us that, however well-intentioned our service is and however much the People of God demand from us, we cannot allow ourselves to lose our own relationship with Jesus Christ, our high priest, Lord, Savior, friend, teacher, companion and confidant.
As the Lord placed his communion with the Father and the obedience to his will above all things, so we, his disciples and ministerial priests, are called to do the same.
Apostle and Penitent
In his following of the Lord, St. Peter was as sincere as he was unpredictable. And so, when he and the other apostles saw the Jesus walking on water, he didn’t think twice about calling out and asking, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Mt 14:28). The Lord responded and beckoned Peter to “come” to him. The account is then given: “Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus” (v. 29). Yes, the man walked on water! In the supernatural powers of our priesthood, do we realize that we also walk on water every day?
Regrettably, the encounter between the Lord and Peter does not stop there, nor does it stop there for us.
As St. Peter was walking on water, he took his eyes off the Lord and began to look at the waves and the stirring of the wind. He was filled with fear and began to sink. The things around him and about him became more pressing than the Lord. And so, Peter sank. He lost a share of the glory that was offered in that encounter.
In desperation, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” (14:30). And the Lord Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and caught him.
The fallenness of the apostle robbed him of the glory that God wanted to show him and let him participate in. So, also, in our own lives and ministries, our fallenness can rob us of the glory that God wants to daily reveal to us and allow us to share in. As priests and spiritual sons of the chief apostle, we can relate to his weakness and spiritual cowardice. How often have we lost the glory of an encounter with the Lord? How often have we let the distractions of the world or the busyness of life steal the glory that’s offered to us by Jesus Christ?
The Gift of Tears
Pope Francis spoke of the gift of tears in his General Audience on Feb. 12, 2020. “In the Scriptures, this weeping can have two aspects,” Pope Francis said. “The first is for the death or suffering of someone. The other aspect is the tears for the sin — for one’s own sin — when the heart bleeds for the suffering of having offended God and neighbor.”
Pope Francis said: “There are those who cry for the wrong done, for the good omitted, for the betrayal of the relationship with God. This is crying for not having loved, that springs from caring about the life of others. Here one cries because one does not match the Lord who loves us so much, and the thought of the good not done makes one sad. This is the sense of the sin. These people say, ‘I have hurt the one I love’ and this causes them to suffer to the point of tears. May God be blessed if these tears arrive!”
The pope added: “Let us think about the weeping of St. Peter, which takes him to a new and much truer love. It is weeping that purifies, renews. Peter looked at Jesus and cried: His heart had been renewed. … To understand sin is a gift from God, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot understand sin on our own. It is a grace that we have to ask. Lord, may I understand the evil I have committed or might commit. This is a great gift and after understanding this comes the weeping of repentance.”
The apostle’s simple cry of “save me” announces a profound shift in St. Peter’s life. The desperate shout for salvation announced in the waters of the Sea of Galilee finds a deeper expression later in his life. As he denied Christ three times and witnessed the Lord’s arrest and brutal mistreatment at the hands of the soldiers, the chief apostle “went out and began to weep bitterly” (Lk 22:62). The great and successful fisherman and businessman of Galilee completely broke down. He allowed himself a prodigal son’s realization — “I shall get up and go to my father” (Lk 15:18) — and repented. Unpleased with where he was with the Lord Jesus, he accepted the grace to change it. The apostle cried what our ascetical tradition calls “holy tears,” since they are the tears of true repentance and radical conversion. Such tears cleanse the heart and are a physical display of a total interior metanoia. They have a baptismal overture and cry out declarations of absolution and reconciliation.
Simon Peter of Capernaum was apostle, shepherd and spiritual father, but also a disciple, sinner and penitent. If that’s the case with St. Peter, why not us? When was the last time we sought or welcomed holy tears in our lives? Do we confess from the fullness of our hearts and tell the Lord: “Lord, I’m not where you want me to be or where I need to be. I’m away from you. Save me! Give me holy tears. Let me turn back to you and give you my whole heart. I want to faithfully follow you”? These are Lenten questions. These are Christian questions. And we are called to be honest in answering them as we seek a greater union with the Lord.
Examination of Conscience
In 2011, the Congregation of Clergy issued “The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy: An Aid for Confessors and Spiritual Directors.” In the document, an examination of conscience was offered. Here are a few of the questions contained in that examination:
• Do I really take holiness seriously in my priesthood? Am I convinced that the success of my priestly ministry comes from God and that, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, I have to identify myself with Christ and give my life for the salvation of the world?
• Is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the center of my spiritual life? Do I prepare well to celebrate Mass? Do I devoutly celebrate the Mass?
• Do I enjoy being in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, in meditation and in silent adoration? Am I faithful to the daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament?
