Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Priest of Great David’s Greater Son

The following homily was preached by Father Peter Stravinskas on the occasion of the First Solemn Mass of Father David Michael Waters, at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Royersford, Pennsylvania (Archdiocese of Philadelphia), on 18 May 2014. Although its focus is not the Liturgy per se, it is a biblically saturated and richly textured treatment of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, apart from which the Church has no Liturgy, or, for that matter, no existence.

The First Epistle of St Peter recalls that all the baptized share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, just as the whole community of Israel constituted a “priestly people” (1 Pt 2:9). However, within that one holy people, certain men were chosen to represent them in offering sacrifice to Almighty God. And so it is with Christ’s holy Church. Through the Sacrament of Holy Order, a man is configured to Christ the Priest, so that the priesthood in which he now shares differs, as Lumen Gentium teaches us, “in essence and not only in degree” (n. 28) from the common priesthood of all the baptized.

Nevertheless, St John the Evangelist shares with us the exasperation of our great High Priest with those He had associated with Him in His priestly office: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me... ?” (Jn 14:9). However, Our Lord is not content to leave those first priests of His where they are; rather, He promises them that, if they have faith, they will do “greater works than [He]” (Jn 14:12). Truly remarkable. That promise is even fulfilled, St Luke informs us today, within the Jewish priesthood as “a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

Those men had become convinced of the power of the name of Jesus for, as Peter and John proclaimed to the Sanhedrin, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Later, St Paul would rhapsodize, “At the name of Jesus, every knee must bend” (Phil 2:10). A name is critically important. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that the self-image and achievement of individuals is highly conditioned by what they think of their names. And so, with all due respect to the Bard of Avon, we cannot concur that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

In the biblical scheme of things, a name is highly significant, especially when one is chosen for a new role. Abraham and Peter come to mind immediately. I would like to continue in that biblical line of thought and practice by presenting the principal celebrant of today’s Holy Mass with a reflection on his names and, since he is always most gracious, I am sure he will be more than happy to allow all of you to eavesdrop on my remarks.

David Michael Waters. Three strong, suggestive and programmatic names for a priest.

David – what a complex and intriguing man. A conniver, adulterer and murderer, yes, but at the same time highlighted by St Paul, relying on 1 Samuel 13, as one whom God Himself considers “a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes” (Acts 13:22). This terrible sinner-turned-saint occupies much of the Old Testament, keeping us fascinated with his story for the first weeks of Ordinary Time this year and noted with reverence 160 times in the New Testament. Chapter 47 of the Book of Sirach sings David’s praises in laconic form as the slayer of Goliath and destroyer of the Philistines, as well as a promoter of the worship of God. The sacred author concludes by saying that, for these reasons, “the Lord forgave him his sins and exalted his strength forever” (v. 11).

Ah, what a job description for a young priest. Slaying the giants of secularization and the Philistines of the anti-culture. The drive toward secularism and the demise of civilization go hand in hand. A basic lesson in etymology reveals that the Latin word cultura (culture) comes from the word cultus (worship): You see, according to the wisdom of the ancients, even the pagan ancients, it was deemed impossible to have a culture without reference to divine worship. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes surely got it right when they declared, “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (n. 36). We priests are deputed to serve as sentinels or watchmen who cry out with all our might, echoing the insightful and consoling remark of Pope Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily which, in turn, was a reprise of John Paul II’s inaugural homily:
If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? ... If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.
That, I submit, must be our undying message.

Furthermore, we priests must be preservers and transmitters of that culture which rose, Phoenix-like, from the ashes and cesspool of decadent Rome, flowering in a superabundance of works in literature, art, music, architecture, science, all produced in the Middle Ages – the Age of Faith par excellence. The seer of the Book of Revelation, in his third chapter, recounts the Spirit’s message to the Church of Philadelphia, doing so with reference to the “Clavis David” (the Key of David), a lovely image that also finds its way into the “O Antiphons” of the late Advent season. What is the “Key of David,” and what is its connection to the Sacred Priesthood?

