Sunday, October 14, 2012

Homily on Priesthood: Fr. Andersen

A Homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart-St. Louis in Gervais, Oregon, for Sunday, October  14th, 2012

Dominica XXVIII Per Annum, Anno B.

[My emphases]

St. Peter said to him: “We have given up everything and followed you.”

Here is a great paradox of the Christian faith: give up something good, and you will receive something greater. This is basically the meaning of sacrifice. Some people sacrifice enjoyment for the sake of getting good grades. Others sacrifice having a large home so that they can travel. Some people sacrifice comfort for the sake of fashion. And some sacrifice the good of married life for the sake of belonging entirely to Jesus Christ. Such was the case with St. Peter and so many saints who came after him, who said ‘Lord, we have given up everything and followed you.’

Last week we spoke about the dignity and beauty of the married life between one man and one woman. Marriage is a sacrament in which God’s love is mediated through the spouses to one another. The clerical life is different but similar in that a man takes the Church as his bride. A priest stands in the place of Jesus Christ, but his mystical bride is the Church. His soul is espoused to God immediately through the Church without the mediation of a human bride. A nun is likewise a bride of Jesus Christ immediately, without the mediation of a human spouse.

St. Peter set the standard for all priestly life when he was called upon to give up everything to follow Jesus Christ. In the earliest days of Christianity, priests were taken from among married men. “However, a precondition for married men to receive [the sacrament of holy] orders as deacons, priests, or bishops, was that after ordination they were required to live perpetual continence… They had, with the prior agreement of their spouses, to be prepared to forego conjugal life in the future” (McGovern. Priestly Celibacy Today, p. 33). In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life (Lk 18:29b-30).  

From apostolic times, priests were called upon to either leave their wife, with their wife’s permission, or to live in perfect continence with their wife as though with his sister. This priestly continence was a condition for the clerical state. As early as the year 305, a Council held in Elvira, Spain, legislated that those priests who violated this rule should be excluded from the clerical state (Can. 33).

Later it became the law for priests to be taken exclusively from among unmarried men. Why should this be so important? It is critical because a Christian man can only have one spouse. We know from last week’s gospel that if a man has more than one spouse, he is committing adultery with one of them. He can only have one wife. Likewise, a woman can have only one husband. This is why the Blessed Virgin Mary continued as a virgin in her marriage to St. Joseph. She was the bride of God, the spouse of the Holy Spirit. St. Joseph is a model for priests because he forsook the use of his marriage and maintained perfect continence for the sake of the kingdom taking the mother of God for his virginal spouse.

And so a man who is a priest is a spouse of the Church. The Church is a priest’s bride and therefore, he cannot give himself to another woman. It would be considered adultery. Now, I imagine that some of you are saying, “but isn’t this just a discipline of the Western Church that could be changed to reflect the discipline in the Eastern Church?” After all, in the East, there are married priests. Isn’t that the more ancient practice? Actually the ancient practice is that priests must be continent in order to approach that which is holy. The priests in the Old Testament could have no relations with their wives when they ministered in the Temple. Likewise, soldiers could have no relations with their wives when they were at war. There is a connection between the priest and the soldier. They both deal with blood. The handling of weapons and the handling of sacred vessels are not to be taken lightly. One should be pure of body and soul for both. This is why Pope John Paul II wrote that “To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained” (Dominicae Cenae 11).  
The ancient fathers gathered at the Council of Carthage wrote: “…it is indeed necessary that those who approach the altar, when they touch holy things, be continent in every respect so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God” (qtd. Stickler 71).

There was a time when a sacristan or an acolyte would not touch the priest’s chalice without wearing gloves. A man had to be ordained a deacon before he could handle the sacred vessels with his bare hands. He had to be consecrated to God and living out a pure and continent life in order to approach the holy of holies. This discipline remained in place until very recently. Today it is common for people to handle the Eucharistic Host and to take the chalice in their bare hands and consume the Precious Blood. The Church in the United States allows this.  There is no sin involved, but consider how our sense of boundaries has gradually broken down. The reason why touching the sacred vessels and the Eucharist with his bare hands had been reserved to the priest alone is that it communicated his spousal relationship with the Church. He alone could handle God because of his continence and chaste celibacy. Standing in the place of Jesus Christ, the priest had exclusive marital rights to his mystical bride in the handling of the sacred vessels and the Holy Eucharist.

This was not questioned or challenged because men and women understood what it meant to live in marital fidelity and to enjoy exclusive marital rights to the body of one’s spouse. Today, unfortunately, those boundaries are so regularly violated that many men and woman think nothing of handling each other outside of marriage. There is something to be said for the practice of wearing gloves to handle that which is sacred until one has obtained the marital right through a sacrament.

How do we account then for married priests in the East? Are they not committing adultery against the Church by having relations with their wives? We know from the earliest history of the Church that perpetual clerical continence was the requirement in both East and West. Priests taken from among married men were required to forsake the use of their marriage. This was known to be of apostolic origin. As an ancient Eastern witness, Bishop Epiphanius of Constantia in Cyprus, writing in “the second half of the fourth century, …states that the God of the world has shown the charism of the new priesthood, either through men who have renounced the use of their sole marriage contracted before ordination or through those who have always lived as virgins. That, he says, is the norm which was established by the apostles in both wisdom and holiness” (cf. Patrologia Graeca [PG] 41, 868, 1024. qtd. Stickler 59).

So what happened to change things in the East? Why, today, are there married priests in the East? One answer is that in the year 691, the Second Byzantine Council of Trullo decreed “that priests, deacons, and subdeacons in the Eastern Church can…live with their spouses and use marriage, except during those times in which they exercise service at the altar and celebrate the sacred mysteries, during which they must remain continent” (cf. Stickler 70-71). This was a break from the ancient apostolic practice, but what happened here is that married priests were excused from exercising the fullness of the priesthood. They participate in the priesthood during holy seasons and on weekends, and they must forsake the use of their marriage during those times. What remains apostolic about the discipline in the East today is that bishops in the East cannot be married or they must renounce the use of the marriage and remain perpetually continent. A bishop has the fullness of the priesthood. In the East a bishop is held to that which all priests are held in the West. In the West, our priests are priests every day and at every hour of the day. We approach the sacred mysteries every day, and therefore, we must be perpetually continent, chaste, and celibate.
We priests are married to God with the Church as our Bride. The Blessed Virgin Mary stands in the place of our Bride the Church. We must have a great devotion to her and never speak ill of her. Every priest must revere his bride the Church, and guard and protect her with his very life. There is no point of doctrine that is not worthy of laying down his life to defend. Young men, I know that among you there are some who are discerning priesthood. Jesus asks you to leave everything, to renounce everything good which the world promises. The world promises but cannot deliver. Jesus promises you more and He delivers abundantly. Sacrifice the good of married life for the sake of belonging entirely to Jesus Christ. Follow St. Peter, and St. John the beloved, St. Anthony, St. Damian of Molokai, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, Blessed John Paul II and countless others who forsook everything in this life and gained everlasting life. 

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