There are many images of ordained priesthood that operate in our Church today – the priest as sacramental minister, the priest as co-worker with the bishop, the priest as pastor, the priest as leader of the worshipping community. These are some of the more “official” images of priesthood but there are others, I have come to realize, that can often operate in the hearts and minds of both priests and laity alike. The priest as administrator and builder operating the parish with efficient ease! The priest as superhero stomping out evil with his superpowers. (I have seen many a vocation poster/image along this line and I have to admit I find it rather silly to say the least.) The priest as shaman battling dark forces behind the scenes by the use of ancient languages and rituals. The priest as philosopher or wisdom figure enlightening the masses with his erudite thought. Are there times when a priest does have to head a building project and administrate a parish? Yes, certainly. There are also times when a priest has to wade through the darkness of sin and evil in life and I hope that at least every now and then the priest does offer something worthwhile for people to consider. All this is to say that there are many images surrounding the priest – some official and some not-so-official yet held in different hearts.
One image that I would like to explore is priest as friend but a friendship that has a specific root and foundation which is from and in Christ. I do not presume that others cannot also share in this friendship, in fact I think it is a commonality among all disciples, but for my purposes here I want to relate this vocation of friendship specifically to the ordained priesthood.
In the fifteenth chapter of John we find our Lord uttering these rather amazing words, “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you. I shall no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know the master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father. You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last; so that the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name. My command to you is to love one another.” (Jn. 15:12-17)
I once read where a renowned theologian, much more knowledgeable than I, wrote that we need to, in essence, avoid the danger of presuming friendship with Christ. Friendship implies peer to peer and we must remember that Christ is “God made flesh” and we are creature. I certainly agree with this and recognize the important point being made … but Jesus did say, “I call you friends…” I do not think this should be dismissed so readily.
It is a mercy to say the least that God, in Christ, now calls us friends but it is, in fact, a mercy given. You did not choose me, no, I chose you… It is interesting to note that it is within the gospel with the highest Christology that this assertion from our Lord is found. It is a mystery of a friendship given that is truly intimate yet also does not deny the transcendence of our Lord. It is also a unique mark of Christianity in relation to all other world religions that God so greatly desires to bestow upon his followers the grace of friendship.
Christ calls us friends because he has made known to us all that he has learned from the Father and that we are to do as he has commanded. We must put what we have learned into action to fully know and live this reality of friendship. This comes after the washing of the feet where Christ teaches that we must do as he has done, which is to pour oneself out in love and service for others – especially the poor and forgotten. This, I believe, is where the door to seeing priest as friend of Christ and friend of humanity has its foundation and root.
The priest is called to serve but to serve in a unique way. Many people, many good people who do not even have to have a faith, serve continuously throughout life. Think of parents serving their children, police or EMTs serving the public, firefighters daily putting their lives at risk, people generously donating their time and effort for some cause. These are all worthwhile forms of service which might or might not be attached to some form of belief but the priest serves explicitly for the Kingdom of God. I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last…
The service of the priest is connected to the Kingdom of God and therefore the friendship with Christ which the priest has been given is known and enlivened through this service to the Kingdom. I recently shared a confession with my parish. My confession was that I do not always want to serve. I do not always want to make the nursing home visit, I do not always want to sit in the confessional (especially on a beautiful spring day), I do not always want to make an administrative decision at yet another meeting, I do not always want to serve the poor but when I do, I meet Christ and his friendship enlivens and blesses me and my priesthood.
Yes, the priest can be seen through the lens of all the images shared at the beginning of this reflection but another worthwhile and truly important image is the priest as friend – friend of Christ and friend of humanity. I also believe that this image of priesthood truly explored and lived can also help provide a healing balm needed in our world today. A balm that Christ can use to help heal the wound of isolation.
We find ourselves in a time where people are truly isolated one from another and this is causing intense pain, suffering and even death. The elderly are forgotten, the poor are ignored, the “other” is demonized and our hearts are continually being more and more hardened and turned inward. We must not shrink before this gaping wound of our world’s isolation but rather hold even faster to the words our Lord speaks in John 15. Christ calls us friends! Christ calls us to love one another! Christ calls us to bear fruit that will last! In Christ, the priest must live friendship with all humanity and he does this precisely because Christ calls him friend.
Christ calls us friends! We need to believe this and truly let the awareness of this grace given sink into our lives and our hearts. We have a friend in Jesus. It is much more than just a cliché. It is a reality and a mercy shared.
I call you friends… It is a mercy given from our Lord for all his disciples but also in this Jubilee Year of Mercy it a worthwhile grace for the priest to reflect upon and truly explore. The priest as friend.