Who We Are Forms What We Do

Feb 3, 2017

Who We Are Forms What We Do

 I offered Mass for the first time on Pentecost Sunday, May 30, 1993, at St. John University Parish in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In the same parish where 11 years before I had been received into full communion with the Catholic Church, I offered a Mass of Thanksgiving after having been a priest all of 36 hours. It was a day marked with great fanfare with family, friends and parishioners.

 At an unknown future date I will offer Mass for the last time. Barring some accidental or sudden death, the reason will be due to age and infirmity. I will probably have become confused at the altar one time too many and will not longer able to function in this way for the good of others in bringing Christ to them.

 In such a condition neither will I be able to do the other visible actions of a priest. This includes preaching, teaching, hearing confessions, giving spiritual direction, anointing the sick and dying, or burying the dead. Nor will I be able to offer the daily prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours.

 If we define identity by simply what we do, then the day of that last Mass would seem to mark the end of my priesthood. If a mechanic, accountant or electrician ceases to do their daily actions in these occupations, do we still think of them as mechanics, accountants or electricians? Is it what we do that forms who we are, or is it the opposite? Can it be that who we are forms what we do?

 I was asked to reflect on this question recently while on retreat. A priest is not born as a priest. Prior to ordination, he is one of the lay faithful. The first and fundamental identity is that of a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ. It is from there that he is called forth from the body of believers to be a priest. Through the laying on of hands by a bishop and the fundamental internal change to the soul that takes place in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a priest is able to do those visible actions of the priesthood for the good of others.

 Yet that identity of a baptized disciple remains primary. The first fundamental internal change to the soul takes place in baptism. It is the foundation to who a priest is. The promises of baptism to reject Satan with all his lies, and to embrace the proclamation that Jesus is Lord are the foundation of the promises of ordination of prayer, obedience and celibate chastity. This baptismal identity finds its fulfillment in the identity of the priesthood. It gives shape to how I approach and carry out the actions of a priest, and how I bring Christ to others. Who we are forms what we do.

 It is easy to forget this, and that is not limited to the ordained clergy. It is this primary identity as a baptized disciple in relationship with Jesus that should form how one lives the identity of married life, of parenthood, of consecrated life, etc. It is to give shape to these vocations and how they bring Christ to others.

 So after that final Mass I will still remain a priest because I will also remain a baptized disciple. It is not what we do that makes us who we are. It is who we are that forms what we do.

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