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The Priest is “the man of God”. (2 Tim. 3:17)
Father Gino giving Holy Communion to
one of the Sisters of the new religious
order that he founded, asisted by one
of the many seminarians who have
been attracted to San Vittorino by Father Gino.
Who is the one who prepares the Holy Eucharist for us and gives Our Lord to us? It is the priest. If there were no priest, there would be no Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, nor Holy Communion, nor the Real Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle.
And who is the priest? He is the “man of God” (2 Tim. 3:17). It is God alone Who chooses him and calls him from among men for a very special vocation. “His vocation comes from God, as Aaron's did; nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this” (Heb. 5:4). God puts him apart from everyone else; he is “set apart to preach the Gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). God distinguishes him with a sacred character that will endure forever, making him “a priest forever” (Heb. 5:6) and bestowing on him the supernatural powers of the ministerial priesthood so that he becomes consecrated exclusively for the things of God. The priest, being “taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1).
Poverty, Chastity and Obedience
By his ordination the priest is consecrated in soul and body. He becomes something altogether sacred, likened to the divine priest, Jesus. The priest is thereby a true extension of Jesus, sharing in Jesus' vocation and mission. He fills Jesus' role in the most important works of universal redemption; namely, divine worship and the spread of the Gospel. In his own life he is called to completely reproduce Jesus' life — the life of One Who was a Virgin, of the One Who was poor, of One Who was crucified. It is by thus making himself like Jesus that he is “the minister of Christ Jesus among the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:16), “a guide and instructor of souls” (Mt. 28:20).
St. Gregory of Nyassa wrote, “One who yesterday was one of the people, becomes their master, their superior, a teacher of sacred things and leader in the sacred mysteries.” This happens as a work of the Holy Spirit; for “it is not a man, nor an angel, nor an archangel, nor any created power, but it is the Holy Spirit which bestows the priesthood on a person” (St. John Chrysostom). The Holy Spirit makes the priest's soul a likeness of Jesus, empowers the priest to fill the role of Jesus in such wise that “the priest at the altar takes the personal part of Jesus” (St. Cyprian), and “has charge of all of God” (St. John Chrysostom). Who will be astonished, then, if the priestly dignity is declared “heavenly” (Cassian), “divine” (St. Dionysius), “infinite” (St. Ephrem), something “lovingly venerated by the angels” (St. Gregory Nazianzen), so great that “when the priest conducts the Divine Sacrifice, angels station themselves about him and in a choir they chant a hymn of praise in honor of the Victim Who is sacrificed” (St. John Chrysostom). And this happens at every Mass!
Respect and Veneration
We know that St. Francis of Assisi was unwilling to become a priest because he considered himself unworthy of such a lofty vocation. He honored priests with a special devotion, considering them his “lords”, because in them he saw only “the Son of God.” His love for the Eucharist merged with his love for the priest who consecrates and administers the Body and Blood of Jesus. He paid special veneration to the priest's hands, which he used to always kiss on his knees very devoutly. He used to even kiss a priest's feet and even the footprints where one had walked.
The veneration of the priest's consecrated hands, reverently kissed by the faithful, has always existed in the Church. It is noteworthy that during the persecution of the first centuries, one particular outrage to bishops and priests consisted in cutting off their hands so that they could no longer perform the consecration nor give blessings. Christians used to go find those amputated hands and keep them as relics with preservative spices. Kissing the priest's hands is a delicate expression of faith and love for Jesus whom the priest represents. The more faith and love there is among the people, the more they will venture to kneel before the priest and kiss those “holy and venerable hands” (the Roman Canon), in which Jesus lovingly makes Himself present every day.
“O the venerable dignity of the priest,” exclaims St. Augustine, “in whose hands the Son of God becomes incarnate as He did in the Virgin's womb!” The holy Curé of Ars said, “We attach great value to objects that are handed down and kept at Loretto, as the holy Virgin's porridge bowl and that of the Child Jesus. But the priest's fingers, which have touched the adorable Body of Jesus Christ, which have been put into the chalice where His Blood was and into the ciborium where His body was — might not these fingers be more precious?” Perhaps we never thought of it before. But it is really so. Examples of the Saints confirm this answer.
