The Hands of a Priest
Here it is in its entirety.
Dear brothers in the episcopate and priesthood, Dear brothers and sisters,
Holy Thursday is the day on which the Lord gave to the Twelve the priestly task of celebrating, in bread and wine, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood until his return. To the place of the paschal lamb and all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, there succeeds the gift of his Body and his Blood, the gift of himself. Thus the new rite [the sacrifice of the New Testament] is grounded in the fact that, first of all, God makes a gift to us, and we, overwhelmed by this gift, become his: creation turns to the Creator. Thus also the priesthood becomes something new: no longer is it a question of inheritance, but it is an encounter in the mystery of Jesus Christ. He is always the One who gives and who draws us upwards toward himself. He alone is able to say: “This is my Body – this is my Blood.” The mystery of the Church’s priesthood rests in the fact that we, being pitiable human beings, by virtue of the Sacrament are able to speak with his “I”: in persona Christi [in the person of Christ]. He wants to exercise his priesthood through our agency. This deeply moving mystery, that in every celebration of the Sacrament touches us anew we recall in particular way on Holy Thursday. So that our daily celebration does not obscure something that is so great and mysterious, we have need of such a specific remembrance; we need to return to that hour in which He laid his hands on us and made us sharers in this mystery. Let us, therefore, reflect anew on the signs by which the Sacrament has been given to us. At the heart of it is the most ancient gesture of the laying-on of hands, with which He has taken possession of me, saying to me: “You belong to me.” But with that he has also said: “You stand under the protection of my hands. You stand under the protection of my heart. You are protected in the palm of my hands, and thus you find yourself precisely in the vastness of my love. Remain in the space of my hands and give me your own.” Let us remember further that our hands have been anointed with oil, which is the sign of the Holy Spirit and of his power. Why precisely the hands? A man’s hand is the instrument of his activity, it is the symbol of his capacity to deal with the world, precisely “to take it in hand.” The Lord has imposed his hands on us and wills now that our hands become, in the world, his hands. He wants them no longer to be instruments for taking things or people or the world for ourselves, to reduce them to our own possession, but, on the contrary, to communicate his divine touch, placing them at the service of his love. He wants them to be instruments to serve and thus an expression of the mission of the whole person to bear witness to Him and to bring him to men. If the hands of a man represent symbolically his faculty and, generally, his technical ability to regulate the world, then the anointed hands should be a sign of his capacity to give, of his creativity in shaping the world with love – and for this, certainly, we have need of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, anointing is the sign of being taken up into service: the king, the prophet, the priest makes and gives more than that which derives from himself. In a certain way, it signifies that he is giving himself over to the performance of a service, placing himself at the disposition of one much greater than he. If Jesus presents himself today in the Gospel as the Anointed of God, the Christ, this is precisely in order to say that He is working for the mission of the Father and in unity with the Holy Spirit and that, in this way, gives the world a new royalty, a new priesthood, a new way of being a prophet, that does not seek itself, but lives for the One, in light of whom the world has been created. Let us place our hands today anew at his disposition and pray him always to take us by the hand anew and guide us.
In the sacramental gesture of the imposition of hands by the Bishop, it is the Lord himself imposing hands on us. This sacramental sign summarizes in itself an entire existential journey. Once, as did the first disciples, we met the Lord and heard his word: “Follow me!” Perhaps initially we followed him in a way that was a little uncertain, looking back and asking ourselves if this road was really for us. And at some point on the journey, perhaps we had the experience of Peter after the miraculous catch of fish, and we were left frightened at his greatness, at the greatness of the task, and at the insufficiency of our poor person, such that it wanted to pull us back: “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinner!” (Luke 5:8). But again He, with great goodness, laid his hands upon us, drew us to himself again, and said to us: “Do not be afraid! I am with you. I will not leave you – don’t you leave me!” And more than once, to every one of us, perhaps there has befallen the same thing that happened to Peter when, walking on the water to meet the Lord, suddenly it’s clear that the water will not hold us up and that we’re going to sink. And like Peter we have cried out: “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). Seeing all the fury of the elements, how could we ever pass through the churning and foaming waters of the past century and of the past millennium? But then we cried out to Him . . . and he took us by the hand and gave us a new “specific gravity”: the lightness that derives from faith and that lifts us up. And again he gives us the hand that supports and carries. He supports us. Let us always fix our gaze anew upon Him and hold out our hand toward Him. Let us allow his hand to take us, and then we will not sink, but serve the life that is much stronger than death, and the love that is much stronger than hatred. Faith in Jesus, the Son of the living God, is the graced way in which we always take anew the hand of Jesus and the way in which He takes our hands and guides us. One of my favorite prayers is the request that the liturgy places on our lips before Communion: “ . . . do not permit me evermore to be separated from you.” Let us ask that we nevermore fall out of communion with his Body, with Christ himself, nevermore fall out of the Eucharistic mystery. Let us ask Him nevermore to let go of our hand . . .
