Priests and Seminarians are Brothers of the Lord and Sons of Mary

We have truly been blessed with the gift of Our Lord and Our Lady.

Priests at Mass with Pope Francis for the Missionaries of Mercy in Vatican City on April 10, 2018.
Priests at Mass with Pope Francis for the Missionaries of Mercy in Vatican City on April 10, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

A few Sundays ago, while I was home visiting my diocese from my assignment in Rome, I was blessed to be able to offer Holy Mass in the wonderful parish where I am in residence. 

One of the big dangers of being a priest who doesn’t have the chance to preach daily is that every single thing that I want to say in a homily, especially when it comes to catechizing the congregation, I cannot. Precision is necessary for the homilist to say what needs to be said and only what needs to be said for the spiritual growth of the congregation. By nature, and by my current assignment, I am a teacher and I love to explain details. 

I know that when I preach I need to focus on these words from John 12:21 — “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It’s not about me, it’s all about him! 

A homily is not a class; the pulpit is not a lecture hall, although good Catholic intellectual formation should lead to solid Catholic spiritual life, and this, in turn, with the People of God, catechized and inspired, should lead to apostolic service.

The Gospel for that 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, was taken from Mark 6:1-6. Do you recall it? In it, the Lord Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, returns to his native place where he causes astonishment and offense in his neighbors. Saint Mark the Evangelist writes: “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” 

This Gospel passage is a particularly good one for apologetics. Remember apologetics? It means a clear defense of the Catholic faith. Why would I say this? For the simple reason that the Gospel uses the term: “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus. I had four separate parishioners ask me what this term, “brothers and sisters of Jesus” meant. 

We affirm, as Catholics, the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and that, when we read the phrase “brothers and sisters” in this pericope, the intention of the Evangelist is to mean cousins or extended family. Orthodox Christians and Protestant Christians have alternative interpretations which we reject, whether it be that these children are from a first marriage of Joseph from a wife who passed away or that they are natural children born to Mary and Joseph after the Virgin Birth of Christ. Again, Our Lady is a perpetual Virgin, before, during and after childbirth. The sure guide that is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (499-501) tells us: “The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man (499).” CCC 500 actually answers for us clearly and concisely the very question we are pondering. And CCC 501 raises the stakes even higher, stating:“Jesus is Mary's only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: ‘The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formation she cooperates with a mother's love.’”

All of us are, by the adoption we share in our baptism, children of God. All of us therefore are brothers and sisters of the Lord. It is especially important then for those of us who are priests and future priests to consider what it means to be a “brother of the Lord.” Two things, then, for our reflection:

First, for priests, being a brother of the Lord means to have Jesus as our “big brother,” to be our model and exemplar. Many of us come from families where we have a big brother, one with whom our teachers are always calling us by his name and one with whom our teachers might perpetually be comparing. If we as priests and seminarians are being confused with Jesus, then that’s the greatest thing possible. We’re not Jesus, but we, as his priests, act in persona Christi, and we can never, ever forget it. More problems have occurred because priests forget that we are not just functionally, but ontologically, in our very being, changed, and we have to be priests whether we’re offering Holy Mass or just doing the laundry. Our priesthood, this unique brotherhood that we share with Jesus, has to permeate everything we do and everything we are. Therefore, we who are priests and seminarians need to set the bar high and always compare our actions with our big brother, Jesus. Some of the horrible scandals we have seen plague our Church in general and the priesthood in particular are caused when we model ourselves on human standards and not those of Christ’s. Jesus and Jesus alone is our model.

Second, being a brother of the Lord means to have Mary as our Mother. She is our tender Mother of mercy, the mother of priests, the queen of the clergy. Priests and seminarians need to go to her and give her the fears, worries, and the anxieties that plague us. Nothing should be hidden from her loving eyes. Decompress daily with your mother, Mary. She’ll listen and she loves you. And she’ll give you good advice if you listen, too.

I tell the seminarians whom I help form that the spiritual life of a priest is like a chair. It has a seat and four legs. If one of the legs is missing, you are wobbly at best and, at worst, you fall down. And, if the seat is missing, you will surely fall down hard. The legs represent the essentials, the sine qua nons for the life of the priest (and, I think, for any Catholic Christian). These “legs,” which support and give strength are the daily recitation of the Divine Office (which is an obligation for the cleric), time spent in Adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament, solid spiritual reading, and the daily recitation of the Holy Rosary. The center, the “seat,” if you will, is the daily celebration of Holy Mass for a priest (and reception of the Eucharist for a seminarian). Without our brother, Jesus, living inside of us, no matter what we try on our own, we can ultimately accomplish nothing. This is true for priests and seminarians, as well as religious and laity.

We are all called to be brothers of the Lord through our faith and actions, but none more so than the priest. This vocation, as Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us with the title of his 1996 spiritual testimony written on the occasion of his 50th Anniversary of Priestly Ordination, both a “Gift and Mystery.” We have truly been blessed with the gift of Our Lord and Our Lady. May all of us, both priests and laity, always be able to be willing to go to our common Mother, Mary, and to follow the example of our big brother, Jesus.