The priest: In persona Christi
May 2, 2012 - I met a young priest in Fairfax, Va., last week. Of course “young” is a relative term. Everyone around me gets younger with each passing year.
Father Jaffe had been at the parish for less than a week and was the priest on call for the local hospital. It was 2 a.m. when his pager went off. A couple had lost their 8-year-old son hours before and the mother wouldn’t let go of his body.
All attempts of the staff and hospital chaplain to get her to release her son had failed. She sat rocking him, unresponsive to anyone. The woman wasn’t Catholic, but the staff knew from experience that it was time to call in a priest.
When the newly ordained 26-year-old arrived he did the only thing that came to mind. He sat with the parents in silence for a moment and said,
“It looks like you need some prayer.” He opened his rite book, “The Pastoral Care of the Sick” to the section with the prayers for the deceased and he began to pray aloud.
Toward the end of the rite is the beautiful Litany of the Saints—“St. Joseph, pray for us. St. Monica, pray for us….”—that helps the grieving call to mind our family on the other side of eternity, which has already embraced our beloved deceased. The rite concludes with prayers entrusting the deceased to the Lord: “I commend you, my dear brother, to almighty God and entrust you to your Creator. May you return to the One who formed you from the dust of the earth. May Holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints come to meet you as you go forth from this life. ... May you see your Redeemer face-to-face, and enjoy the vision of God forever. Amen.”
After the “Amen” the mother stopped rocking her boy and without ceremony, silently laid his body in the arms of the priest. The new Father then carried the body to hospital personnel.
That was Father’s introduction to just how up-close and personal the life of a priest can be. The sacrifice of celibacy that our priests make requires being alone in many ways. But the most intimate experiences of life and death, usually only shared with close family members, are also shared with them. They are there at our deathbeds, straddling time and eternity with us. Even if someone hasn’t practiced the faith in years, a priest is often their final escort. They are there at our weddings, standing as close to the bride and groom as they are to one another, a sign of Christ in the sacrament of marriage. They are holding our babies with us at baptism when they become children of God. At our lowest moments, they are waiting to lift us up in the confessional. Before a surgery, when only your spouse might be there holding your hand, your priest is also there, anointing you. And in tragic moments at 2 a.m., they are on call. These men have sacrificed family to be part of everyone’s family.
Jesus made the promise, “I am with you always” (Matt 28:20). Priests are prone to weakness and in need of redemption just like everyone else. They are also even capable of giving rise to scandal, just like everyone else. But despite this, a priest is no ordinary human. His soul is forever changed and he stands in persona Christi, that is, “in the person of Christ.” He offers more than bread to the Father at Mass. He offers his very self. In a very tangible way, he is Jesus Christ among us.
St. Francis of Assisi, reflecting on the priesthood, said: “If I were to meet at the same time some saint coming down from heaven and any poor little priest, I would first pay my respects to the priest and proceed to kiss his hands. I would say, ‘Ah, just a moment St. …, because this person’s hands handle the Word of Life and possess something that is more than human.”
It’s not easy to give your life the way our priests do. In May and June, when most U.S. ordinations happen, we will likely ordain more than 450 young men to the priesthood. That’s an encouraging number, but not nearly enough. There are currently more than 3,000 parishes without a resident pastor. In the midst of a world that seems to define all priests by the fallen few, let’s remember the beauty of this vocation—and let’s remind our young people that life is worth giving.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of youth outreach for YDisciple. Visit him at www.RealLifeCatholic.com. Stefanick’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese.