First he heard the bells. Sunday afternoon, mid-1920s, Blessed Sacrament Parish, the Bronx. The altar boy rang them during Benediction and young Jerry Ryan, then age four, thought the beautiful sound was coming from the monstrance.
Now a monsignor, Father Ryan has been a priest for sixty-seven years. At age seventy-five, he retired, as required by canon law, but he continues to serve as administrator in a Puerto Rican parish, Saint Luke’s, in the Bronx. At age ninety-two, Ryan is the oldest working priest in New York City.[i]
The priesthood is getting grayer. The average age of a priest in the United States in 1970 was thirty-five; today it is sixty-five.[ii] Many priests like Father Ryan work long after retirement. He is a tireless workhorse whose devotion to his flock has spanned generations. Even in the twilight of his career, he continues to reinvent himself — he didn’t study Spanish until he turned seventy.
Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, New York, is another sort of shepherd. Clark has served as bishop of Rochester for thirty-three years. He is considered to be, according to contemporary standards, one of the most liberal prelates in the American Catholic Church. Yet his Excellency demonstrates that priests don’t come in nice, neat packages, that priesthood isn’t “one size fits all.” Clark reaches out to the gay community in his diocese and his opinions are in line with some of the Church’s most progressive theologians. His own views earned him a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI—the same Holy Father to whom Clark will submit his letter of resignation this month.[iii]
The priesthood as we understand it today has its origins in the Old Testament. In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (c 7th-century BC), God tells the prophet that he will guide the Israelites because the leaders he appointed abandoned them. Jeremiah uses the persona of the shepherd — a common Old Testament image — to proclaim how God himself will replace the fallen shepherds guide the sheep to green pastures.
These new priests of which God speaks are the priests of the New Testament. We’re not perfect either. We drink, we smoke, some fight, some gamble, eat too much, or play video games all day and night. One priest never takes a day off but works and works until he burns out and becomes ineffective. Another one thinks he only has to hear confessions and celebrate Mass and the rest of the time he plays golf. A bishop like Clark thinks the Vatican should loose up and ordain women and abrogate the celibacy law. Meanwhile, the newly ordained, clad in cassock and clutching a Roman breviary, wants to go back pre-Vatican council — the first Vatican Council. The Latin Mass isn’t traditional enough.
Priests are as diverse in style, background, and personality, but there is one thing that makes us all the same: we are human. God gives us enough pain to remind ourselves we’re not Him. We struggle with distractions, temptations, spiritual sickness, and appetites for destruction just like those not in holy orders. Like the Old Testament priests, we are chosen and called to bring the soul to God, but we have something those priests did not have — Jesus Christ.
In Latin the term is ex opere operato: “From the work accomplished.” That means that the sinfulness of the priest does not diminish the sanctity of the sacraments. God’s love and mercy are so great that nothing can take away from his holiness, including a foolish priest, who is in persona Christi capitis. That means the priest stands in the person of Christ. In fact, the priest is a “scapegoat,” the one who takes the hit for others who come seeking God’s grace and his forgiveness. The priest absorbs the sins and fears of the people and takes them directly to God who provides more grace for the sacramental journey.
In seminary I had a classmate from New York, the class clown, who worked as a federal agent before he became a priest. He protected presidents and senators from terrorists and assassins. If something happened, it was his job to jump in front of the big-shot and take the bullet. Now he is a priest but his responsibility is no less dangerous than when he was a federal agent. The priest takes the hit for his people, sacrifices himself as did Christ, who drove away the wolves to save the sheep.
John Paul the Great served as the shepherd of the universal church for more than two decades. He taught the past two generations of men how to be priests, and he wrote a book based on the prophecies of Jeremiah and the priesthood, titled, Pastores Dabo Vobis, “I Will Give You Shepherds.” The new people of God, our Church, will always have pastors to guide them. As priests we all have various talents that we use in our ministries. God promises his people that he will never leave them without shepherds to gather and guide them. “I will appoint shepherds over them who will care for them so that none get lost.”
Our Church today continually experiences the twenty-first version of the prophecy of Jeremiah who makes God present through revelation. Jesus Christ himself is the great high priest, the living, supreme, and definitive fulfillment of God’s promise from of old. The Twenty-Third Psalm remains so popular today because it speaks of a brave heart who knows that they are protected by God. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; you are with me” (23:1, 4a).
That bell that Monsignor Ryan heard when he was a boy continues to sound its tone today as God calls men and woman to service in the Church in various ways. This Church that God founded on the apostles is the same one he promised Jeremiah. The priests follow the same lineage, traceable to its origin, Jesus Christ the Great High Priest, the Word that transcends humanity.