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Minister of Word and Sacraments

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The priest, Augustine writes is “minister of the Word and the sacraments.” The definition appears in two letters writtent on two different occassions. The first time the definition appears is in a letter he wrote to his bishop, Valerius. Valerius of Hippo had ordained Augustine via popular acclamation and the Tagastan, preoccupied of his unpreparedness for the ministry (since he had not considered getting ordained and was in fact avoiding bishopries in need of new blood when he was dragged before the Greek bishop and was ordained inspite of his wishes) asked the bishop for a vacation so that he can study the Scriptures further. In this letter, Augustine persuades the bishop to give in to his request for the sake of the ministry. Augustine, for the first time as priest expresses the way he looks at his role within the Church.

The last time that Augustine uses the definition of the priesthood above is in a letter to a fellow bishop who had asked him whether it would be in keeping with the Gospels for pastors to leave the flock during times of persecution and escape to a place of safety. The question was based on a verse which said: “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23). Augustine replied that in moments of persecution it becomes more urgent that the flock is not left without the service that is owed it. And Augustine reminds his interlocutor that he is a minister of the Word and the Sacraments which are the sources of nourishment for the flock.

Minister of Word and Sacraments. This is the priest’s main work. By the sacrament of Holy Orders he has become a sign that makes present the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (cf. John 10). With the duties of teaching, sanctifying and administering, he makes the presence of Christ — Word of God and Sacrament of Encounter between God and man — palpable in the midst of the Church.

To say that one is a minister of Word and Sacraments is to say a lot. It means that one’s whole life must become a package so to speak so that Christ is delivered daily to the faithful. This means first of all that one is assimilated to the character of one’s ordination. It is from this assimilation that one is able to act “in persona Christi”, in the person of Christ. In practise this means first of all making Christ the substance of one’s life in such a way that one can say with Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

The priesthood is not about doing really but about being. It is not about being an effective administrator or about being a popular preacher. Rather it is about living in a way that brings out the sign that he has become. Some years ago, a young priest told Teresa of Calcutta that because of the many tasks involved in the ministry he no longer knows how to give more of himself to the needs of the Church. The sainly nun replied point blank: “Don’t give yourself; just give us Christ.” The point of the nun is simple in its profundity: A priest is not a priest if he is just a good organizer, or a good preacher. He must first of all be a sign pointing to Christ; all the rest will follow.

A sign pointing to Christ… It is what the sacrament of baptism does to the laity. It is also what the sacrament of Orders does to the priest. The sign-value of the priest must be his first concern. His assimilation to Christ makes it possible for him to make Christ present to the Church in Word and Sacrament. It is because of this, I think, that in seminary formation courses on accounting, organizing and public speaking are not given at all. Instead a lot of hours are dedicated for prayer, meditation, study of the Scriptures and the celebration of Penance and the Eucharist so that the ordained priest would become “adept” in these ways of immersing himself in Christ. It is also the reason why until now, the late Fulton Sheen’s advise to his seminarians is relevant. An hour’s visit to the Blessed Sacrament daily, makes the priest’s work schedule easier to bear and transforms his life into the sign it is meant to be.

Originally posted 2008-02-03 20:06:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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