On Maundy Thursday, the Church celebrates the institution of the sacraments of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. Without priests we cannot have the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1324).
As a priest it keeps coming vividly into my heart and mind a powerful phrase that the bishop told me and my fellow ordinands on the day of our ordination. In fact, when he presented to us the bread and wine, which are the symbols of our priestly duty to offer the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist at Mass and to follow the example of Christ crucified, he told us: Receive from the Holy People of God the gifts to be offered to God. Know what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross. At liturgists rightly teach, us this gesture intimately ties up the rite of ordination with the Eucharistic context as well as with the priest’s service on behalf of the people of God.
Being a priest means leading a life of YES to God the Father, by following the Son in being guided by the Holy Spirit. The life of a priest is simply a faithful commentary on the inspired words of Psalm 40, which says: Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire; but thou hast given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering thou hast not required. Then I said, “Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart (Ps 40:6-8).
But which law should a priest nurture in his heart if not Jesus’ healing words when he said: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11)? When a priest does so he shows how much he knows the sheep God has entrusted him to care for and the sheep know that they will not be left alone, especially at the hour of turmoil. On the example of the Good Shepherd himself who affirmed, just three verses down: I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me (John 10:14).
These words certainly inspired Pope Francis’ exhortation to the newly ordained and to every priest, in the homily he delivered on Sunday 22 April 2018, when he celebrated the Eucharist and in it ordained sixteen deacons to the priesthood. Remember that you are chosen from among mankind and appointed to act in their favour by attending to the things of God. Carry out the work of Christ’s ministry with genuine joy and love, seeking only to please God and not yourselves and others, nor seeking other interests. Only at the service of God, for the good of the holy faithful People of God.
During this covid-19 pandemic many are the priests who are clinging to Jesus’ and Pope Francis’ words. Many are simply seeking the service of God and the good of the holy faithful People of God, even if this means losing their very lives. Given the extraordinary context we are living in it would be more than just to mention some of these silent yet resplendent witnesses of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who in them gave himself completely to us! Here are the testimonies of some of them.
Mgr. Tarcisio Ferrari was, for over 30 years, pastor of the church of Sant’Alessandro della Croce in Bergamo. “Of the many years spent in this parish,” he remembered recently with emotion, “I carry in my heart the joy of the ordination of five new priests and I have helped many poor and needy. Then the generosity of the people, I met many families and lived many events and celebrations in this beautiful parish.” Fr. Mariano Carrara had been ill for some time but, despite his illness, he had not stopped his precious work but kept serving the Urgnano community. After that his health started deteriorating, he was tested positive for coronavirus and died after being admitted to the Pope John XXIII hospital. As a newly ordained priest, Fr. Achille Bellotti, was chaplain among the Italian emigrants in Belgium. His pastoral ministry to migrants has fashioned his pastoral ministry. Thus recalls the Migrants Office of the Bergamo diocese: “There are some elements that distinguish the people who come from the peasant world: concreteness and determination, but also inner serenity. Fr. Achille absorbed this nourishment from his family.”
After his ordination, Fr. Gaetano Burini started his priestly ministry in 1962 in Peia. Remembering the time he was parish priest in Urgano he said: “I was thrilled by the homilies delivered and which I held during the Sunday mass for young people. Two or more boys and a young man came to the presbytery and shared aloud the feelings that the biblical readings aroused in them.” How can we forget the sacrifice of Fr. Alessandro Brignone, who died at the young age of 45? His confrere, Fr. Luigi Pierri, remembers him in these words: “How many funerals he celebrated! And now no funeral was given for him. Let us accompany him at least with our fraternal and grateful prayer.”
In the same ordination homily of 2018, Pope Francis said to every priest: Let the example of your life attract the followers of Christ so that by word and action you may build up the House of God which is the Church… Always keep in mind the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and to seek out and rescue those who were lost. These great priests and many many others, not simply in Italy but spread in every country around the globe, who are silently and courageously working with the covid-19 patients, cancer patients, prisons, parishes, homeless, attending to people’s distress via social media, airing masses and other clips of comfort and encouragement for God’s people on the internet and so on, are truly hidden resplendent witnesses of Christ who, even today, amid the coronavirus crisis, is still leading His people and extending his salvation to all mankind.
Let us pray and support them so that, despite their fragility, they keep collaborating, by God’s grace, with the Spirit of Jesus who made them, as St. Ambrose put it, the vicars of his love. That is why St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests, said of each priest: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus. When you see a priest, think of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Pray for us priests that we always think, talk and behave as our Lord Jesus Christ would! Thank you! And God bless you abundantly all of you!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap