One of the phrases people quote about Pope Francis is his exhortation that “shepherds must smell like their sheep.” If you ask ten people what this means, you will likely get ten different answers. Nobody can agree upon what it means, but everyone can agree it is something important. I believe that as always, the Scriptures shed light on this question, and they do so in ways that tend to defy the common arguments and debates about the priestly ministry.
When we consider the priesthoods of the Old Testament (those of Melchizedek, Aaron, and the future Messianic priesthood) we come away with a disappointing fact narrative-wise. The books of the Old Testament tell us almost nothing about these men God has called to the priesthood. We know Melchizedek was a King of Salem, but what was the man like? What were his qualities, his temperaments?
Genesis simply tells us that he was “a priest of God most high.” (Genesis 14:18) While Aaron is described by God as being a charismatic public speaker (Exodus 4:14) the connection between public eloquence and priestly duties is never elaborated on. In the New Testament, St. Paul seems to disdain such as a quality for priesthood. (1 Cor 2:1-4) Likewise we hear little narrative in regards to the Messianic priesthood foretold in Psalm 110. We simply hear that God has commanded the Messiah to reign over creation as both King and High Priest.
Why is this narrative lacking, especially given the colorful stories of so many Old Testament figures? Cardinal Arinze once said that the Scriptures provided everything that was necessary for salvation, not everything to satisfy our curiosity. I think that is as good of an explanation as any.
Outside of their names, these priests were anonymous, and God did this to prove a point. Just as God makes the elder serve the younger, so he calls the priest irrespective of their personal qualities. Why does he do this? He does this so one can be certain that it is God who is calling, not man. (Romans 9:11-13)
The Church runs into problems when her members think it is their personal gifts and qualities that are the cause of conversion. St. Amrbose states that we must ponder the mystery of the moon: just as the moon generates no light of its own, so Christians (especially priests) generate no light of their own, instead they reflect the goodness of God, just as the moon reflects the sun. (Hexameron, Book 4 Chapter 2)
The liturgical rites of the Church are another powerful reminder of the nature of priesthood the Bible calls for. In the Extraordinary Form (and also in some Ordinary Form celebrations), the priest celebrates ad orientem, that is facing the same direction as the congregation. All are symbolically facing the throne of heaven, and beseeching the Father with the sacrifice that everything else depends on: the sacrifice of the Cross.
In the Ordinary Form (and also in an EF High Mass with procession), the priest processes from the back of the Church to the altar. This signifies not just God’s call to the priesthood throughout the ages (as the priest passes through the congregation he is passing through time leading to heaven), but also signifies that as the priest processes through the congregation, he takes upon the identity of the congregation as he progresses forward. He isn’t just a sinner like us. He is us.
How does this understanding translate into practical ministry? When viewed through the lens of history, the old “should I host adoration or serve the faithful” debate has to be one of the dumbest that has ever occurred. The priest serves his flock by every action as a priest, especially things like the Sacraments and other Sacred rites.
Hearing confessions frequently gives the faithful a chance to seek forgiveness of sin and amend their lives so that they can be of better service to their brother. Encountering Christ in the Blessed Sacrament through Adoration and Benediction gives you an intimate encounter with the one whose love knows no end, and who demands that you take His love and share it with others. He also needs to lead his flock by example in getting out there and seeking out the lost in society and bringing them Christ.
It is important that this understanding impact not just priests, but us lay faithful as well. We need to stop expecting priests to direct every aspect of our lives and actions. A priest is not made to be an ecclesial governor who has to sit through nothing but meetings with various parish committees everyday.
We need to instead expect and demand priests who walk among us, make our cares and our burdens their own, bring them before the throne of God, and ask that the redemptive power of the cross be made present so that these infirmities can be cured. We need priests who are always available to bring us to God’s forgiveness. The more we make our priests into paper pushers, the less we allow them to act out their true calling.
This is a radically different concept of priesthood than most of us are familiar with, but the Bible knows only this. In the end, the Church is only as strong as her priests. Without them, the cross is not made present to the world. We need to ask ourselves if our priests are living up to this calling, and how we are either helping them to do so or hurting.