In an ecstasy the Ven. Catherine Vannini saw angels gather about the priest's hands during Mass and support them at the elevation of the Host and the chalice. We can imagine the reverence and affection with which this Venerable Servant of God used to kiss those hands!
The Queen, St. Hedwig, every morning attended all the Holy Masses that were celebrated in the Chapel of the court, displaying gratitude and reverence toward the priests who had celebrated Holy Mass. She used to offer them hospitality, kiss their hands devotedly, see that they were fed, and show them every honor. She would show deep feeling when exclaiming, “God bless the one who made Jesus come down from Heaven and gave Him to me!”
St. Paschal Baylon was a porter in a Monastery. Each time a priest arrived, the holy lay brother knelt and reverently kissed both his hands. People said of him — as they did of St. Francis — that he had devotion for the consecrated hands of priests. He judged that those hands had power to ward off evils and draw down blessings for the one who would treat them with veneration, since they are hands that Jesus makes use of.
And was it not an edifying sight to see how Padre Pio of Pietrelcina wanted to affectionately kiss a priest's hands, even suddenly seizing them unexpectedly? We are impressed, too, by the example of another Servant of God, the priest Don Dolindo Ruotolo, who would not admit that any priest could refuse “the charity” of letting someone kiss his hands.
We know that God has often rewarded this act of veneration by means of true miracles. We read in the life of St. Ambrose, that one day after he had celebrated Holy Mass the Saint was approached by a woman afflicted with paralysis who wanted to kiss his hands. The woman had great confidence in those hands that had consecrated the Eucharist; and she was cured at once. Likewise at Benevento a woman who had suffered paralysis for fifteen years asked Pope Leo IX to let her drink the water he had used during Holy Mass to wash his fingers. The holy Pontiff granted the request, which was made quite humbly, like that of the woman of Canaan who asked Jesus for “the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters” (Mt. 15:27). And she, too, was instantly healed.
The faith of the Saints was something that was truly great and produced results. They lived by faith (Rom. 1:17) and conducted themselves by a faith and a love that allowed no holding back when they dealt with Jesus. For them the priest represented nothing more nor less than Jesus. “In priests I see the Son of God,” said St. Francis of Assisi. The holy Curé of Ars remarked in a sermon, “Every time I see a priest, I think of Jesus.” When she would speak of a priest, St. Mary Magdalen di Pazzi used to refer to him as “this Jesus”. Because of this esteem St. Catherine of Siena used to kiss the floor or ground where a priest had passed. One day St. Veronica Giuliani saw the priest mount the stairway of the monastery to take Holy Communion to the sick, and she knelt at the foot of the stairs, and then climbed the steps on her knees, kissing each step and moistening it with tears that her love produced. What examples of love!
The holy Curé of Ars used to say, “If I met a priest and an angel, I would pay respect to the priest first, and then to the angel ... If it were not for the priest, the Passion and Death of Jesus would not help us ... What good would a chest full of gold be if there were no one to open it? The priest has the key to the heavenly treasures ...” Who causes Jesus to come down in the white Hosts? Who puts Jesus into our tabernacles? Who gives Jesus to our souls? Who purifies our hearts so that we can receive Jesus? It is the priest, only the priest. He is the one “who serves the tabernacle” (Heb. 13:10), who has the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), “who is for you a minister of Jesus Christ” (Col. 1:7) and dispenser “of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). O, how many instances could be reported of heroic priests sacrificing themselves in order to give Jesus to their flock! We report here one case out of many.
Some years ago in a parish in Brittany, an old pastor was lying on his deathbed. Also at that time one of his parishioners was nearing the end of his life, who was among those that had strayed from God and the Church. The pastor was distressed because he could not get up and go to him; so he sent the assistant pastor to him, admonishing him to remind the dying man that once he had promised that he would not die without the Sacraments. The parishioner, hearing this, excused himself with the words, “I promised that to the pastor, not to you.” The assistant pastor had to leave the dying man, and reported his answer to the pastor. The pastor was not daunted, though he realized he himself had only a few hours left, he arranged to be carried to the home of the sinner. He was brought into the house, succeeded in hearing the dying man's confession and gave him Our Lord in Holy Communion. Then he said to him, “Farewell till we meet in Paradise!” The courageous pastor was carried back to his rectory on a stretcher. When he arrived, the covers over him were raised, but the priest did not move. He had died.
