When I was first ordained as an Anglican priest I dropped by to see Fr Richard–a retired priest of the old school. He would regularly celebrate the early morning Eucharist. When I asked him how many were at Mass he smiled and said, “Millions! But I could only see four.”
As I celebrated Mass today–only seeing twelve–I thought how secretly God works in the world. In the midst of the hurly burly, hurrying world God’s priests quietly go to church to say Mass. Here an ancient priest who can barely walk hobbles into a drafty church and celebrates the Mass faithfully with love and simplicity. There a young African priest strides to celebrate Mass in a church that is little more than a thatched hut. Here an Archbishop celebrates Mass in his cathedral or there an imprisoned priest huddles secretly over a little table to recite the words over a scrap of bread and a thimbleful of smuggled wine.
And the hurried, harried world goes on, and God works behind the news.This is always his way–to work secretly in the world. A young girl in a backwater village receives the message of an angel and says “yes” and the course of history is changed forever. An uneducated shepherd girl receives the apparition of that same woman who reveals herself to be “the Immaculate Conception” and the course of history is changed. A Mexican peasant receives an apparition of that same woman who, in time, becomes the Empress of America and the patron of a great superpower. So God works secretly–always behind the scenes.
And it is the same with the Mass. In millions of churches all over the world, with a simple unity of expression and an amazing unity of voice the priests of Christ faithfully celebrate these holy mysteries, and as they do they bring the Lord of the Universe into the present moment. They make him real in their own community, their own church, their own hands and in their own tabernacle. In millions of locations around the word Christ is made present by priests who are gifted and priests who are not so gifted, by priests who are saints and priests who are still a work in progress, by priests who stumble and fall and priests who always get up.
If the Mass were to suddenly stop; if all the priests on the world went on strike or if some malignant power were to stop all Masses from being said, I firmly believe that in a very short time the worst kind of violence would break out. War would erupt, killings would burst forth, hatred and violence would flare up in every corner of the world. The demonic rage lurking just beneath the surface would be unrestrained. The enemies of the Light would burst from their secret lairs and wreak havoc on the world. Chaos, anarchy and the dark forces of hell itself would be unleashed.
Why is there a shortage of priests? Because this understanding of the priesthood has been forgotten. The Catholic priest has become just another social worker–a counselor — a feminized neuter in society– an ineffectual twit–a Mr Bean who seems worthless and whose real role and identity cannot be understood by the worldlings.
Even this seeming foolishness of the priesthood in society’s eyes is part of God’s secret plan, for in today’s Mass reading for St John of the Cross we hear St Paul proclaim like some saintly Don Quixote on a hopeless quest, “We preach Christ crucified! Foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews…for the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men!”
If you believe this to be true as I do–if you believe that it is only the Mass and Christ present there which keeps our fragile world from falling into chaos and darkness, then support your priests. Give them a break. Love them and pray for them. Share these truths with your sons and grandsons and pray for them to be priests.