The Gift of the Priesthood

This weekend, I will have the great blessing and privilege to ordain the five newest priests of the Archdiocese of Washington during a June 16 Mass of Ordination at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Three of the men in the archdiocese’s priestly ordination class of 2012 grew up in Maryland – in Silver Spring, Bowie and Gaithersburg. The other two grew up abroad, one in Brazil and the other in Poland. Both, however, completed their priestly formation at our Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary Redemptoris Mater.

One week ago, I had the joy of traveling to Southern Maryland to celebrate the 350th anniversary Mass for St. Francis Xavier Church, Leonardtown, which was originally built in 1662.  It is the oldest Catholic church in the 13 original states. Outside that simple red brick church is a small granite memorial with the names of the early Jesuit missionary priests who served there when that mission began in 1640 and continued through colonial times to the early days of the new United States and into the years before the Civil War.

When our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, visited our archdiocese in 2008, I had the honor of recalling for him that the celebration of Mass at St. Clement’s Island on March 25, 1634, and the establishment of St. Francis Xavier Church some years later marked the beginning of an unbroken line of continuity in faith and worship that is manifest in our archdiocese today.  From those modest beginnings has come forth a Church truly representative of the Gospel’s message of faith, hope and love.

Our priests, whether in colonial times or in the digital age, are, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, configured to Christ to act in his person as head and pastor of the church which they are called to serve. In whatever age or circumstance, a priest is called to teach, administer the sacraments – specially the Eucharist – and be the spiritual leader for the portion of God’s flock entrusted to his care. Priests are commissioned in a unique way to continue Christ’s mission, and to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world by word and deed.

When we reflect on the work of the priest, we see that it is completely tied to the continuation of the unique work of Christ. That work is preeminently achieved in Christ’s death and Resurrection, which won our redemption. Hence the priesthood is intimately tied to the Eucharist, which continues to make present the life-giving effects of the great Passover. On the same first Holy Thursday on which he instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ conferred priesthood on the apostles, saying: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In every age, priests face unique challenges as they carry out their work. Today’s priests are called to carry out the New Evangelization, to bring Christ’s love and hope to a culture and world steeped in secularism, materialism and individualism, where many have drifted away from the faith or never heard the Good News of Jesus. In our country, which faces threats to our God-given and constitutional right to religious freedom, our priests can help their flock defend religious liberty as Americans and as people of faith.

Whatever the challenges priests might face, they continue to stand as living links in a chain reaching back over 20 centuries to connect with the very person of Christ. Through the Eucharist they celebrate, the Gospel they preach, the baptisms they administer, the confessions they hear, the marriages they witness, and the anointing of the sick and dying, priests bring Christ to their people, and people to Christ.  For that, we thank them, and we thank God for the gift of the priesthood.