For an answer, we go back to the title’s first appearance in the Book of Isaiah, where we meet Shebna, whose authority will be conferred on Eliakim: “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut, and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa 22:22). In this way, says the Prophet, Eliakim “shall be a father” to God’s People. In the power of the keys – to bind and loose – are found the responsibility and the charisms of sanctification and governance in the Church, exercised after the manner of the Good Shepherd Himself and carried out in a particularly moving way in the Sacrament of Penance. It is also operative in leading one’s flock, a flock not always willing to be led, preferring at times the superficial allurements of the anti-culture to the green pastures where await them the sacraments of life and salvation. The priest bears the onus of seeing to it that both he and his flock arrive in those safe pastures. Hence, we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours that the flock would never lack the care of the shepherd, nor the shepherd the obedience of the flock. One further word from an elder presbyter to a son in the ministry: Heed the sage advice of St Paul to Timothy, his son in the priesthood: “Let no one despise your youth” (1 Tm 4:12).

King David made beautiful worship a priority of his kingship, but I would beg you not to emulate his effort at liturgical dance. Let us listen to how Sirach summed up David’s liturgical accomplishments:
In all that he did he gave thanks to the Holy One, the Most High, with ascriptions of glory; he sang praise with all his heart, and he loved his Maker. He placed singers before the altar, to make sweet melody with their voices. He gave beauty to the feasts, and arranged their times throughout the year, while they praised God’s holy name, and the sanctuary resounded from early morning. (Sir 47:8-11).
There’s another “mission statement” for a priest, if ever there was one, as well as a good text by which to conduct a daily examination of conscience. And may Sirach’s assessment of King David be that of the People of God at the funeral of every priest, including this new one.

We also hear sung the praises of the “Tower of David” in the Canticle of Canticles (4:4). That ancient citadel was a fortress guarding entrance to the City of Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate. The priest is to defend the Church from the assaults of her enemies, to be sure. However, the Church has also seen in the Tower of David a figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an image which finds its way into the lyricism of the Litany of Loreto. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman explains: “A tower in its simplest idea is a fabric for defence against enemies. David, King of Israel, built for this purpose a notable tower; and as he is a figure or type of Our Lord, so is his tower a figure denoting Our Lord’s Virgin Mother.”

And now permit me to go one step farther: Just as Our Lady always advanced the mission of her Son during His earthly life and ministry from Cana to Calvary; just as the doctrine of her divine maternity has preserved the truth of her Son’s full identity throughout the history of the Church, so too is she given in a unique manner to those men who share in her Son’s Priesthood, as they are allowed to hear in the words to the Beloved Disciple a message addressed to them as well: “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:27). A priest’s life and ministry need to be marked by the maternal presence of “the woman” who rejoices in the Cana of his ordination, First Mass and celebratory banquet – and who will stand by him through his sure-to-come experiences of Calvary. And so, daily recourse to the Mother of the Eternal High Priest, perhaps with the concluding prayer of St John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis:
O Mother of Jesus Christ, you were with him at the beginning of his life and mission, you sought the Master among the crowd, you stood beside him when he was lifted up from the earth consumed as the one eternal sacrifice, and you had John, your son, near at hand; accept from the beginning those who have been called, protect their growth, in their life ministry accompany your sons, O Mother of Priests.
Next, we need to consider the principal celebrant’s middle name of “Michael,” which he and I share. As we learned in grammar school, the name means “Who is like God?” And the first point to be made here is that that means: You are not! All too many clerics have a “messiah complex,” leading them to believe that they, rather than Jesus, are the saviors of the world. In many Protestant churches of a former era, it was common to find in the pulpit a tiny sign intended only for the preacher’s eyes; it contained the words of the Greek-speaking delegation to Philip with the demand: “We wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). In other words, as astonishing as it might seem to some of us priests, it’s not all about us; it’s about Jesus Christ. In this regard, it behooves us to meditate frequently on one of Cardinal Newman’s more poignant prayers, one prayed daily by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity:
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance wherever I go. Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that my life may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!
Indeed, the very meaning of the word angelos in Greek is that he is a messenger or representative of one greater than himself. As such, it is the duty of a priest, like St Michael the Archangel, to be a defender of the honor of God. In the culture in which we find ourselves, this could well become a full-time job. Once again, the ever-prescient Cardinal Newman told seminarians in 1873 that a time was on the horizon when Catholics would perceive the old battles between Catholics and Protestants as child’s play, compared to what he dubbed “the infidelity of the future,” by which he meant a militant, aggressive secularism. I venture to say that Cardinal Newman himself would be astonished to see just how far the campaign of secularization has proceeded.