• Do I carefully make a daily meditation and try to overcome all distractions which separate me from God? Do I seek illumination from the Lord whom I serve? Do I assiduously meditate on the sacred Scriptures? Do I carefully say my habitual prayers?
• Do I celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours every day in an integral, dignified and devout manner? Am I faithful to my commitment to Christ in this important aspect of my ministry, praying in the name of the entire Church?
• Is the Lord Jesus Christ the true love of my life? Do I joyfully observe my commitment to love God in celibate continence?
• Is my knowledge of the teachings of the Church as comprehensive as it should be? Do I assimilate and transmit her teachings?
• Do I regularly go to confession?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts everything in perspective: “The presence of Christ in the minister is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of the ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the sacraments, so that even the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church” (No. 1550).
As reflected in the Catechism, the Church gives us an arena to acknowledge our sins and weaknesses and to seek the mercy and healing of the living God. We are given the freedom not to pretend that we are perfect, but to recognize our own brokenness and to confess our own sins. We are offered endless new beginnings in Jesus Christ, and each fresh start is a new call to love and follow him more zealously.
As disciples and priests, we cannot deprive ourselves of the graces of repentance, or of holy tears (as the Lord decides to give them), nor can we absent ourselves from the continual process of conversion that helps us to grow into an ever deeper and more wholehearted friendship with the Lord.
As with St. Peter, so with each of us. As the chief apostle waivered and repented, turned back to the Lord and rejoiced in his friendship, we are called to do the same.
Friend and Worker
In his apostolic writings, St. Paul describes his life and ministry as “being poured out like a libation” (2 Tm 4:6), and yet as much as the apostle lived a life of kenotic loving service, he clung deeply and unconditionally to Jesus Christ. As he declared: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Phil 1:21).
As in our own priestly ministry, St. Paul knew and accepted that being with the Lord as a disciple and as a shepherd of his people meant that much labor and effort would be expected of him. He describes the ripping within his own heart as desires to be with the Lord in heaven but knows that he is called to stay and work among God’s people here on earth (cf. Phil 1:21-24).
Although the apostle’s first desire was to be with the Lord, even to be in heaven with him. He never lost sight of eternal beatitude with our Savior. In our priesthood, we are called to have the same conviction. And only after we have this first desire to be with the Lord did St. Paul then commit himself to forego an immediate entrance into heaven, so that he could minister among God’s people here. He writes, “And this I know with confidence, that I shall remain and continue in the service of all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound on account of me when I come to you again” (Phil 1:25-26).
In this way, Paul shows us, as priests of the New Covenant, how we are called to prostrate ourselves in self-sacrificing ministry, but without ever losing our focus on Jesus Christ and without lessening in any way our union with him and our desire to be with him in eternity.
It is a difficult balance to preserve a harmony between our work for the Lord on the one hand and our relationship with him on the other. In such a struggle for this tranquility, Lent comes to us like a breeze on a hot day, and it summons us back to an examination of conscience, a sober assessment of where we are with the Lord. Lent calls us back to our first love. It rattles the cages of our hearts and calls us to transparency and repentance before the Lord who loves us.
The lives of the great apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul, can be Lenten lessons for us and our priestly ministries as we seek harmony between our relationship with the Lord and our service to his people. These holy men — pillars of the Church — show us how to stay close to the Lord Jesus while doing his work. They exhort us to cling to the Lord and never allow our relationship with him to fade or be eclipsed by anything. In light of their zealousness and vibrant ministries, none of us can honestly claim to be too busy to pray, or to go to confession, read the Bible, do spiritual reading or visit the sick and homebound.
The apostles shared our same fallen human nature, our same concupiscence, and they were just as busy (and even more so) than any of us, and yet they never let their friendship and discipleship dim or lose luster. They remained close to the Lord as they preached his Gospel and served his people.
There is a liberating honesty and spiritual freshness that comes with admitting where we truly are with the Lord. Lent is a time for such honesty. It offers us the abundance of that spiritual freedom won by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we are sincere and transparent, we allow the Holy Spirit to heal, edify, restore and convert us. The Holy Spirit can work with brokenness, sinfulness and waywardness — earthen vessels in every form — but the Holy Spirit cannot work with liars and deceivers.
If we refuse to be transparent and deny the Holy Spirit the opportunity to work within us, then we have only one impending option: We fake it. We fall into what our moral and ascetical traditions call duplicity. We pretend to be one person, while we are actually someone else.
Simon the Magician
The father of all duplicity is Simon the Magician. We hear his story in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 8:9-25).
