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The Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Today is the fifty-second year since my ordination to the priesthood. No words of mine can begin to express the gratitude I owe to God for the privilege of exercising the priesthood for more than fifty years. It has been a half century of extraordinary graces that the good Lord has given to this wretched sinner. These graces were never merited by myself, nor could they have been expected when the Lord first called me to follow Him in living out His priestly ministry. They have been years of extraordinary grace that only God can describe, as only He understands what it means to share in His divine ministry.

I thought and prayed about this, and decided to share with you some of the sentiments which fill my mind as I look back at more than half a century of living a priestly life.

The Most Sublime Ministry

Over the centuries volumes have been written about the dignity of the priesthood. Saints and scholars have published literally hundreds of volumes on the subject. But this much I can say. There is no human dignity more exalted. There is no heavenly vocation more sublime than to be called to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. What makes this state of life so exalted is its share, literally in the life and death of the Son of God.

When God became man, it was His divinity which literally assumed His humanity. A man, with flesh and blood, exercised powers that no one else but God possesses.

To begin to appreciate the dignity of the priesthood, we must realize that a priest shares, and I mean shares, in the very dignity of God Himself. When Jesus was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, it was no one less than God Himself who assumed a human nature. He walked and talked like a human being; He looked to all human appearances like another man. But this man was the living God. It was He who existed from all eternity. It was He who existed aeons before the world was made. It was He alone who has to be. He alone who cannot not exist. It was He by whom everything, and the word is everything else in existence came to be. He alone cannot not be.

When God became Man, He chose to become like us in size, and appearance. He looked like a man, spoke like a man, was conceived and born and died like a man. But this Man was the living God. Better this Man is the living God, except for whom no one and nothing else would exist.

Why Did God Become Man?

For two thousand years, those who believe in the Incarnation have asked themselves, “Why did God become man?”

God became man out of love for us. The infinite Creator of heaven and earth became one of us in order to live a human life and die a human death out of love for us. Over the centuries volumes have been written, asking why did God do this? He did not have to become man, even to redeem a sinful world. He became man out of sheer love for the human race.

God chose not only to bring us out of nothing into human existence. He chose not only to live like us as a human being. He chose to become one of us, in order to live and die as a human being to teach us the most sublime lesson that the human race has ever been taught. Love was to become like us in all things but sin, in order to suffer and die like us and thus teach us what love really means.

By now libraries have been written on the Incarnation. Human genius has exhausted itself in penetrating in the mystery of God becoming man. But no words can begin to begin to explain why the infinite Creator of heaven and earth should choose to become a limited creature like us. There is only one possible reason, and that is love.

When the Apostle tells us that God so loved the world that He became a man out of love, we are being told much more than we can begin to comprehend.

God wanted to show us how dearly and deeply He loves us. God wanted to show us what Love really means. Love wants to love, which means Love wants to give itself totally and entirely and completely to the one whom it loves.

That is what God did when He became man. He chose to become like us in all things but sin.

We use these words and we understand a small fraction of what they mean. But we cannot comprehend their full meaning. We teach in theology that God’s love for us is beyond, not only human but created comprehension.

Love Wants to Suffer

The moment we say this we are touching on a deep mystery. God created the human race which He foresaw would sin and therefore deserve punishment.

On faith we believe that when the angels sinned, they were condemned to everlasting punishment which we call hell.

We are here dealing with mystery, deep mystery, mystery beyond human comprehension.

In allowing the human race to sin, God foresaw that mankind would have to suffer in expiating its sin. Yet mysteriously, and I mean mysteriously, God allowed mankind to sin, sin deeply. It is not as though God needed a sinful human race to teach us the meaning of sin. What God wanted was to enlighten us on how deeply He loves us in allowing us to expiate our sins by loving God more than, shall I say could have loved Him, had we not sinned. We are dealing here with profound mystery. It is the mystery of why God allows human beings to offend their Creator and thus lose the most precious title that we have to our existence, the title to seeing God face to face for eternity.

The importance of this question cannot be exaggerated. We touch on the deepest recesses of our existence when we ask why God allows us to sin.

