St. John’s Gospel Give Us Plain Talk About the Priesthood

Now, more than ever, the priesthood requires heroism and willingness to embrace martyrdom.

Ambrosius Francken I (circa 1544/1545-1618), “Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish”
Ambrosius Francken I (circa 1544/1545-1618), “Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish” (photo: Public Domain)

The Fourth Gospel, that of Saint John the Evangelist, has a curious makeup. Recall the basic structure of John’s Gospel — after the Prologue, the Book of Signs (John 1-11) begins with the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana and each of these signs performed by Our Lord Jesus builds up, each of the signs exponentially increase, growing bigger and bigger, all of them pointing to the identity of the Lord — namely that he is the Son of God, God himself. This, of course, leads to the Book of Glory (John 12:22), in which we read of the life-giving Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus.

However, it is in the sixth chapter, right in the middle of the Book of Signs, in which everything comes to head. After feeding the five thousand (John 6:15) and then walking on the water (John 6:16-21), Our Lord Jesus gives what is termed the “Bread of Life discourse” (John 6:22-71). This is an incredibly long passage in the Gospel and it is where John the Evangelist gives his basic Eucharistic theology.

(Recall that in chapters 13 and 14 of John, we have the story of the Last Supper, which has, among many other aspects, the washing of the feet of the Disciples by Our Lord, the prediction of his betrayal, the giving of the New Commandment of Love, and, in his 14th chapter, the beginning of the Lord’s farewell discourses. Even though there is no explicit mention of the Eucharist in this Johannine version of the Last Supper, that doesn’t mean that Saint John didn’t care about it! No, rather, he covered the theology of it in his sixth chapter’s Bread of Life Discourse!)

In the Bread of Life discourse, the disciples have to make a concrete stand. Either they can follow the Lord Jesus, hearing and heeding his words, about he himself being the Bread of Life come down from Heaven and that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, they will have no life in them (John 6:35-40).

“This is a hard saying,” (John 6:60), Scripture tells us that the crowd opined, many of them leaving the Lord Jesus. It takes Peter, the Rock, the first pope, to make his confession to the Lord, saying “Ad Quem Ibimus?” (John 6:68) or “To whom shall we go, Lord?”

In this Bread of Life discourse, Our Lord makes a stand and speaks plainly to his Apostles, forcing them in turn to make a stand. Sometimes we need to “talk plainly” and “not in any figure of speech.” When we sugarcoat something, sometimes we can lose the meaning and the momentum.

So, in light of John 6, may we “talk plainly” about two subjects — the Eucharist and the priesthood? The Eucharist is Jesus Christ, our Lord, our God, sacramentally present on the altar for us and for our salvation. It is Christ’s bishops and priests, and only them, who can, despite their personal unworthiness, who can consecrate the Lord.

And it is the priests who, as ones most intimately connected to the Eucharist, who, by our own sins and by not performing the spiritual works of mercy, namely admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant, might most especially eat and drink our own condemnation when it comes to our ministries.  We speak of “heroic priesthood” and we have many images of priesthood, but we should realize what it is we are receiving when we enter into Holy Orders. Now, more than ever, the priesthood requires heroism and willingness to embrace martyrdom.

And here I write explicitly to my brother priests and to myself (and, in doing so, I ask all the faithful, both religious and laity to pray for their priests): Yes, please God, most likely we priests will not be lined up to be massacred for our Christian faith, but we will feel the daily martyrdom of being ostracized, labeled for the sins of some of our brothers in Holy Orders, derided for defending the truth of the faith, and for acknowledging natural law in a world which can seem to recoil from the idea of it.

More than anything today, we priests need fresh courage. We need the heavenly prayers and moral example of the Holy Pastors, like Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan Friar, of whom it was attested by Franciszek Gajowniczek (a young Jewish husband and father who had his life spared because Fr. Kolbe took his place of punishment and death at Auschwitz):

I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me - a stranger. Is this some dream?

I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last. (Emphasis Mine)

Being a priest today requires men who are holy, men who are happy, men who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of others, all for the glory of God and never our own glory. It requires a man to make a life-time, selfless commitment to service of God and his Holy People. There can be no “ten-year” volunteer priesthood, as some have recently opined in other publications. The priesthood is a life-long commitment, a vocation, not a task. Priestly ordination confers sacramental character and an ontological change, not merely a change in our function and duties.

Our commitment to priesthood requires nothing less than to “lay down our lives in service,” as we are reminded in the ordination rite. Grace builds on nature, so we need to get our nature ready more and more in our daily priestly lives. This is tough and it can only seem to get tougher. However, we should never despair. “May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment,” we read in the liturgy of ordination. Trust that he will, “for our good, and the good of his holy Church.”