I read last week a letter in the Inquirer written by a prayer group from UP Los Baños in reaction to an article entitled “Is it Good for Priest to be alone?” What touched me in the letter of this prayer group was their realization of “the importance of the laity’s continually building and sustaining a rampart of prayer and sacrifice for the priesthood, ordained by Jesus Christ and beloved by him.”
This is indeed a happy note for me because most often when a priest is in the depths of crisis, instead of offering him a prayer, all that his people would care to do is to malign him and strip him of whatever good reputation he has left. Praying for our priest is very important and this what precisely the bishop invites us to do after examining the candidate’s intention and resolve to embrace the priesthood, for he himself has experienced that “alone and unaided we could not even hope to please God.” We may put up a happy facade before our people but deep inside we are burdened with a job and a way of life that is humanly impossible to do and to live properly without divine intervention. In my experience as a priest of two years I am becoming ever more convinced that the spiritual support of the laity is indispensable so much so that I make it even a point that in my visit to the sick and the dying I would always whisper to their ears before I leave that they pray for me, to provide me so to say “a rampart of prayer and sacrifice.”
After this invitation to pray, the candidate in deep humility lie prostrate, plunging himself on the ground, as he becomes conscious of his unworthiness to the awesome life to which he is called. This particular scene hounds me whenever I feel proud about my priesthood and wave it like a banner so that I could avail of the extra perks this privileged position society owes me or so I thought. I could not remember now what went into my mind when I was lying there prostrate before the altar. But as I lived my priesthood these past two years I have become more and more aware of the reality of this symbolic gesture, when the burden of this awesome responsibility overwhelms me and slowly plunges me into the ground sometimes crying in fear and asking “why me?”
Despite the candidate’s feeling of unworthiness to the call expressed in this symbolic gesture of obeisance and surrender, everyone in the cathedral kneel in earnest prayer and the solemn singing of the litany of the saints begin. Every time we reach this rite the atmosphere seems different, as if the activities of heaven and earth ground to a halt and everybody, saints and sinners alike, church militant and church triumphant, face God’s holy throne to entreat Him to help this young man in the fulfillment of his task. At this precise moment a priest should become aware of the fact that he could only succeed in his mission when the support and faith and prayers of others sustain him. This rite particularly expresses beautifully our need for mutual dependence - the need to make our communion with the saints and with each other work.
Then comes the most solemn moment. Everybody stands and in silence the bishop lays his hands on the head of the candidate in quiet invocation of the Holy Spirit. This is the heart of the rite of ordination and this is what makes a person a priest forever. Then the concelebrating priests go to the candidate and lay their hands on his head in silence. Its as if the priests offer a drop of their own blood so that another would have life. This is the source and foundation of the presbyterium, the sacramental bond of brotherhood which must exist among priests for “the Lord intends that priests carry out his work” united in this bond.
This solemn moment is culminated by the prayer of consecration in which the bishop together with his priests who prays with him in, silence invokes the Lord to grant to this “servant of yours the dignity of the priesthood.”
Since he is now a new priest by the laying on of hands he is then invested with stole and chasuble in which he will celebrate the Eucharist daily. These vestments are outward signs of his ministry, of his function. These signifies that as a priest he should do his best to “hide” his person under these vestments for whenever he presides over his people he does so in the person of Christ. For me the vestments in which I am garb as a priest is a constant reminder that I am just a mere instrument in the hand of God and whatever honor I receive or seek is not mine nor should it be directed to me but to Jesus whom I represent. As a priest I must always be ready to take the pain of hiding “in the person of Jesus.” Here lies the greatness and the difficulty of the priestly calling for though our ministry confers on us the power of Jesus, it is not always easy to sublimate ones passion and ones nature and disposition to make that of Jesus shine forth.
The priesthood then, as these vestments signify, does not exist for its own sake, nor is it given for the glory it accords to the individual. Rather it is a form of service to the people whom Christ has called to holiness. We have the same dignity - laity and priests are equal in dignity but we are called to a diversity of function, functions by which we build up the kingdom and one another in the measure of Christ.
After this ceremony the new priest goes to the bishop who anoints his hands with Chrism, the oil by which kings and prophets in the Old Testament were anointed to send them to the mission of caring for God’s people. Through this anointing he is given the gifts of the Spirit to equip him in his task of teaching, sanctifying and governing God’s people. This consecration is the reason why we kiss the hands of the priest. It is consecrated - who despite his sinfulness is made an instrument of God to bless, to sanctify, to forgive, to nourish. It is a gift and it is these gifts of the Spirit that we kiss in the hands of the priests, ever thankful to God for the wonders of his mercy.
Then the people bring the bread and wine to be offered in the mass to the bishop who present them to the new priest saying, “Accept from the people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” The first gifts presented to him and the first garb he is made to wear are the ones used to celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice, the mass. These signify that the Eucharist is central to his life and call. And in order to celebrate it “in his person,” he must become more and more attuned to his person, to participate in the sacrifice of Christ - in the mystery of his cross. This would mean that without a sacrifice of his own, without the struggle to become more available like Christ and the pain of slowly learning self-surrender, the priest cannot authentically carry out his ministry in the person of Christ. This again is cause for humility for us priests and our silent plea for the spiritual support of the faithful for after all it is from them and for them that the call was made.
Lastly the bishop gives the kiss of peace by embracing him as a father embraces a son. And all the other concelebrating priests who laid their hands on him embrace him, accepting him in the brotherhood which our call and mission binds us in unity.
The sacrament of orders is a celebration of God’s call. It affirms and celebrates the call and it signifies and set forth the manner in which this call is to be lived both by the candidate himself and the laity to whom the responsibility of supporting the call is entrusted. When I received my ordination two years ago I never thought that these rites would bring me deeper into the mystery of the priesthood. For me they were just gestures and words. But as I live my priesthood the meaning which they signify becomes clearer and I know that it will become clearer still as time goes by and my experiences in the ministry accumulate. Today as I look back into my life I feel so little in the splendor of this rite conscious of what I have done and what I have failed to do as a priest. Because of this the confiteor we recite at every mass is my personal plea to God for mercy for it is through his mercy that I have become and am a priest today. As I reflect on this rite I become ever conscious of my own unworthiness but just the same the call has to be answered in humility conscious that one time in my life heaven and earth grounded to a halt to plead for God’s assistance on this His unworthy servant.
This is what I am inviting you to do as we gather together to celebrate God’s call to our beloved bother Rev. Midyphil Billones on October 2 - to be one with us in praying for God’s unworthy servant.