Priests are chosen from among men

by Archbishop Buti Tlhagale OMI 

Samuel the Prophet of God
The story of the calling of Samuel by God is contrasted with the account of the sons of Eli who did not know God, who did not care about God. Eli’s sons are said to have been corrupt and greedy for they helped themselves to meat whilst it was cooking in the pot. (Corruption did not start in South Africa. It has a long history). Samuel on the other hand was called by God and he grew up in the presence of the Lord (2.22). God “let none of his words fall to the ground”. Every word he uttered became effective; every prophecy he made was fulfilled. This enhanced the status of Samuel as a prophet of God, as a man of God.

The reading of Samuel’s calling on the occasion of an Ordination draws our attention to the spiritual qualities of Samuel: attentiveness to the Word of God, simplicity, faithfulness, humility and sensitivity to God’s presence. This is contrasted with the arrogance of the sons of Eli. Samuel is a mirror of the ideal image of a priest. The people “accredited Samuel as a prophet of God”. Priests are expected to safeguard their reputation as ministers, as prophets of God. If that accreditation or reputation is undermined, stained or even destroyed, then we are not different from the wayward sons of Eli.

Cyrus, the Servant of God
Throughout the history of the people of God, God has always chosen his own prophets and shepherds. God roused the spirit of Cyrus his shepherd, and ordered him to build a temple in Jerusalem where the people had returned from captivity and exile. It is God who stirs up the spirit of his chosen ministers to honour him by serving his people. God’s action of stirring the spirit of his chosen servants takes place even today at this Ordination (Ezra 1.1-3).

The prophet Isaiah highlights the role of the priest-prophet by recalling that the priest receives the spirit of God when he is anointed. His mission is to bring the Good News to the poor, a message of hope to all those who find themselves in situations that are devoid of joy, happiness and good health.

The prophet Jeremiah protested at being appointed a messenger of God, claiming that he was still a mere child. And yet God had consecrated him to bring an end to the apostasy of Israel. God’s people had abandoned him who is “the fountain of living waters, only to dig cisterns for themselves, leaky cisterns that hold no water (Jer. 2.13).

As priests, we are chosen, anointed and stirred by God’s spirit. We cannot now turn around in the face of serious challenges and offer lame excuses of human frailty, ignorance of God’s law or inadequate preparation for the ministry.

St. Paul Appointed by God
St. Paul’s identity as a missionary minister, is rooted in his deep conviction that he has been “appointed by God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus” (2 Cor. 1.1). It was at Damascus that Paul heard the voice of the God of his ancestors. Paul became “full of duty towards God” (Acts 22.3). The heart of Paul’s preaching was conversion to Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead. As priests, we are anointed to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul, the Apostle of the Nations. Our mission and identity derive from Christ himself so that we too might become “full of duty towards God”, and convincing witnesses in a world that has become cynical about priests because of our moral behaviour that is inconsistent with our calling. When we become compromised as priests, the message we preach simply rings hollow and, in effect, weakens the content of the Gospel truth.

The twelve apostles were specifically invited by Jesus to follow him. He gave them authority to cure the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons. He taught them that “anyone who makes himself as little as this little child, is the greatest in the kingdom of God” (Mt. 18.4). He urged the apostles to imitate the Son of Man “who came not to be served but to serve” (Mt. 20.28); and to remain awake while they are in the service of the master (Lk. 12.37). The “Hail Mary” prayer says: “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”.

Pastors who are most exposed today are not pastors who preach the gospel of prosperity or those who claim to possess healing powers, those who spray their congregants with doom or make them eat grass. The most exposed and vulnerable pastor today is the Catholic Priest. Stories of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests across the world have been relentlessly covered by the media. We have been condemned for being inauthentic, for professing one thing but only to do the opposite. Wolves in sheepskin, they call us. The world today has absolutely no tolerance threshold for priests who deviate from the accepted standard of moral behaviour. The condition of following Christ is that “if anyone wants to follow me must renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16.24). We are hated by the world not because of Christ we preach, but because we have painfully become the symbol of the anti-Christ.

The truth of the matter is that, as priests, we cannot be half in and half out. We cannot remain hesitant and undecided. Since we have renounced marriage we cannot then still want to have and to hold. We should not be revising life-decisions at every turn. We are either in or out. We cannot spend the rest of our lives sitting on the fence and making mockery of ourselves.

The burden of the history of the ups and downs of the Catholic Priesthood should not however drive us into a state of paralysis, of a pervasive mea culpa and self-pity. On the contrary, it should be a suffering that resolutely leads to self-discipline. With St. Paul we should be able to say:

“We are in difficulties on all sides,
but never cornered.
We see no answer to our problems, but never despair
always whenever we may be, we carry with us in our body
the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus too
may always be seen in our body”
(2 or. 4. 8-10).

Mary the Mother of Jesus, Our Mother, stood at the foot of the Cross and watched in pain her Son being spat upon, beaten and eventually killed. Her Assumption into Heaven represents a triumph befitting of the Mother of God. May her intercessions on this day of your Ordination bring you grace, joy and strength. May you flourish in your ministry, and may the suffering of Christ Jesus who appointed you His ministers, bring you lasting consolation.

+Buti Tlhagale o.m.i.
St. Lambert’s, Daveyton
8 December 2018