However, the task of the priest today is no different from that of the priest of the Old Covenant, that is, to make the People of God holy, so that they in turn can make holy the world in which they live. We do that in a preeminent way by teaching and preaching without equivocation the whole truth of Jesus Christ and His Church. We stiffen the spine of the lay faithful, making them confident of the truth of the Gospel and giving them the spiritual and psychological wherewithal to present that truth as a source of life, joy and human flourishing. Thus, in defending the honor of God, we shall equally defend the honor of man, made in God’s image and likeness – “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,” as we read in Gaudium et Spes (n. 24) and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 356).

Which means that, like Michael, priests must be the implacable enemy of Satan. Many Fathers of the Church held that the battle between God and Lucifer occurred because God the Father had revealed His plan for the Incarnation, that His Son would become Man. Lucifer took offense at such a notion, for he could not conceive of worshiping God in the form of man. The image of man has become totally distorted in our society – the work of the Devil, Diabolos in Greek, which means one who “sows confusion,” confusion about who man is and who God is at one and the same time.

Today’s priest must be untiring in holding up the inestimable dignity of the human person as created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ – a mission which will be mightily resisted by Satan’s minions, for only by obfuscating the image of God in man can they succeed in their goal of gaining disciples. A word of warning, however: If a priest is performing this essential service to humanity, he can count on the constant assaults of the Evil One. Therefore, he must be girded for battle through: a profound understanding of the Christ and the Church he serves; his own priestly identity; constant recourse to prayer; and total reliance on divine grace.

We are told that Pope Leo XIII had a vivid apprehension of the onslaught of Satan against the Church and so counseled prayer to the Archangel Michael. Who can doubt that Leo’s worst fears are being realized at present and that the first attacks of the Devil are upon Christ’s priests? Indeed, more than ever, our need to pray fervently: “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.”

That said, let me offer reason for confidence in this fight against the Evil One. Yesterday in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, an ancient promise was renewed, connected to our principal celebrant’s first two names:
I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; so that my hand shall ever abide with him, my arm shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him ... Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. (Ps 89: 20-24; 35)
Next we come to our celebrant’s surname, “Waters.” In my biblical concordance, there are over 700 entries referring to the word “water” or its derivatives! We know from our observation of nature that water is an ambivalent reality, which can bring both life and death. Not enough water, death; too much water, death as well. The waters which brought life and freedom to the Israelites of old likewise brought death to the Egyptians.

Today let us focus on the necessity for water to be available whenever needed. Our Lord repeatedly presented Himself as the source of “living waters” and, as the Preface for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart reminds us: “For raised up high on the Cross, he gave himself up for us with a wonderful love and poured out blood and water from his piercèd side, the wellspring of the Church’s Sacraments, so that, won over to the open heart of the Savior, all might draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.” It is the solemn obligation and grand privilege of the priest to make available to all – “on-demand” – the opportunity “to draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.” How is that done? Let me suggest two practical ways.