The Lord has placed his hand upon us. The significance of such a gesture is expressed in the words: “I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). I no longer call you servants, but friends: the institution of the priesthood can be clearly seen in these words. The Lord makes us his friends: he entrusts everything to us; he entrusts himself to us, so that we are able to speak with his “I” – in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head). What confidence! He truly consigns himself into our hands. The essential signs of priestly Ordination are, at their base, all manifestations of these words: the imposition of hands; the consignment of the book – of the word which He entrusts to us; the consignment of the chalice with which he transmits to us that mystery of his so profound and so personal. Part of this, too, is the power to absolve: he makes us participate also in his knowledge regarding the misery of sin and all the darkness of the world and places in our hands the key to open again the door to the Father’s house. I no longer call you servants, but friends. This is the profound significance of being a priest: to become a friend of Jesus Christ. For this friendship we must implore him every day anew. Friendship signifies commonality of thought and will. In this communion of thought with Jesus we must train ourselves, as Saint Paul tells us in the Letter to the Philippians (cf. Philippians 2:2-5). And this communion of thought is not only an intellectual thing, but a commonality of attitudes, and of willing, and also of doing. This indicates that we must know Jesus in a way that is ever more personal, listening to Him, living together with Him, drawing ourselves ever closer to Him. To listen to Him – in lectio divina, that is, reading Sacred Scripture in a way that is academic, but spiritual; thus do we learn to encounter the Jesus who is present and who speaks to us. We ought to discuss and reflect upon his words and his deeds before Him and with Him. The reading of Sacred Scripture is prayer, ought to be prayer – ought to flow from prayer and lead back to prayer. The evangelists tell us that the Lord repeatedly – for entire nights – went off “up on a mountain” to pray by himself alone. Of this “mountain” we, too, have need: it is an interior height that we must scale, the mountain of prayer. Only thus does the friendship develop. Only thus are we able to develop our priestly service, only thus are we able to carry Christ and his Gospel to men. Even the simple activity can be heroic. But external activity, in the end, remains fruitless and loses its efficacy, if it is not born of a profound, intimate communion with Christ. The time that we devote to this is truly a time of pastoral activity, of an authentic pastoral activity. The priest ought to be, above all, a man of prayer. The world, in its frenetic activism, often loses its balance. Its activity and its potential become destructive, if the powers of prayer grow less, that source from which spring up the waters of life that are able to make fruitful the barren earth.
I no longer call you servants but friends. The nucleus of the priesthood is to be friends with Jesus Christ. Only thus are we able to speak truly in persona Christi [in the person of Christ], even though our interior distance from Christ is not able to compromise the validity of the Sacrament. To be the friend of Jesus, to be priest means to be a man of prayer. Thus do we recognize and move away from the ignorance of simple slaves. Thus do we learn to live, to suffer, and to act with Him and through Him. Friendship with Jesus is, by extension, always friendship with those who are His own. We are able to be friends with Jesus only in communion with the whole Christ, with the head and the body; on the flourishing vine of the Church animated by her Lord. Only in her is the Sacred Scripture, thanks to the Lord, a living and real Word. Without the living subject of the Church who embraces the age, the Bible crumbles into a pile of disjointed writings and becomes thus a book of the past. It is eloquent in the present only there where there is the “Presence” – there where Christ remains in permanent contemporaneity with us: in the body of his Church.
To be priest means to become a friend of Jesus Christ, and this always ever more and with our whole being. The world has need of God – not of just any god, but the God of Jesus Christ, of the God who became flesh and blood, who has loved us even to dying for us, who is risen and who has created in himself a space for man. This God must live in us and we in Him. And this is our priestly calling: only thus is our activity as priests able to bear fruit. I would like to conclude this homily with a word from Andrea Santoro, from this priest of the Diocese of Rome who was assassinated at Trabzon while he was praying; Cardinal Ce communicated this to us during the Spiritual Exercises. The word says: “ I am here to live in the midst of this people and to permit Jesus to act by lending him my body . . . One becomes capable of salvation only by offering one’s own body. The evil of the world will be borne and pain shared, absorbing it in one’s own body, even to the depths, as Jesus has done.” Jesus has taken (upon himself) our flesh. Let us give him ours; in this way he will be able to come into the world and transform it. Amen!
PHOTO: AP/Plinio Lepri