Priest of Christ, Priest Like Christ

Last night I locked Jesus away. Along with the whole Church, I sat at table with him, partook in the new covenant established in his body and blood (Eucharist), processed with him to the garden, prayed, and kept watch through the night. Then at midnight, as commanded by the Church (delegated to me by my pastor), I took him away and abandoned him in a cell. Literally, I took his body from the altar of adoration, reposed him in a hidden place, turned the key, locked the door, and left him alone. Empty Church, Empty Chapel. Empty Me.

Procession

Procession – (via Aggie Catholic)


That was a reflection from Good Friday morning that I never got around to posting. It was profound enough to inspire a lot of thoughts about the nature of Christ and the nature of priesthood. Here I hope to share some general teachings on the subjects and reflect on the way I’m being challenged to live them out.

On Holy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist. If I’m called to be a priest like Christ, it’s important to understand how he lived his priesthood. Who is Jesus? What is a priest? How does it relate to the Eucharist? How do I be a priest like Christ?

The Suffering Servant

Holy Thursday begins the paschal mystery in which Jesus’ true identity comes to be known. People all throughout the Gospels have different answers and opinions to the question, “Who is Jesus?” There is great power in applying Jesus’ questions to ourselves, and Fulton Sheen uses Matthew 16 as a model for us to learn from.  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?” They respond, “John the Baptist… Elijah… Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:13-14). All incorrect. He asks Peter (and us) “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds correctly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:15-16). I know I constantly return to this question in prayer and ask God for the grace to affirm Jesus’ identity with conviction.

But, we would be in error to stop there because Jesus doesn’t stop there. After affirming the recognition of his divinity, Jesus continues on and answers his own question. He is not simply the Christ, the God-Man. He is also a man who will “go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders… be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). Jesus clearly reveals his identity; he is the suffering servant who will be abused and abandoned for the sake of those he comes to serve (see Isaiah 52-53). The Hebrew word ‘doulos’ (servant) refers to a slave. Jesus is one who will toil, serve, do dirty work, and ultimately die. All of this is for the sake of those he loves – each of us.

Suffering Servant

Suffering Servant – (via Aggie Catholic)


Priests Offer Sacrifice. Jesus Offers Himself

Jesus is also a model for priests, but we need some nuance when we say that the Last Supper is the institution of the Priesthood. There have been priests throughout all of history. Most religions have priests of some sort. Classically, a priest is simply “one who offers sacrifice.” All throughout the Old Testament there are priests of foreign gods and Israel had a priesthood in the line of Aaron and Levi. The Levitical priesthood offered sacrifices in the Temple and still existed in Jesus’ time. Jesus did not descend from Levi’s line. His priesthood is something new.

What exactly is new about Jesus and his priesthood? What was instituted? For the sake of reflection today, the most important “new” is the newness in the thing (aka the ’victim’) being offered for sacrifice. Old Testament priests offered lambs, bulls, etc. At a Passover meal, the Jews offer an unblemished lamb as God commanded (see Exodus 12, the first reading at HT Mass).

At the Last Supper, Jesus offers only himself. He says at the offering “this is MY body… this is MY blood.” He himself is the sacrifice being offered up to God. Jesus is both the priest, the one offering sacrifice, and the victim, the one being offered. He gave himself in the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, right before giving himself up to abandonment, loneliness, suffering, and death on Good Friday. His priestly sacrifice consists of the total surrender of self and union with the Father. He let himself be locked away – 2000 years ago and still today. He is a suffering-servant; Priest-Victim.

This is my Body

“Behold the Lamb of God” – (via Aggie Catholic)

Priest Of Christ. Priest Like Christ


“Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that he was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the Priest a Victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood, if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of His Incarnation.”
– Fulton Sheen, The Priest is Not His Own

I heard it a few weeks ago, but this understanding of priesthood has deeply affected my understanding of the priesthood I am called to live. Fulton Sheen makes the point that it’s “easy” to be a priest “of Christ”. A priest simply has to be ordained, show up, follow instructions, say the words, and do the actions. A priest “of Christ” can be used by God for sacramental ministry, be an administrator, build buildings, run meetings, etc. He can fulfill all the outward functions without truly sharing the identity of Christ.

