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Basic role of a priest is to sacrifice

Published: April 8, 2021   
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily during the Chrism Mass at Christ the King Church in Little Rock March 29.

Every year we gather for this Chrism Mass to thank God for the gift of priesthood which we share and to bless the oils to be used in the celebration of the sacraments during the coming year. But this year my heart is filled with special gratitude to you, the priests of Arkansas, for how faithfully you minister to your people in this time of pandemic.

I marvel at the creativity you have shown: parking lot Masses even in bad weather by Alejandro Puello and Bill Elser. Live-streamed Masses in many parishes, which I hope will continue even after this pandemic is over. Meetings and RCIA and Scripture study via Zoom.

You have implemented the protocols of mask wearing, physical distancing and sanitizing designed to protect our people, even in the face of opposition, and for that I am grateful. Many bishops have to deal with uncooperative priests and divisions among their priests, but not here. You are united to each other and to me, and that’s something I don’t take for granted. And it is for that reason that I believe that one day we will look back this time of trial and see that it is also a time of many hidden blessings.

In last year’s Chrism Mass, which we had to postpone to August, I reflected on what the adversities of the present moment have to say to us about our shared priesthood. I spoke about our three-fold “munera” of teaching, governing and sanctifying the people of God, hence the three terms we often use: preacher, pastor and priest.

  • As preacher we proclaim the word of God, a role that is not limited to presbyters; deacons preach too.
  • As pastors we govern the flock, a specific community, but this we do only when assigned there by the bishop, the chief shepherd of the diocese.
  • It is in our role as priests that we do what no one else can do: Offer the sacrifice of the Mass. This is our greatest privilege and is why we are called “priests” a lot more often than we are called presbyters. This is also why, in the months when public worship had to be suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis, we priests continued to celebrate the Eucharist privately every day for the benefit of the people entrusted to our care. Priest is who we are, not merely what we do. But what we do does reveal something of who we are.

So, what is our basic role as priests? Obviously, to gather the people and to intercede for them before God. But if we look at Scripture, we see that priests gathering the people and interceding for them is secondary to something more fundamental that has come into clearer focus during this time of COVID-19, namely sacrifice. Shepherding our people, comforting them and guiding them require sacrifice on our part, especially in troubled times, and this sacrifice finds its deepest meaning in the great unbloody sacrifice of the Mass.

The role of a priest in the Old Testament is to offer animal sacrifice at the altar in the temple, but ever since the Last Supper this animal sacrifice has been changed to human sacrifice. Jesus himself is both the priest and the sacrifice offered, with one additional detail: he is not alone. In every Mass we offer ourselves to the Father too. When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” he didn’t just mean “Do this ritual in memory of me,” he meant “Offer yourself for others like I will be doing tomorrow on Calvary -- do that in memory of me!” That’s the promise that we will renew in this Chrism Mass.

Jesus was both priest and victim, the one who offered and the one who was offered, and so are we, in union with Jesus. He did so in the concrete circumstances and all the adversities present in 33 AD. We do so in the concrete circumstances and all the adversities present in 2021. We walk by faith. We do not know what the future will bring. 

We will ordain five priests and two transitional deacons next month and so we rejoice in how the Lord is providing for his people going forward. These days are no darker than other difficult times the Church has faced in the past 2,000 years, and we know the Lord will bring us through, one way or another -- it’s his Church, after all. 

Jesus died for us and today we renew our commitment to die to self for him and the flock entrusted to our care.

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