Then too we have the betrayal of Judas, the fear of the disciples as to what is coming next, the protestations of Peter that he will never deny Jesus.
In the middle of it all, we have Jesus promising to stay with us always through the extraordinary mysterious gift of the Eucharist, and for this we are thankful every day. Along with the gift of himself in the Eucharist, he commissions the disciples to continue breaking open this Sacrament, and in the process the mystery of the priesthood emerges.
Since the beginning, this priesthood has been expressed in so many ways in different cultures and different Catholic traditions.
Sometimes in our own western Church, and often in the Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic Churches, the emphasis has been on the mystery that we celebrate and in the process the liturgies themselves have been couched in mysterious language, symbols and gestures.
In the early Church, the Eucharist was very quickly seen to be both an expression of the mystery of God’s presence among us and at the same time it had a pastoral dimension. In other words it was meant for the real nourishment of those present and those not able to be present. The Mass had both a cultic and a pastoral dimension.
Over centuries this pastoral dimension tended to be lost and replaced by the cultic, to the point where up to the time of Vatican 2, many Catholics would come to Mass and say their own prayers while the priest said his prayers with his back to the community, speaking often silently in a foreign language.
Since the Vatican Council, the pastoral dimension of the liturgy has once again been reclaimed and seeking to balance this with the cultic dimension has been an ongoing challenge. That the Mass be clearly an act of worship and at the same time an act of understandable nourishment for those present continues to be a work in progress.
Along with these shifts, our understanding of the role of the priest changed too and the sorts of discipline required of the priest developed accordingly.
Priests for the first half our history, apart from those who chose to live in monastic communities, were often married with families. In due course the western Church determined that it was more appropriate for priests to be celibate. There were a number of diverse reasons for this development.
This state of things as we know has continued down to our own time and in many ways has served the Church well. Returning to the Last Supper and paying careful attention, we hear Jesus’ deep desire that people be nourished and nourished well through his presence in the Eucharist.
While ever and where ever there have been sufficient priests, God’s people have been well and truly nourished.
As we are all aware, this situation is changing rapidly. Many country dioceses in Australia have very few able-bodied priests. Many Religious communities such as our own are growing older and fewer. At 69 I am in the younger half of our Australian Marist community.
This morning at the Mass of the Oils at St Mary’s Cathedral, there were several hundred priests together, a strong and joyful presence. On closer inspection, many heads were grey, white or bald. A small number had dark hair! While there are larger numbers of younger priests in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, in general around the world we are becoming critically short of priests.
At least ten of the thirty or so Australian Bishops are at retiring age and their replacements are nowhere in sight.
Perhaps we are being called to a new imagination, a fresh courage, and a new vision in order that Jesus’ longing for the good nourishment of God’s people may continue.
Some are asking whether the gift of priesthood needs to be tied exclusively to male celibate members of the Church. These discussions are hesitant in some cases, dismissed as unnecessary in others and are full of angst and frustration in others.
It is a given that Jesus wants his people to be well nourished. It is also a given that there are very few people putting their hand up to be priests right now. We are left with very big questions that demand our prayerful, faith-filled, patient and at the same time, urgent attention.
The way forward is not clear-cut and requires much reflection and conversation. Such reflection and conversation is taking place at many levels of the Church, including among the leadership of the Church.
As we take the nourishment that Jesus offers us in our Eucharist this evening, let us join our prayers with all those around the world who are striving to listen for whatever it is that the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in this time. Let us pray that the way forward is one we choose with great care as we listen out for where the Spirit calls us.
IN CLEARER LIGHT
Who will welcome in when doors are knocking?
Who will feed the hungry deep inside?
Who will heal, forgiving hands out-reaching?
Who will breathe a spirit new and bright?
Who will soothe in sickness and in sorrow?
Who will bind as two hearts live as one?
Who will teach the truth of people’s story?
Who will bridge the real with dreams unsung?
Where can deeper longings make connection?
When can fractured spirits head for home?
Why delay when grace can run so freely?
How can new-found stories make their claim?
Listen for the heart that love breaks open;
Learn and look beyond what’s gone before.
Let God’s gifts run free in every culture;
Anointed hands held ready to be called.
God provides the home for all our longing;
Let the Church release God’s saving dream.
Holding back no avenue to freedom;
Love and truth in clearer light be seen.
Come the day uncluttered hearts are sharing;
Given wholly to God’s ancient song.
Come the day when light bursts from the shadows;
And priestly people live where they belong.