Simply being a priest is not the true call. The call is to be a priest “like Christ” – to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and give oneself as a sacrifice for the people of God. This priest sacrifices his freedom, his comfort, his time, and his very self in the service of his flock. A priest like Christ must be a suffering servant; a priest-victim.

In the Mass he offers up the sacrifices of others as he unites them to the one sacrifice of Jesus – “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God…” In his life he offers himself up as a sacrifice for others. This isn’t so much an external function as an internal disposition. A priest’s deepest identity is to be like Christ and everything else flows from there.

What Sacrifice Am I Offering?

So here I am, preparing myself for Jesus’ priesthood. This idea is one I have been praying about all semester. In seminary we spend a lot of time talking about the things that a priest “does”. We learn that a priest needs to be a good leader, preacher, administrator, teacher, counselor, apologist, etc. and gain the skills necessary to grow in those areas to the best of our ability. All important. All necessary. But not enough.

Before I perform any ministry, run any program, preach any homilies or pay off any debt, it’s essential that I embrace the essential core of what a priest “is”. A priest is one who stands in the place of Christ and offers himself as a sacrifice. He is a suffering-servant; a priest-victim.

I often receive well-intentioned comments from people I meet, “You’re giving up so much. It’s such a sacrifice.” The things they refer to are generally external – money (poverty), family and sex (celibacy), freedom to do what I want (obedience). Those are real and I’ll readily admit that they’re still a bit daunting, but I don’t think they truly encompass the greatest sacrifice a priest makes. Those sacrifices are mostly framed in a passive, negative sense… what I won’t have. In contrast, I’m being challenged to embrace a life of active, positive sacrifice – the willful giving away of myself. That’s a whole different ballgame. It’s surrender, not destruction; a “yes” not a “no”. It’s an absolutely intimidating, but simultaneously thrilling, prospect.

Thrilling? Isn’t self-sacrifice awful? Why on earth would I want to do it?

I suppose in one respect I can simply trust Christ’s words, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). Beyond that Joseph Ratzinger speaks about the essence of sacrifice being about healing – it transforms my broken self-centeredness into a pure identity. In this sense, the total offering of myself in the “therapy” of sacrifice is what will ultimately allow me the satisfaction entering into communion with others.

“Such sacrifice has nothing to do with destruction. It is an act of new creation, the restoration of creation to its true identity” – Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy

Pray for me?

I have 4 years to go until I’m called to Orders and this change in identity truly occurs, but now is the time to prepare so I can give a free, total, faithful, fruitful “I do” to the Church. My prayer has increasing been focused on asking God to give me the grace to embrace this radical call of self-sacrifice. I pray I will be prepared to embrace the identity of suffering-servant and priest-victim. He let me lock him away; I pray I’ll be ready when he asks the same in return.

“May God, who has begun this good work in you, now bring it to fulfillment”

Renewal of Priestly Promises

Today I had the chance to attend the annual Chrism Mass in the diocese. Every Tuesday of Holy Week the priests of the diocese (100+) gather with the Bishop to renew their priestly promises and receive newly consecrated oils which will be used for annointings and sacraments. This is my first year attending and it brought great consolation to be in the presence of all the priest’s I’ll eventually be serving alongside. It was a powerful ceremony.

 

Chrism Mass Austin 2012

Chrism Mass 2012 (couldn’t find one from today) – Via Diocese of Austin Facebook

The most moving part of the Mass was the renewal of promises. At ordination each priest makes promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He gains the right to celebrate sacraments but also incurs the obligation to serve the Church and her people. Ordinations are exciting because you see the starry-eyed guys who’ve spent 7+ years in formation and are eager to “get out there” and get to work for the Kingdom. The zeal and desire is inspiring.