God allows us to sin in order, dare I say, He can be justified in enabling us to suffer. We can say on faith that, had there been no sin there would be no suffering. But once sin entered the world, then suffering shall I say becomes justified. Sin and pain are correlatives. Had there been no sin, there would have been no pain. Had there been no pain there could have been no experience of pain, which is suffering.

Over the centuries whole libraries have been written about suffering and pain. But beyond these libraries is the deeper, much deeper question, of why, why does God dare I ask allow His rational creatures to suffer? We do not comprehend what we are saying but say it we must. God allows His creatures to sin in order to enable them to show why there is suffering in the world. There is suffering in the world because there is sin. And the deeper the sin, the greater the suffering. Or to reverse the statement, the deeper the suffering, the greater must have been the sin which brought on the suffering.

I could go on for pages. In fact I could at this point begin a book on the mystery of suffering. But one thing we better make clear. Had there been no sin, there would be no suffering in the world. The deeper the suffering, the greater must have been the sin. Except for sin there would be no hell, no lost souls, no demons. Except for sin there would be no pain, no suffering, no agony, no death.

We are here dealing with what is unquestionably the deepest mystery of Christianity. The secret is to believe this. There is no question that we can comprehend it.

We are here explaining, or better, trying to explain the relationship between love and suffering. We are saying that love wants to suffer. But in saying this, we presume there is sin in the world, deep sin, massive sin, sin that has deeply penetrated the human race.

What do we mean when we say that love wants to suffer? We mean that every loving heart wants to expiate the massive sinfulness that has penetrated the world. But how does suffering relieve this massive sinfulness? It does so by willingly and generously undergoing pain in order to expiate the massive sinfulness that has so deeply penetrated the world in which we live.

In saying this we are expressing a profound, and I mean profound mystery of our faith. Had there been no sin, there would have been no suffering. But given the massive penetration of sin into the whole human race, there must be a corresponding experience of suffering.

What are we saying? We are saying that suffering is inevitable, dare I say suffering is inescapable once we recognize how deeply and widely sin has entered our world.

Needless to say not everyone, what a mild statement, not everyone believes this. We might even say that the only ones who really believe that suffering expiates sin are those who have the true faith. I will go even further. Only in the measure that a person is a believing Christian can he believe that suffering and sin are related as cause and effect. Sin is the cause of all the suffering in the human race, from the dawn not only of human but angelic history to the present day. Sin and suffering are related as cause and effect. Sin is the cause, suffering is the effect. Had there been no sin there would have been no suffering. But given the massive suffering over the ages of human history, there must have been a corresponding cause, which is sin.

We are saying that love wants to suffer. Love wants to suffer in three ways. Love wants to expiate the sins that have so deeply penetrated mankind. Love wants to make up for the lack of love among those who sin. Love wants to relieve the debt of suffering that sinners owe to God. Love wants to give God what sinners are depriving Him of by their sins.

Here we touch on one of the deepest truths of our faith. Given the massive indulgence in sin throughout the world. Given the widespread indulgence in sin throughout the human race. Given the all but universal acceptance of sin by human beings, someone, someone, somewhere must want to undo this massive injustice to God.

That is where we believing Christians, dare I say come into this picture of the human race.

We believe that God became man, so He might be able to suffer, and be crucified, and die the agonizing death on the cross to expiate our sins.

We say we love God. So we do. But God became man in order to be able to suffer out of love for a sin-laden mankind. Should I say it? We love God only in the measure that we are willing, and I mean willing, to suffer. No one else is a faithful Christian. What a statement! Once we believe that sin has penetrated the world, we are also to believe that suffering is part of our human existence.

We believe that God became man in order to be able to suffer. Are we willing, and I mean willing, to suffer with the Son of God, like the Son of God, for the Son of God to join with Him in the redemption of a sinful world? Redemption is meaningless unless it includes suffering. This is our faith. This is our privilege as Christians. This is the great gift we have received from God to join Him who became man to be able to suffer out of love for us.

This is the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are privileged to unite ourselves with Him by joining Him in carrying our cross out of love for Him as He carried His Cross out of love for us.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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