Three times in the Gospels the Lord Jesus refers to himself as the “Lord of the Sabbath”: in the Gospel of Matthew 12:1-8; in Mark 2:23-28, and finally in Luke 6:1-5. When a term appears in the Gospels multiple times, we should pay extra attention! What does Jesus mean by this term “Lord of the Sabbath” and what can it mean for us in our lives as Catholic Christians today, especially for priests and future priests?

When the Lord Jesus reminds us of the fact that he is Lord of the Sabbath, is this code for “don’t worry about the rules and the rubrics, just be a real awesome dude?” I don’t think so. The Lord Jesus, by proclaiming that he is Lord of the Sabbath, is reminding us of the fact that he must be Lord over every aspect of our lives. He is not just Lord of our prayer time. It is a call to be a fully integrated Catholic Christian, one who strives, in all he says and does to be a fully integral person- one who is converted to the Lord Jesus intellectually, morally, spiritually, holistically, in all aspects of our lives.

What does it mean for the Lord to be “Lord of the Sabbath” for priests and future priests? What’s really the biggest crisis facing the priesthood today? It’s not broken ordination promises, necessarily; it’s not necessarily clerical sexual abuse; at its essence, the biggest issue is the lack of a true and real priestly identity. It’s about knowing who a priest is supposed to be. And if a priest doesn’t understand who he is and what he is supposed to be, then how can he lead the people of God as head and shepherd? How can he inspire vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

The priest is not a functionary. The priest is not mainly a facilitator of the ministries of others in the community. The priest must reorder his entire being, his entire worldview, around the idea of relationship with God, then identity in Christ, and then his mission. Many problems — particularly burn-out, resentment of his mission, and an over-functionality — occur when the priest gets the order confused. For myself at times, I know that I have reversed the order, placing mission first, getting the job done, at the expense of relationship and identity. 

These identities that I will describe come, by and large, from the program offered at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. I spent the summer of 2016 there enrolled in a program for seminary spiritual directors. Even though my role in the seminary is that of a formation advisor, not as a spiritual director, I was glad to meet so many good priests from around the world involved in priestly formation. These identities are, of course, not the be all and end all in priestly spirituality, but, as I reflect on them, I think that they can help us understand what it might be for Jesus to be Lord of the Sabbath in the lives of priests and future priests.

The relationship for the priest that has to be primary is with God. He must realize that he is a beloved son of the Father and has to assure, through the formation of a “monasticism of the heart,” becoming an active contemplative, that this relationship is primary. In the midst of a busy schedule, with all of its demands, I can understand how many of my brother priests could scoff at the concept of being an active contemplative. All one needs to do to be an active contemplative is to take the time daily for real, substantial prayer, preferably before the Blessed Sacrament.

From this relationship flows his identity, which is, by his ordination, configured to Christ, and he is ontologically, at the root of his being, changed. The priest is called to be the chaste spouse to the Church, committed as a celibate man, to the Church, the Bride of Christ. He is called to be the spiritual father, the one who gives life to his people through his loving service, like any father to a family and by feeding them with the Eucharist. He is called to be the divine physician, healing his flock through the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick. He is called to be head and shepherd, leading and guiding his flock even when the times get tough. He is called to be the friend of the Bridegroom, like John the Baptist, pointing not to himself but to the Lord Jesus. What a noble role! What an honorable task! How could a priest with this understanding not be excited and want to set the world ablaze! The Lord is the Lord of the Sabbath, over our resting and our rising, over our function and over our being, over who we are and what we do. We, after our ordinations, dressed in collar or not, at the altar or not, are priests. And he is the Lord of all that it entails. He is the true Lord of the Sabbath.