The renewal of vows is inspiring in another way. The priests span the range – old and new. Some priests are there for the 25th time. Some for the first. All have experienced the reality of priestly ministry (As a visiting priest at the seminary recently said – “It’s not a rainbows and waterfalls of grace…. sometimes it’s black and bruising”). These men have seen hard times, fought good fights, endured difficulty, and persevered through it. They’ve moved past the priestly honeymoon and continued in ministry. They’ve celebrated thousands of confessions, marriages, baptisms, and seen many of those people walk away, but they’re not giving up the good fight. They’re publicly declaring that they want to go back into the ring. They went through the ringer last year and showed up today to commit to another one. They’re not committing to an imagined future; they’re committing to a future they know well. That moves me.

More than the eloquent speeches among seminarians, or soaring words of writers, or text of Church documents… seeing these priests united with the Bishop in promises to love the Lord and serve his people was a moment of power. In the seminary we learn a lot of tools and techniques of priestly ministry. Today I witnessed a renewal of the heart of the priesthood – Union with Christ, celebration of Sacraments, and zeal to serve the people of God.

Words have power. They manifest the will and change lives. Priests’ words manifest God’s power in the world – effecting the change of bread into Christ’s body and forgiving sins. Today their words declared to the world that God will provide, His call is real, and they desire to serve Him to the end. I pray for the grace to do the same in the future.

The renewal of Priestly Promises:

Bishop: Beloved sons…
are you resolved to renew
in the presence of your Bishop and God’s holy people,
the promises you once made?

Priests: I Am

Bishop: Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus
and more closely conformed to him,
denying yourselves and confirming those promises
about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church
which, prompted by love of him,
you willingly and joyfully pledged
on the day of your priestly ordination?

Priests: I Am

Bishop: Are you resolved to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God
in the Holy Eucharist and the other liturgical rites
and to discharge faithfully the sacred office of teaching,
following Christ the Head and Shepherd,
not seeking any gain,
but moved only by zeal for souls?

Priests: I Am


Life Update:

This year, the Seminary released us back to our dioceses for Holy Week. So, I’m back at St. Mary’s Catholic Center for a third round of MC’ing Triduum liturgies. With two years under my belt now, I’m ready to actually offer constructive help. Growth happens in small ways, but I see definite progress when I return more confident to situations I’ve experience before. Apparently something is working.

David Konderla – Priest, Bishop, Father

Last summer Father David Konderla, Priest of the Diocese of Austin and Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Center in College Station, became Bishop David Konderla, Bishop of the Diocese of Tulsa. I had the pleasure to attend the ordination and it proved to be a profound experience in my own discernment journey. While It’s impossible to say with total certainty, I’m reasonably sure that I wouldn’t be in seminary if it weren’t for now Bishop David (speaking of the past I’ll refer to “Fr David”). Lots of other people have written eloquently about his impact. I’ll add another story to the collection.

Freshman Colby

I arrived as a freshman at Texas A&M coming off a couple summer experiences that left me convinced I was supposed to be a priest. I have a historical tendency to make situations much more difficult than they need to be, so my conviction became a driving force. It wasn’t that God was calling me to discern, pray, and peacefully enter. Rather, God wanted me NOW (regardless of how much I hated the idea), and I needed to stop everything, talk to the man in charge, and get this train rolling.

In the first week or two of school I sent Fr David a dramatic email explaining my situation. He responded with a simple, “why don’t we meet up and talk about that?” When we eventually met up, he listened to my tumult, and gave what came to be a classic response, “You know Colby, I think you’re making this way too difficult. It doesn’t sound like you’re in a peaceful place right now, so why don’t you calm down, wait on this, and give God some time to act. If he wants you to be a priest, he’ll make it happen. There’s no need to rush.” He gave me some info about discernment events and invited me to just be a student for a little while.

“You’re in a good place to discern. This is a new call for you. Try to slow it down and see where it goes.”

Fr David - Gig em

Who could say ‘no’?

I (reluctantly) took his advice to heart and gave myself the freedom to live a bit as a student. That initial meeting became somewhat prophetic, because for the next four years we had the exact same conversation multiple times. I’d come back from a retreat or semester break flustered, anxious and worried about discernment… ready to cut ties and run off into the wilderness. He’d calm me down, tell me it’s going to be ok, and advise that maybe I need to wait a bit longer. He recognized what I couldn’t at the time, that God likely was calling but I was not in a place to respond in a healthy way.

