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This Sunday’s readings (the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A) have a lot of great practical advice about — and for — priests.
It all starts in the first reading when the Lord speaks through Malachi: “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen … I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse.”
A modern application of that is clear when you consider those priests who have abused others. But the warning in the Bible is not directed at criminal behavior, but at lack of priestly behavior.
“You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction,” says the reading. “I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways.”
The most significant failing of priests is when they lead people astray — by failing to teach the word of God fully and fearlessly.
The second reading continues the theme, but its advice is directed to the flock. The advice: Remember the good priests above all.
There were scandalous priests in the early Church, too, but St. Paul here draws the Thessalonians’ attention on those who “were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.”
These priests had been “Working night and day in order not to burden any of you” and “proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”
In our day, too, there are many good priests who tire themselves out for us, caring for us at the most difficult moments of our lives, working late to provide those in their care with not only the proper instruction, but the proper example, too.
Priests who are courageous witnesses to the Gospel are the best way to restore the reputation of the priesthood.
The last piece of advice comes from Jesus in the Gospel, and his is the harshest of all.
He has high esteem for the priesthood, but he warns the flock about some of the men who are part of it. “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses,” he says. “Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”
He paints a picture of exactly the kind of priest the first reading condemned. “[T]hey preach but they do not practice. … All their works are performed to be seen. … They love places of honor at banquets.”
He goes on to say, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ.”
He isn’t condemning the practice of using the title “father” for mere men — after all, St. Stephen and St. Paul both do that in the New Testament. But he is condemning the clericalism that makes the priest the center of our faith instead of leaving him in his proper place as a minister.
Today’s readings puts priests very much in their place — a place of great esteem and significant authority, but of very little importance compared to God the Father.
Image: Catholic Church England and Wales