These Holy Hands

A priest friend of mine in England used to joke that his working class mother would take his hands in hers and gently make fun of him by saying, “Look at these hands! So soft–never done an honest day’s work in his life…” She loved her son, and it was her wry British sense of humor way of admiring him and the priestly ministry he had been granted.
I look at a priest’s hands and think what a beautiful symbol they are of the whole priesthood. Here are his hands, and after his face, they speak of the man himself. Are they tough and rough and scarred from physical labor? So is he. Are they plump with gold rings? He probably is too. Are they unclean and not trimmed and groomed? Maybe he is a bit scruffy too. Are the nails bitten down? Maybe he’s nervous and has inner tensions that you do not know about. Are his hands soft and fat and manicured? So is he. Do they emerge from tattered old cuffs or from starched white cuffs with gold cuff links? You can see what he think of material blessings. Are they knotted in fists? He’s a fighter. Are they old, pale, thin, veined and shaky? So is he.
These are the hands that do everyday things. They chop the vegetables and pet the dog. They type the newsletter and turn on the lights and use the screwdriver and turn the page. They gesture and point and talk as he talks. They get dirty fixing the chain on the bike, digging in the garden and cleaning out the septic tank. These are the hands that fulfill the body’s functions. Yes, these hands are also hands that engage in sin. They are given over at times when the priest yields to temptation. They are used for the most ordinary, human, physical tasks, but these are also the hands that bless.
What does the priest do with these hands? He anoints the sick. He embraces a child. He lays hands on the dying and those about to be confirmed. These are the hands that are raised in blessing and folded in prayer. These are the hands that do the most ordinary and earthly things, but these are also the hands that sign the head, the lips and the breast when the gospel is proclaimed. These are the hands that float above the altar as the Holy Spirit is called down. These are the hands that lift the host and lift the chalice as God comes down to transform this matter of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. These hands are extended in peace and blessing. These hands distribute the precious body and blood of Christ. These hands bless the penitent at absolution, turn the pages of the breviary and clutch the rosary as the last action at night.
The hands of the priest are the sign of the priest–in the ordinary the extraordinary is seen.  Through his humanity God’s divinity wants to shine. This is the mystery of the sacrament of ordination. Holy Church teaches that through ordination an ontological change takes place in the man. A new dimension to his humanity is unlocked. He opens out into becoming something he was not before. His ordination is a completed gift and yet also a gift that has to be completed through a life of dedication, prayer, sacrifice and suffering. This is the mystery of ordination that I have experienced: through a lifetime of following Christ I have come across priests and bishops who, from a human perspective, have been failures, losers and boors. I have come across priests who were venal, short tempered, scheming and back stabbing. I have come across priests who were child molestors, perverts and alcoholics. And yet…
And yet I also saw in each one a man who wanted to be fully conformed to the image of Christ–a man who longed to be all that God created him to be. A man, despite the cynicism and sin and fear and frailty, who longed for heaven, whose heart was once filled with faith, and who still, despite all things, longed for faith again. I insist that I saw, even in those priests, the image of Christ–supernaturally planted there by their baptism and their ordination. It may have been faded, smeared and bleared by their fallen humanity; it may have been so twisted and perverted by their weakness and human evil, but something gold was there–something glimmered in the darkness like a diamond lost at night. Something supernatural was there in a way far deeper and more mysterious than I can put into words.
All I can say is that it is a mystery–and a mystery is something that can be experienced even if it cannot be explained. This mystery of divnity working its way through our humanity like yeast in the dough is a mystery that will not be fully understood until the final day. Then we will see how even the horrors were part of the glory. Then we will see that even the most terrible terrors were woven into the divine plan. Then we will see that for the elect nothing was lost and everything was redeemed. For those who are called, and who follow Christ all will be transformed, and everything will be harvest.

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  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    'God-bearers, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. If you lose your flavour and become dark, the world will be a shell of life, a snake's slough, which a serpent sheds amid the thorns.You contain the heavenly flame amid the ashes. If you allow yourselves to die out, the world will be a pile of ashes beyond the gates of life.Journey freely with God within you; you will not lose the way, and you will not be without shelter. Enter with Him freely through the gates of the day, and the day will be yours. Enter with Him freely through the gates of the night, and the night will cringe with its specters, and will show you its wonders.Do not sell your treasure, for the world cannot pay for it.Do not trade with the universe, for the universe can give nothing except itself. And its entirety is like paper compared to gold. It will burn up one day, and will be reduced to a handful of ashes. Will it die? It is already dead, and has nothing without your spiritual treasure.'-Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich. Prayers by the Lake excerpted.

  • broken

    Reading this brought tears to soften my hardened heart. Love and mercy to all sinners especially our beloved priests/Fathers.

  • Just another mad Catholic

    At Mass this morning I realised that I was clasping my hands together in the same manner as the priest does when he holds the host whilst praying the words of consecration that will anihalite the substence of bread, to be replaced with that of the God-Man; I sincerely hope that it was prophetic.

  • Lotus

    Wow!What a beautiful post! I have always been fascinated by the hands of our priests here at our parish. Especially our pastor. The grace and gentleness of his movements during Mass can get mesmerizing… Now I have another glimpse of the importance of the hands of a priest.Thank you for a wonderful post!Lotus

  • shadowlands

    Aren't hands mad, when you think about it? I never thought about it before. I mean, we can miss having someone pat or stroke our head or put their arm around us or even hold hands.I imagine Jesus is holding my hand sometimes, when I am in the street or suddenly aware of my separateness, from all you lot (fellow humans, that is).

  • kkollwitz

    I'm reminded that St. Isaac Jogues "was allowed by Pope Urban VII the very exceptional privilege of celebrating Mass, which the mutilated condition of his hands had made canonically impossible; several of his fingers having been eaten or burned off. He was called a martyr of Christ by the pontiff. No similar concession, up to that, is known to have been granted."(Catholic Encyclopedia at new Advent)

  • Ttony

    Absolutely spot on. Many thanks.

  • BurgoFitzgerald

    In my parish, our priest often likes to tell funny stories about his visits to his large family for dinner on Sunday evenings. He told us once that his sisters all complained one night about his not helping clean up after the meal. He said to us, "I told them: these hands were made for chalices, not calluses." We all thought that was hilarious. Although not as reverent as your lovely post, Father, I thought it still might fit.

  • Fr Longenecker

    The other line is–"Hands that have been oiled should never be soiled."

  • Robert H

    Beautiful post father. Let's not forget that there are also priests, and other religious, that the Holy Spirit shines through. There are a couple of priests that I have had the privilege to meet, with whom I truly felt the presence of Christ.

  • Saint Michael Come To Our Defense

    Very good post.I hope you have drop by my web site at traditionalcatholicism dot org to hear a few Lent Sermons of the Good Padres.God be with you.pablo*

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    'never soiled'The blessed John Paul II was a quarryman and St Jean-Marie Vianney made numerous refurbishments to his post-Revolutionary rectory with his own hands.In the end the French gov't built a railway line to his village to accomodate the penitents.nah.

  • slimsdotter

    Have you seen Dr Golders site, These Hands Bring Me Jesus at the photos are lovely.

  • Anthony S. Layne

    A very touching post, Father. Thank you very much for it.