Let us hold the priest in veneration and be grateful to him because he brings us Our Lord. Above all let us pray for the fulfillment of his lofty mission, which is the mission of Jesus; “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). It is a divine mission which overwhelms the mind when one thinks deeply on the love which inspires it. The priest is “likened unto the Son of God” (Heb. 7:3), and the holy Curé of Ars used to say that “only in Heaven will we measure the full greatness of this. If we appreciated it here on earth we would die, not of fright but of love ... After God, the priest is all.”
But this sublime grandeur brings an enormous responsibility which weighs down on the impoverished human nature of the priest, a human nature fully identical with that of every other man. “The priest,” said St. Bernard, “by nature is like all other men; by dignity he surpasses every other man on earth; by his conduct he ought to compare with the angels.”
A divine calling, a sublime mission, an angelic life, lofty rank — what immense weights, all on poor mortal shoulders! “The priesthood is a cross and a martyrdom” was a good description given by that excellent priest and Servant of God, Don Edward Poppe.
Consider what a weight of responsibility for the salvation of souls is laid upon the priest. His task is to bring the faith to unbelievers, to convert sinners, to give fervor to the lukewarm, to stimulate the good to become ever better, to make holy people walk on the highest levels. Now how can he do all this unless he maintains a true union, an identity, with Jesus? This is why Padre Pio of Pietrelcina used to say, “The priest is either a saint or a devil.” He either moves souls to holiness or to ruin. What incalculable ruin does the priest not bring who profanes his vocation by unworthy conduct or who ventures to trample on it by renouncing his status as one consecrated and chosen by the Lord (John 15:16)!
In the canonical proceedings for the canonization of St. John Vianney, it is written that the holy Curé shed many tears “as he thought of the ruin of priests who do not correspond to the holiness of their vocation.” Padre Pio of Pietrelcina described heart-rending visions of the frightful pains Jesus suffered for the guilt of unworthy and unfaithful priests.
We know that St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the angelic Carmelite nun, just before she died made her last Holy Communion for this sublime intention — to obtain the return of a stray priest who had renounced his vocation. And we know that this priest died repentant, invoking Jesus.
We know that souls are not rare, especially virginal souls, who have offered themselves as victims to be sacrificed to God for priests. These souls are favored by Jesus in an altogether singular way. But let us, too, offer prayers and sacrifices for priests, for those in danger and for those who stand more firm and secure, for those who are straying and for those who are advancing in perfection.
And in particular, every time we see a priest at the altar, let us also pray to the Madonna, in the words of the Venerable Charles Giacinto, “O dear Madonna, lend your heart to that priest so that he can worthily celebrate the Mass.” Better yet, rather let us pray that every priest is able to imitate St. Gaetano, who used to prepare himself for the celebration of Holy Mass by uniting himself so closely to Mary Most Holy, that it was said of him, “He celebrates Mass as if he were Her.” And, indeed, as the Madonna welcomed Jesus into Her arms at Bethlehem, similarly the priest receives Jesus in his hands in the Holy Mass. As the Madonna offered Jesus the Victim on Calvary, similarly the priest offers the Divine Lamb that is sacrificed on the altar. As the Madonna gave Jesus to mankind, similarly the priest gives us Jesus in Holy Communion. Thus St. Bonaventure rightly declares that every priest at the altar ought to be identified with the Madonna; for, since it was by Her means that this Most Holy Body has been given to us, so by the priest's hands It must be offered. And St. Francis of Assisi said that for all priests the Madonna represents the mirror of their sanctity, given the close proximity there is between the Incarnation of the Word in Mary's womb, and the consecration of the Eucharist in the priest's hands.