While Philip the apostle was visiting Samaria, powerful works of the Lord were done by his hands. The lame were cured, demons were cast out and the paralyzed were healed. One of the onlookers was a man named Simon, who had previously been a magician. Many people thought Simon was “great” and followed him. When the people saw the power coming through Philip, however, they repented and sought baptism. The Scriptures tell us that even Simon came to believe in the Lord Jesus. He was baptized and “became devoted to Philip” (Acts 8:13). Simon was mesmerized by the signs and wonders that were being done.
Peter and John were sent to Samaria to call down the Holy Spirit upon the new Christians. When Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power too, so that anyone upon whom I lay my hands may receive the holy Spirit” (8:19).
St. Peter was shocked by the request and said to him, “May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could buy the gift of God with money. You have no share or lot in this matter, for your heart is not upright before God. Repent of this wickedness of yours and pray to the Lord that, if possible, your intention may be forgiven. For I see that you are filled with bitter gall and are in the bonds of iniquity” (vv. 20-23). In response, Simon repented and asked of the chief apostle, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (v. 24).
The exchange is disturbing. Simon saw the signs and wonders of God. He wanted the power, but he wasn’t willing to simply accept the laying on of hands and follow faithfully the way of the Lord. He wasn’t open to humbly walking with the Lord Jesus and accepting whatever gifts he chose to give him. Simon wanted to circumvent the cross and the path of discipleship. He only wanted the works of the Lord, not the Lord himself. He accepted baptism but refused to follow the baptismal way of life.
Simon the Magician didn’t ask to learn how to pray, or how to interpret the Old Testament. He didn’t ask about fighting sin or laboring for virtue. He didn’t have any questions about selfless service or how to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Simon didn’t care about these things. He just wanted the works of the Lord, without the Lord and his most excellent way of love.
In our own contemporary ways, we can oftentimes imitate Simon the Magician and try to maneuver around the demands of discipleship and priesthood and simply do the works of the Lord and his Church. We can claim to serve the Lord whom we are actually avoiding. We can be our own worst version of Simon the Magician.
Our task is to avoid the regression that leads to being a Simon the Magician. We must be vigilant and have a healthy suspicion of ourselves so that we retain a strong and robust relationship with the Lord. Our call is to live the way of the Lord, whatever the cost, and not to excuse ourselves from the demands of discipleship because we think we are somehow doing the works of the Lord.
As priests, we are called to be the first disciples of the community entrusted to us. As first disciples, we should relish and rejoice in the way of the Lord Jesus. We should find consolation and peace in our following him and find in him the value, meaning and purpose of all that we do and seek to become. As the early apostles found harmony between their relationship with the Lord and their service to his people, we are invited and challenged to do the same.
As we seek to be the first disciples in our communities, so we will aspire to be the first witnesses of the Lord to those to whom we’ve been sent. As priests, we possess a supernatural bond with our people. It is a bond given by the Holy Spirit within the Body of Christ.
As we exercise our ministerial priesthood, we are united with God’s people in the one priesthood of the Lord. There is one priesthood, different in degree and manner, but still only one. As the baptismal priesthood of the faithful is in service to the world, so the ministerial priesthood is in service to the baptized. And before all else — our words, works and deeds — our first service to them is the witness of a strong disciple. A disciple who loves the Lord and seeks for him to be the center of his life. A disciple who repents, goes to confession and seeks constant conversion in his life. A disciple who is a friend of the Lord, who selflessly seeks to follow his way, and is joyful as he walks with the Lord through the joys and sufferings of the day.
As St. Peter denounced Simon the Magician and his wayward desire to avoid the way of the Lord and seek only his works, so we are called — especially this Lent — to be first disciples and first witnesses and so denounce anything that will weaken our love and relationship with the Lord.
Our task is to embrace the cross, cling to Jesus Christ, seek his grace, faithfully follow his way, and then — from these foundations — serve and minister in his name, do powerful signs and wonders in his name. This is the call of our baptism. It’s the call of our priestly ordination. It’s the call of this Lenten season.
FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY, STD, is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina. He is the host of the daily devotional, The Morning Offering with Father Kirby, and the author of the book “Lord, Teach Us to Pray: A Guide to the Spiritual Life and Christian Discipleship” (Saint Benedict Press, $11.95).
Priestly Solemn Promises
The solemn promises we live by:
• Do you renounce sin, so as to live in the freedom of the children of God? Do you renounce the lure of evil, so that sin may have no mastery over you? Do you renounce Satan, the author and prince of sin?
• Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
Priestly Ordination Promises:
• Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as worthy fellow workers with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?
• Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?
• Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?
• Do you resolve to implore with us God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to your care by observing the command to pray without ceasing?
• Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us as a pure sacrifice, and with him to consecrate yourselves to God for the salvation of all?
• Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?