I have come to the conclusion that priests are a unique species. We come in all shapes and sizes. We can lean to the left or to the right theologically and politically. We minister with different levels of zeal and enthusiasm. We have varied gifts and talents: some can sing, while others should not; some can preach, while others can only be understood with much difficulty; some can teach, while others are more effective than Sominex.
We might be better termed an odd lot—something you could perhaps find available at a Big Lots store.
What do we all have in common? It’s our vocation—our “calling from God.” Somehow, somewhere we all sensed an invitation from the Lord to be His priest: Come follow me! (see Mk. 10:21)
Our Priestly vocations were tested in the seminary and eventually confirmed by the laying on of hands by a bishop. At that time we begin to act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). When a priest baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When a priest forgives sin, it is Christ who forgives sin. When a priest anoints a sick person, it is Christ who anoints the sick person. When a priest offers the Mass, it is Christ who is once again made present in the Holy Eucharist through the instrument of the priest. Christ does the work through the instrument of the priest.
While it is most important that a priest personally strives for holiness of life, the sacraments are not dependent on a particular priest’s holiness. The simple reason is that it is not the priest (and his own talents or abilities) who is behind the act, but rather Christ. If we use the theological terminology, we say it this way: the sacraments occur ex opere operato (from the work itself being worked) and not ex opere operantis (from the person doing it or the work of the worker). The lack of holiness of a particular priest does not invalidate a sacrament. The sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves and are not dependent on the on the holiness of the minister.
Additionally, for us to receive the fruits or benefits of a particular sacrament, we should be properly disposed. We should be in the state of grace: not aware of any mortal or serious sin.
When we realize how the sacraments “work,” we need also to realize that priests don’t automatically become “saintly” with ordination. (Probably, most parishioners are quite aware of this already!) We need continual conversion in our lives—until the day we die. Think about how Jesus (the Son of God) chose His twelve apostles. All were called by the Lord. Yet, Peter denied Him three times and Judas betrayed Him. They were far from perfect and even scandalous in their actions, even as they had closely accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. (Was Jesus trying to prepare us for future priests who may be responsible for scandal in the church?)
I would hope that people come to the Church for the sacraments because through them we encounter Jesus and are filled with His grace. It’s nice to have inspiring homilies, uplifting music and a sense of community in our churches. We should strive for that. Yet, even when these elements are absent, Jesus still works through the sacraments ex opere operato.
Please pray for your pastor and for all priests. There is much work ahead of us and only so many workers available for the seemingly endless tasks. When we fail or disappoint—in great things or in small matters—never give up on Christ. He remains ever present in His Church, continually at work, sometimes despite us.
Fr. Ed Namiotka