Well, today is a banner day in Madonna House. Today, in a few short hours, one of our men, Michael Weitl, will be ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. It is a day of joy, of awe, of great gratitude and celebration for us, for Michael’s family and in truth for the whole Church, for every ordination is a gift for the whole Church.
I happen to be Michael’s spiritual director, which adds a special level of joy and awe for me. It also makes it hard for me to say much about the whole thing. There are moments in life which transcend the capacity of human beings to put words around them.
I thought I would share, then, one of our classic MH teachings on the priesthood, from Catherine Doherty, from April 1974. It is long, but well worth the read—her sense of the priesthood was profoundly mystical, a faith vision that far supercedes the human failures and frailities of the men who are ordained in it, while never for one minute losing sight of that human weakness. So here it is, below the break:
Today is Holy Thursday. Today is priesthood day, for that is what Jesus Christ did - he brought forth the priesthood.
You know, there is a moment here in which a human heart pauses and begins to realize dimly—because it is such an infinite mystery that it cannot even be fathomed, it can only be approached at the edges—God went to his Father after his Resurrection. He even chided his apostles that they weren’t too happy to see him go to his Father....
I don’t know the answers, but this is the meditation that can keep me awake or praying, or meditating.... Can you imagine that he didn’t want to leave us! I am not talking about the theological fact that God is with us. No, that is another story. He didn’t want to leave us, and so we have the priesthood!
In his immense love, he chose men who had his hands and his feet, in whom he could walk, in whom he could forgive sins, who could lift him up, who could give us the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist, who could give us the bread, the wine, which he said makes for life everlasting! He gave us the pure waters that he could have given the woman in Samaria. And again, the incredible love of God is visible to us.
We talked about the Bread and the Wine, for this is also the day of the Eucharist and the Passover and many things together - but you wonder why in Madonna House we have this tremendous love and respect for priests. Because when a priest walks into this house, if you have an ounce of faith - a tenth of an ounce of faith - you will know that Christ walked in.
Ordination! An ordinary guy, probably with a lot of sinful background, and who can commit sin any day, steps up three steps to an altar. Another man, older, puts his hands on the young one, the man ordained, there are prayers, and eventually the man descends. Has anyone touched the mystery of this strange act?
I was in Rome, at the Jesuits, and they were telling me that one of their bishops had through underground means gotten to Moscow and had ordained three men in the john. You don’t have to have an altar. You don’t have to have three steps. You don’t have to have anything! You just have to have a bishop and a man who desires to be a priest, and in the fullness of the power of Christ the bishop ordains a man in a john of a factory!
Go into this, on your knees, in the mystery of God’s love for us, he didn’t want to leave us orphans. He wanted to give us someone in whom we shall see his resemblance. I do not mean his physical resemblance, but that which he really was: the Lover, the Tender One, the Forgiving One, the Servant who would do what he did - wash the feet of humanity while by a simple gesture of his hands and a few words, he also washed their souls, because he didn’t - Christ did!
So Christ comes to us in such a tremendous simplicity of love that your breath is taken away!
What of the priest who is sinful? Unholy? Jumped over the wall? Married when he shouldn’t, etc., etc., etc.? It is because you have been so sheltered in this country [ed. note: this was true in 1974, but of course no longer] that you have not realized that he upon whom the seal of the priesthood has been etched in the fire of the Spirit, and with the touch of the Father’s hand, can never lose it.
In Russia when the last priest [to whom we had access] died, he was killed in front of my very eyes, if there had been a priest who I knew had committed seven mortal sins, and who perhaps was living in the house of his mistress, I would have crawled on my belly to him.
I couldn’t care about his mistresses, his sinfulness, his this, his that, his anything - because FAITH tears it all apart! And that which is the body suddenly shines, for on their ordination day in a strange, incredible fashion which nobody can explain, into that man entered God and that man has the power, sinner or no sinner.... If you are in a state like we were - death any minute - they could kill us - any minute!
I would crawl to that man and I would say, “Father, hear my confession. There is still the Blessed Sacrament in the nearest Church, but give it to me as the Viaticum.” Viaticum is the word that we use when we take the Blessed Sacrament before death. And I wouldn’t worry about the man, because the eyes of Faith see Christ!
You see, you ask so many questions about priests, all of them irrelevant, in a manner of speaking.... relevant, yes, but fundamentally irrelevant.