Our consecrated celibacy is the neon sign that shines out with the message: “Open 24/7.” Priestly celibacy is not a form of convenient bachelorhood. Nor is it a way for our people to maintain “cheap labor.” Celibacy, for the sake of the Kingdom (as Jesus envisioned it), is intended to be an eschatological sign, that is, a reminder of the life to come – a concrete, in-the-flesh proclamation of the assertion of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For here we have no lasting city” (Heb 13:14), in which we hear the resonance of Our Lord’s admonition: “... and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19:12). That is, total availability for the waters of salvation to flow here below – and a consistent sign of the saving waters of eternity. Truth be told, as I move around the country and the world – on planes, trains, and city streets – I am constantly asked if I am a Catholic priest and, almost invariably, the next question is: “What do you think of priests not being married?” In a sex-saturated society, celibacy is arguably the most convincing witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Which leads to the second means of offering the living waters of Christ to one and all – through our public identification as priests. Now more than ever, people need public reminders of the presence of God, indeed of His very existence. The priest, as a marked man, makes that proclamation and, built into that proclamation, is the invitation to “come and drink of the living waters.” During Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Ireland in 1979, he pleaded with the clergy and religious of that nation:
Rejoice to be witnesses to Christ in the modern world. Do not hesitate to be recognizable, identifiable, in the streets as men and women who have consecrated their lives to God and who have given up everything worldly to follow Christ. Believe in the value for contemporary men and women of the visible signs of your consecrated lives. People need signs and reminders of God in the modern secular city, which has few reminders of God left. Do not help the trend towards "taking God off the streets" by adopting secular modes of dress and behavior yourselves!
At the press conference releasing the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests in 1994, then-Bishop Cresenzio Sepe of the Congregation for the Clergy was asked: “The document says priests should always be dressed as priests. Does that mean even when they go out to dinner?” Bishop Sepe replied: “A priest is no less a priest at the dinner table than he is at the altar!” From personal experience, I can attest that I have probably done as much good for the cause of Christ, His Gospel and His Church in the public forum as I have in pulpits and classrooms. Our visible, public witness is an invitation to a thirsting humanity to “come and drink” of the life-giving waters flowing from Christ through His Church. Oh, as a not-so-side note, if you can’t look happy and joyful, please don’t appear in public as a priest: There’s nothing so counter-productive to the proclamation of the “Good News” of Christ as a glum, misery machine in a Roman collar or a veil!

Finally, we come to one more name, that some will consider a title, which you received yesterday, that of “Father.” No, “Father” is not a title; it is truly a name. Through the grace of the Sacrament of Order, you became a father in ways as real as any biological father and, you will discover, even more so in many circumstances. In the sadly fatherless society we inhabit, a priest is often called to do “double duty” as a psychological father-figure, in addition to his spiritual fatherhood, whereby he begets children for the Kingdom of God, fosters their growth, and leads them into eternity. I should mention that the Church of Philadelphia is so blessed to have as its “father in God” Archbishop Charles Chaput, whom I am delighted and honored to count as a long-time friend and who has certainly been a model for clerics throughout our nation for his more than a quarter-of-a-century episcopate.

Dearest son and now a brother, never, ever eschew the glorious name of “Father,” by which the Catholic faithful express their devotion and affection to anonymous priests on a city street. Why? Because in the family of the Church, no priest is ever a stranger. Every priest is a father, who brings with him nothing less – no one less – than Christ Himself, the Eternal High Priest. No priest should think that intimate relationships with the faithful call for putting aside the loving name of “Father”; nor should other possibly exalted titles like “Doctor” ever supplant the natural and supernatural name of “Father.” Of course, now you would have to wait another forty years for the possibility of “Monsignor,” anyway. Here we should recall that when Blessed John Henry Newman became a cardinal, many asked how he should then be addressed. It is said that, with his characteristic incisiveness, he replied that of all the titles he had held in his life, never did any ever mean more to him than that of “Father.” May every priest always endeavor to be worthy of the name.
Dear friends in Christ and friends of the newly ordained, let us return to today’s First Reading where we heard St Luke inform us that “a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” This young man took yet another step in that direction yesterday. We know that “obedience in the faith” is not a one-time deal; indeed, it is the work of a lifetime. It is the happy responsibility of all God’s People to pray that their priests grow day by day in that obedience. May I ask each one present today to make a firm commitment – as a matter of fact, a solemn promise – to pray for this new priest every day that, in the words of today’s Collect, his ministry would “bear much fruit” and that he would thus “come to the joys of life eternal.”

And now with all four names considered, Father David Michael Waters, the Church asks you to do what you were ordained to do yesterday and what, Deo volente, you will do every day for the rest of your life: Join Our Lady and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross which is this altar and make the Lord’s redeeming Sacrifice present for us. In the pleading words of Micah, “Be for us a father and a priest” (Jdgs 17:10).

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