After persevering with me for years, explicitly encouraging me to date on two different occasions, enduring more bouts of anxious conviction, and ultimately saving me from impulsively running off to be a monk, his patient endurance paid off. Senior year I was significantly more at peace and able to able to enter seminary with some amount of belief that God was calling me for my own good. While that belief had to grow after entering (see more recent history), the guidance he offered was what I needed to get my foot in the door.

That’s a lot about me, but it also highlights how profoundly grateful I am for his priesthood.

It was his own love for the priesthood, commitment to prayer, relationship with a God who speaks in peace, and patient expectation in the Lord’s work that ultimately allowed him to guide a much more immature discerner (me) on the path to falling in love with the vocation he so dearly cared for himself.

Seminarian Colby

At IPF last summer we spent a lot of time learning about and meditating on the identities of a diocesan priest, namely Beloved Son, Chaste Spouse, Spiritual Father, Divine Physician, and Head/Shepherd. During the summer, I was struggling with the identity of spiritual father. I’ve always been drawn to helping others draw into a deeper relationship with Christ, but as a new seminarian I was very uncomfortable with the attention I received from people and parishes simply for showing up. Consequently, I was also uncomfortable with the trust people put in a priest solely because of his title. I suppose it’s the millennial in me that would rather minister as a peer than a boss. I was afraid of losing my identity. A common refrain was “I want to be ‘Colby, a Seminarian,’ not ‘Colby the Seminarian’ or ‘Seminarian Colby’.”

Bishop David’s ordination was a turning point for me. While there, I was overcome with gratitude for the love and guidance he had given to me over the years. I didn’t go to him initially looking for a friend or peer. I didn’t care about his past life, what podcasts he listens to, or his competency at running a sound board; I wanted a man who could speak from experience and personal transformation about the way that God moves. His identity as priest was something I could trust in; I knew his job was to take me to Christ. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I really wanted was a spiritual Father. God bless him, Fr David was exactly that for me. Now, his own example is key for me embracing that key pillar of diocesan priesthood.

Ordination Konderla

Joy

When I go back to visit College Station, Fr. David isn’t there anymore. Somewhere along the line, word of the humble, witty, calm, patient Shepherd and Father made its way up to Rome. That’s sad for me on a selfish level, but brings me so much joy for the greater Church. The people of Tulsa are a blessed bunch.

Beloved Son of God. Priest of Christ. Pastor of thousands. Father to hundreds. Bishop of the Diocese of Tulsa.

I thank God every day for the man named David Konderla. Can you join me in saying a prayer for him and all our Bishops and Priests?

Note: This isn’t the first time I’ve written about holy priests that have become holy bishops (See Bishop Kelly). What a crazy life.


Post-Thought:

One of the minor sufferings of seminary life is that after 16 straight years of school, I’m now in the middle of 6 more years. I love learning and particularly enjoy the current topics of study, but that’s a long time to do anything. So, I like to remember that one of the major joys of still being a student is that I get student breaks. My friends are out working 8-5 and not spending their weekends cranking out 10 page papers, but I get the luxury of long Christmas and Summer vacations. I also get a full week of spring break, which is why I’m spending every afternoon at the library working on long-delayed projects. It’s a good chance to play catch up and finish off some unfinished blog thoughts.

Intimate and Unceasing Union

I’m spending this summer at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University. I’m here with 175 seminarians from across the country (and Canada!), including 4 classmates from Austin. This summer program is dedicating to building up the spiritual lives of seminarians. I’ve only been here a week, but it’s already wonderfully evident that IPF exists for one reason – to teach me how to pray. The goals of the program speak for themselves:

Continue reading

Seminary Brotherhood

When I was discerning where to enter seminary, the community life of religious orders was the one thing holding me back from diocesan life. I talked a bit about that decision when I first entered. For a while I had the perception that parish priests live lonely lives alone in a rectory while the religious hang out all the time with their best friends. I’ve come to learn that both of those views are pretty skewed. Parish priests need community just as much as religious; they just have to work harder to maintain it.