The poor priests, all of them wanting to be relevant, to be psychologists, they want to be psychiatrists, they want to be married, they want to be this, that... That is the humanness of them! But in them is Christ .. always Christ. They can bind him if they want to, for they are men like you and I - human beings. We bind Christ through our sins, but there is one thing about them that if anyone else needs Christ, he becomes unbound in one flat second!
Those Twelve, of whom one left, were pretty ordinary guys. Why do we seek in priests either great knowledge, lots of ‘savvy’; some of us will go to a priest who is good looking, others to one who isn’t.... that is all horseshit - positive and utter!
Sanctity shines from people and so does Christ, the Holy One. Look at a priest and say, “Thanks be to God that he is here!” I still don’t understand why Madonna House has almost 15 priests when thousands of parishes haven’t got them throughout the world. The Lord has his own ways.
Approach a priest because he has God in him in a very special manner, through the sacrament of ordination. Approach him as you would approach Christ, simply, without any falderol, without any curlers on your head or in your heart. And you who are women, hold your heart, your mind, your self in a profound purity. The pure of heart shall see God. If a man jumped over the wall to marry some nun or somebody else, the nun and the somebody else is also responsible. We all carry ourselves in a vessel of clay, but the woman has to carry her vessel wrapped in clay and perhaps in the towel that Veronica wiped Christ’s face with. It might be a legend or it might not be a legend, but it is a good thing for us to remember that our heart is wrapped in the face of Christ before the priesthood.
Just saying that word is like balm on your heart. You want to criticize him? What for? Why don’t we criticize each other? And then, why do we criticize anybody? Because God said, “Judge not and you shall not be judged.”
In Madonna House we get up when a priest comes in. We have to repeat that almost every day because we always have some new guests who forget about it, or don’t know about it. Why? Why do we get up for a young man? Why do we get up for a middle-aged man? Why do we get up for an older man? We don’t get up for a man! We get up for him who is Christ.
He is a human being and nobody says that he ain’t! But this human being you can kneel before him and he can wash your sins away. And what is more, he can give you the Bread and the Wine of God, that God gave us to live by, so that we have life everlasting. We can survive without the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist. Thousands and millions of people have survived, but it is the love letter of God - every priest is a love letter of God, for me and for you!
The way to treat a priest is with respectful informality and the accented word is ‘respectful’. He might be a bum. I remember one time a priest arriving here under the aegis of some Superior, he was a religious. He was drunk as a lord and I won’t go into what else happened... so I put him in.... where I live now, in those days it was empty, and let him sleep off his drunkenness and so forth, and then I brought him some coffee in the morning and before I gave him the coffee he was bleary-eyed, I said, “Father, will you please bless me?” He said, “What do you mean, bless you? Do you know who I am and what I did?” I said, “Yes, but it is utterly immaterial as to your blessing.” And he blessed me and started to cry.
When I was twelve, or perhaps younger, maybe eleven, I went to Poland with my family and I was walking down the road and here in the mire, full of water and dirt, lay Monsignor, the parish priest of this village! Well, I had been brought up in the love and honor of priests and this just about shattered my little heart whtttt! into smithereens. I ran away from that priest like a devil was pursuing me and I ran to my mother and I said, “There is Monsignor. He is drunk, drunk, drunk. A priest is drunk! I could smell his vodka!”
So Mother said, “Yes? Let’s go!” and her very tone of voice, which was quite peaceful, stopped me. So holding my hand we went back. She said, “Catherine, you are a big girl. Help me to lift him up.” But before we lifted him up she kissed his dirty hand that was in the mire. Then I helped her lift him up and we carried him to the presbytery which was about as far as the dispensary... Still silently we handed him over to the girl who was in charge.
Still silently, Mother and I walked back home. We had a lovely garden there and Mother said, “Go into the baby’s room and bring his potty, and wash it out well, and fill it with water but bring it here.” So I followed this, but in the meantime Mother had collected a bunch of white lilies.. beautiful white lilies.. so she said, “Sit down.” And she put the lilies in the pot. She said, “Look well at that. You see the lily doesn’t change because it is in a potty. That is a priest. Christ in him never changes. He might be a potty, but the Christ in him is still just like those lilies. Never in your life make that mistake of mixing the two together.” And I don’t think I have.
…This is Holy Thursday and the priest, as we understand him, was born this Holy Thursday, and the Eucharist was there for him, henceforth to give us. The Last Supper became the daily supper, so that you and I can live and the relevance to our lay world is to offer first and foremost and last, that sacrifice.
I know that when I try to say something about the priesthood I just am all thumbs as far as my tongue is concerned. There is nothing I can say, because what can one say about the love of God in the shape of man?