As we hear reports of scores of Italian priests who have died from the pandemic, very often because of service to others, these words from Pope Emeritus Benedict from his 2008 Chrism Mass homily, which he quotes on pages 51-53 of From the Depths of Our Hearts, ring triumphantly true.
Holy Thursday is an occasion for us to ask ourselves over and over again: to what did we say our “yes”? What does this “being a priest of Jesus Christ” mean? The Second Canon of our Missal, which was probably compiled in Rome already at the end of the second century, describes the essence of the priestly ministry with the words with which, in the Book of Deuteronomy (18: 5, 7), the essence of the Old Testament priesthood is described: astare coram te et tibi ministrare [“to stand and minister in the name of the Lord”]. There are therefore two duties that define the essence of the priestly ministry: in the first place, “to stand in his [the Lord’s] presence”. In the Book of Deuteronomy this is read in the context of the preceding disposition, according to which priests do not receive any portion of land in the Holy Land – they live of God and for God. They did not attend to the usual work necessary to sustain daily life. Their profession was to “stand in the Lord’s presence” – to look to him, to be there for him. Hence, ultimately, the word indicated a life in God’s presence, and with this also a ministry of representing others. As the others cultivated the land, from which the priest also lived, so he kept the world open to God, he had to live with his gaze on him. Now if this word is found in the Canon of the Mass immediately after the consecration of the gifts, after the entrance of the Lord in the assembly of prayer, then for us this points to being before the Lord present, that is, it indicates the Eucharist as the centre of priestly life. But here too, the meaning is deeper. During Lent the hymn that introduces the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours – the Office that monks once recited during the night vigil before God and for humanity – one of the duties of Lent is described with the imperative: arctius perstemus in custodia – we must be even more intensely alert. In the tradition of Syrian monasticism, monks were qualified as “those who remained standing”. This standing was an expression of vigilance. What was considered here as a duty of the monks, we can rightly see also as an expression of the priestly mission and as a correct interpretation of the word of Deuteronomy: the priest must be on the watch. He must be on his guard in the face of the imminent powers of evil.
He must keep the world awake for God. He must be the one who remains standing: upright before the trends of time. Upright in truth. Upright in the commitment for good. Being before the Lord must always also include, at its depths, responsibility for humanity to the Lord, who in his turn takes on the burden of all of us to the Father. And it must be a taking on of him, of Christ, of his word, his truth, his love. The priest must be upright, fearless and prepared to sustain even offences for the Lord, as referred to in the Acts of the Apostles: they were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (5: 41) of Jesus.