Community

There are too many good things about seminary to pick a best, but high on that list would be my experience of brotherhood with my fellow seminarians. Community and friendship have always been near to my heart, but seminary has really driven home how essential it is to a holistic, healthy, holy life. The formators here are emphatic about our need to develop friendships both inside and outside of seminary. Fr. John Nepil explains this very well with the emphasis that deep, supportive community requires vulnerability, and not simply transparency:

“Sadly, priests are the first to say they don’t need it, “and besides we are really busy.”  Most priests I have met who have left the priesthood were isolated and didn’t pray; all of them lacked vulnerability in prayer and in relationships.  But for some reason few have realized that the grave privation of constancy in relationships, at the source of so much destruction.  Unless our relationships are consistent, deep trust cannot emerge and vulnerability becomes impossible.  Vulnerability does not exist on its own; it is always the fruit of commitment.”

The formators recognize the tendency to isolate and speak about it often. In the seminary, we are encouraged to have both close personal friends and tight diocese/class groups. The formators go so far as to make comments such as (always moderated and in context), “In 7 years you won’t care if you got an A or a B in that class, but you will continue to need the support of your brother priests. If doing worse on an assignment allows you to spend time and build supportive friendships, do it.” They are trying to drill into us how important community is so that we’ll be ready when we do live alone in a rectory .

At the seminary, Austin brothers and Pre-The 2 classmates are my primary community.

Diocese Brothers

 

Annual Austin HTS Christmas Card

Every Wednesday we have “Keep Austin Weird Wednesday”. We all wear our diocese polos, squeeze into a breakfast table, and share good times. Recently we started adding in “High, Low, God moments” (I learned it on my Spring Break mission trip to the Dominican Republic) in order to get a better grasp of what we are struggling with and where God is moving in prayer. Moments like those are the foundation and fruit of vulnerability in community. We have learned that we can trust each other with failings, doubts, and struggles.

It sounded like a good idea

Diocese Brother (DB) nights happen once a month. They usually involve a meal away from the seminary and some activity. Some examples include bowling, ice skating, city park exploring, C-League Basketball (Austin Spurs!), and chili cookoffs. Most recently we had our end of semester db night in which the graduating class organized a last hurrah of prayer and reminiscing. We gave out Austin Weirdo Awards, shared memories based on prompts Jimmy created (ex “I remember at DCYC when… Remember that time we ended up at a baseball game… The best part of the Korean BBQ restaurant experience was…), spent time in silent prayer, shared ‘where am I at right now’ updates, then took turns individually affirming each brother on the ways we have seen God’s action in their life this year. It was an incredible night. I’m blessed to continue on with these guys and see them throughout the year even away from seminary (Convocation is one annual gathering).

Pre-Theology Brothers

The Pre-Theology class is my other primary community. After our fifth classmate left early in our first semester, we’ve stayed strong through many struggles and joys.  I consider each man to be a best friend. We share classes, weekly class outings, and unplanned class meetings in the hallway. These guys have been great to journey with as we learned the ropes of seminary and post-college life. Because we have semi-similar backgrounds (all graduated from large state universities), we’ve learned together how to think philosophy, deal with younger seminarians, temper our passion for pastoral ministry with seminary life, and balance time spent between old and new friends. We’ve also had lots of fun – road trips to Mexico and New Mexico, more chilli cookoffs, board games, bubble tea, etc.

With Fr. Swift

– The class with Fr. Swift

Friendship is always a hard thing to quantify, but I think these guys have given me the best glimpse of what a close-knit community looks like. They go out of their way to support each other – sacrificing time and personal desires to build up the other. Moreso, it’s a group of men that truly share life and self with each other. I knew we had arrived when last semester we were out for coffee and one guy made the comment, “Hey so I know this thing really bothers you. How did you respond when that came up in class today?” Comments like that are now pretty standard – “Are you feeling ok after that lecture?” “Did that talk clear up your anxiety?” “I finally understand now when you speak about your perpetual frustration.” They don’t require effort or prompting, they just happen spontaneously as we spend time together. Quoting one more time from Fr. John Nepil:

“Transparency, the rendering of one’s interiority manifest to the other, is a good in itself.  But this is not vulnerability.  The former requires no risks, is safe because we remain in control.  Vulnerability is the greatest of risks, because we can experience the greatest of rejections.  Transparency is when the friend manifests their life to you in such a way as you are not invited into it, where exhortation or encouragement is not permitted.  Vulnerability requires that I manifest my life in such a way as I become capable of being wounded (vulnus in latin is wound).  I have to expose my life to you in such a way that permits you to enter into it, and not merely observe it. 

I maintain many close friendships from before entering seminary,  but never experienced the closeness in a group of friends that I currently have. That group intimacy carries with it opportunities to be “called out” and challenged by the same men that are walking with me as I struggle to grow. We began at a level of transparency, willing to speak about ourselves but not inviting the others to be a part of it. Vulnerability is something I’ve had to learn, but the learning has brought such an abiding joy that I don’t know how I lived without it. I now have a group of men who can listen to my issues, “I really hate X. This thing is pissing me off. I’m not sure how to deal with that teaching. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that as a priest,” hear me, and intelligently respond. That’s community – Brotherhood, not bromance.

In Ruidoso

As I enter finals week and start packing up my time at HTS, I am deeply grateful for these men who have made it such a transformative time. I’m confident I would not have made it this far in formation without them.

Oh, Howdy Bishop

On my way back to my room from the library, I ran across Bishop Kelly coming home from the front doors. Slightly surprised, I offered an “Oh, Howdy Bishop” and came straight here to reflect on another of the unique circumstances of living in a Seminary.

Bishop Kelly

When I moved into the Seminary last year, Bishop Kelly was simply Monsignor Kelly. He served as the vicar for clergy for the diocese of Dallas (kinda like a personnel manager for all the priests) and lived at the seminary so he could stay close to the future priests. He is an alum of HTS, previously served as the campus chaplain at UD, and recently completed a short stint as interim rector of the seminary. He celebrated Mass every few weeks and always gave the best homilies. I’d sit with him at meals and talk about formation, classes, sports, or local news, and ran into him every morning at the newspaper table.

Over Christmas break, we heard that Msgr Kelly had been appointed Auxilary Bishop of Dallas by Pope Francis, and in February we attended his ordination. Before his ordination, he gave a homily at the seminary in which he described his emotions immediately after receiving the appointment phone call. He described a few days in which he couldn’t believe what was being asked of him but ultimately found consolation in the belief that the same Christ who had sustained him in priestly ministry would continue to sustain him in Episcopal ministry (specifically quoting psalm 55). Choking back tears he said:

“I never wanted this… but if the Holy Father desires it I will say ‘yes’. I will accept it as the path to holiness God has chosen for me.” 

Bishop Kelly Seminary

In the chapel at HTS

Now, I live in the same building as a Bishop in charge of the souls of the ~1 million Catholics in the Diocese of Dallas. In fact, he lives about 30 feet down the hall from me. It’s not unusual to sit down in the chapel for prayer at night and find him sitting in the pew right behind me, or, like tonight, run into him at night when he returns from a day of Bishop-ing. Every time we cross paths he greets me with a smile and a kind word. I’ve never seen him angry. He loves people. What did he do on Easter Sunday? Celebrate mass at a hospital because the Chaplain was out ill.

In a semester that has been marked by my realization of the difficulty of ecclesial obedience and an ongoing struggle to trust that the men in charge of the Church really are guided by the Holy Spirit, Bishop Kelly is a constant source of consolation. Praise God, and please pray, for the holy shepherds he provides.


School Update: I just finished my last paper of the semester (epistemology – 5 pages on how the systems of Descartes and Hume both end in skepticism of the external world). It’s nice to be finished after a three week stretch during which I completed four papers totaling about 30 pages of writing. I wrote more in this past month than in my entire undergrad. Thanks UD.

Update 3/15/17 – Here’s a more recent reflection on another Bishop who made a huge impact on me. – Priest, Bishop, Father