A few nights ago in the company of my brother priests in the residence where I live, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary made by the Rome Reports News Agency entitled Bad Apples: Dealing With Sex Abuse In The Church. I guess the title explains it all. It was well done, objective and fair in its data. For me it was a very powerful and riveting presentation of the gravity of how power could corrupt. All of us could remember of living through the painful experience of living through the scandal as the Church. The episode of the scandals shows us of how much evil the corruption of power could wield. The priesthood is a power, and there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that these priests have abused this power and the confidence that people had in them as person empowered by the Lord himself.
Our reflection of the readings of this Sunday’s liturgy could lead to this direction, in considering the way how power should be understood, and how authority should be understood within the community of believers, within the Church. This reflection especially affects those who, by virtue of their configuration to the Good Shepherd by priestly ordination, exercise this authority. The words of the First reading, taken from the prophet Malachy, is chilling for any priest: “If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse…”. The Lord was addressing himself to a priesthood that had thought more of itself than its duties, one that had considered more of what it could have than what it should exercise, than what it could offer in service. In many other places in Sacred Scripture we would hear the Lord castigating shepherds who have grown complacent and negligent in their office. This is one evil that continued in the time of Jesus. In the Gospel, we could see our Lord speaking against against the princes of the people, the priesthood of the temple, the doctors of the Law and its interpreters, the Pharisees. By itself the Lord does not attack the authority that they have; in this sense he could not be called a revolutionary who went against the establishment as some would like to believe. By his example the Lord teaches us to respect legitimately established authority: “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things that they tell you…”. The community of disciples—the Church, has a structure that is hierarchical. This is a structure that is essential to the life of the Church; when our Lord founded the Church during in many instances of his earthly life, by choosing the Twelve and appointing to Peter the primacy among them, he showed this organic structure within the Church; through their ministry the Lord continues to guide and strengthen it. He has granted the power of the keys to Peter and the Apostles in union with him; all ordained ministers share this power, either as bishop, priest or deacon. Thus we could appreciate the hierarchical structure of the Church, one that is not democratic, but whose power stems from Christ and is exercised by His appointed ministers.
This power and hierarchy, however, is not one of dominion and prestige, but rather one of service. Real power does not stem from dominion, but it is the power to be able to serve, a service which in turn is founded on love. For service to be true, it must be selfless and disinterested. The Lord in the Gospel did not lash out against the authority of the scribes and the Pharisees; what he attacked was the greedy interest for prestige and power that they evidently craved. This is one evil that all Christians—ministers of the Church especially—must tenaciously avoid: the thirst to accumulate power, to achieve that power as a means to a life of privilege, comfort, security, wealth, popularity, because these things hinder one to give oneself totally to the disinterested service of the Gospel. Far from the Gospel of Christ is to seek the cult of personality which many pastors seek and easily find, and which eventually lead to division within the community; far from our ministry as priests should the quest of security be, material or otherwise; it is alien to the teaching of Christ that thirst for the myth of power, or power understood as domination, of lording it over the others, instead of something that capacitates one to serve because one loves.
The hierarchy that the Church has is one of service, a service based on love. Let us consider the power that the Apostle Paul had with respect to the communities that he founded. Paul was an energetic man, tireless in his mission to spread the Gospel and creating communities, a strong man; yet in his letter to the Thessalonians he compares himself to a mother in his gentleness towards them. “With such affection for you we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” As a manifestation of that selfless love, in which he identified himself with his Master, he had worked so as not to impose his needs upon the community, though he had a right to be supported by them materially. The example of this apostle teaches us ministers of the Church to be animated in our service not by that search to live a life of prestige within the community and relative comfort, things which our faithful would not begrudge us; rather let us be moved by the love of Christ: caritas Christi urgit nos.
In the Gospel the Lord further admonishes his listeners: call no one on earth your father; you have but one father in heaven. Do not be called “Master”; you have but one master, the Christ. In all things, what the priest should ask is not that his faithful look at him, but that in seeing him, they see the Christ in whose ministry he shares. This is what is meant when we say that the priest is called to be the transparency of Christ in the world. There is so much sense in why the liturgical reform being effected by the Holy Father in the Church propose that the crucifix be situated at the center of the altar. Some would argue that in this way, the people’s view of the celebrant would be obstructed. Well, it is precisely for this reason: in order that the focus would not be on the priest, who is not the main protagonist of the liturgical action, but Christ himself, whose Spirit the priest had received in ordination. We are all disciples of the one master who is Christ. That is why it would not be a bad idea to make our own the motto of Archbishop Palma: Non nobis Domine; not to us Lord, not to us. Only when the priest allows himself to be taken over by Christ would he be fruitful and faithful in his ministry, and this would be for him, not only for the Church but for the priest himself as well, a source of joy and a foretaste of Heaven. Amen.