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Each Tuesday evening, the Priest on duty conducts a Holy Hour wherein he usually gives a Spiritual reflection relevant to the Priests and Students in attendance. Please read below 2 such reflections given by Fr Nhlanhla Mchunu, the first one titled, “The Priest as a Pastor”, followed by another titled, “The Mystery of the Eucharist”.
The Priest as a Pastor
There are some isiZulu proverbs which go like this: umuthi ugotshwa usemanzi, libunjwa liseva. What these proverbs mean is that, the best time to instill values in a person is when they are still young because it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. As a result, I want us this evening to reflect on the role of a Priest as a Pastor, so that you can already begin now to reflect on your own future ministry. It starts now, here in the seminary because ordination is not some magical transformation.
Responding to the synod of bishops in 1990 on the formation of future priests, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation with the title Pastores Dabo Vobis. This title is inspired by a line of the prophet Jeremiah where God promises through the prophet that, “I will give you shepherds after my heart” (Jer. 3:15).
Some of the harshest words in the Old Testament are directed to the false leaders of Israel. If the people of God did not remain faithful to the covenant, if they went in search of false gods, much of the responsibility can be placed at the door of the unfaithful pastors who sought their own gain instead of the well-being of the people (Jer. 23:1-4). Ezekiel, witnessing the destruction of the people of God, testifies that God Himself in the final days will come to pasture his flock. Through the prophet God says, “I myself will seek my sheep and take care of them”.
In the New Testament, this prophecy of Ezekiel is seen to be fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. Already in the synoptic gospels we are told that the crowds followed Jesus, for they had a spiritual hunger which could only be satisfied by the bread of Jesus’ teaching. Mark notes how Jesus saw the crowd and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd and so he began to teach them many things (Mk. 6:34).
St. John points to the deeper significance of the miracle of the loaves and fish. In chapter six of the fourth gospel, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will never be hungry and he who believes in me will never thirst” (Jn. 6:35). As a result, according to John, Jesus is pastor first of all by being bread for His people. Later on in chapter ten, Jesus returns to this image of the pastor when he declares that He is the Good Shepherd. He is the shepherd longed for by the prophets. In this chapter, three points strike our attention. First, there is intimacy between Jesus and each member of His flock. He declares, “I know my own and my own know me” (Jn. 10:13). To be in the flock of Christ is not to be an anonymous member of the crowd. As you gaze at Him this evening, He knows you personally, He loves you, He cares for you.
Secondly, Jesus is not a mercenary. He is not the shepherd because he receives payment for looking after the sheep. He is the shepherd because of his personal love for the flock. They belong to Him, they have been entrusted to Him by His Father and so He watches over them for the motive of love. During your pastoral experiences in your respective dioceses, you will be asked at times to conduct priest-less services. It is interesting to note how some will remind the faithful that the coming Sunday will be their last one in the parish….ngoba nje umuntu usefuna imbenge.
Finally, the unambiguous sign of his pastoral care is the fact that He is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. If He were a merely hired servant, he would flee at the sight of the approaching wolf. But because His care for His sheep is based on the bond of love, He is willing to lose His life rather than let the sheep be devoured or scattered.
Let us now briefly consider a number of points that emanate from our scripture passage. First, there is the fundamental truth that the Christian leader of the community is to base his ministry on that of Christ the Good Shepherd. In Pastores Dabo Vobis Pope John Paul II reaffirms that the purpose of priestly ordination is to give to the priest the grace to be conformed to Christ the Head and Shepherd (No. 15). A priest therefore, ministers not by constraint but willingly. Secondly, the true pastor is never seeking personal profit from his ministry. He does not use his pastoral authority as an opportunity to accumulate personal wealth or to ensure a comfortable life-style.In other words, like Christ the Good Shepherd, he is in no sense a mercenary. Here I recall reformers like St. Ignatius of Loyola who insisted on gratuity of ministries. Without some form of gratuity, our ministry might resemble another respectable enterprise of the welfare-state but it would lack the specifically Christian witness of the God-man who became poor in order to preach the gratuity of God’s love to the poor.
Finally, Peter exhorts the pastor to govern not by domineering over their flock but by being examples that can be imitated by their people. What strikes me as important here is the distinction between power and authority. The gospels note how Christ taught with authority, but without being domineering. Pastoral leadership that is domineering is toxic and it stifles creativity and growth. Pastoral leadership is for the building up of the community.
This brings me to the point that the love for the flock has its roots in love for Christ Himself and this is the secret of the ministerial priesthood. To deepen this, I invite you to recall that beautiful scene in John 21 where Peter, after the Lord’s resurrection, is questioned three times about the nature of his love. Peter is given the chance three times to declare his love and after each declaration he receives the mission: Feed my lambs. Here Peter receives the office of shepherd, but the Lord wishes to make it clear that he can only receive this office if he is willing to abandon himself in love to his Master. So, once again we see that office gives the pastor authority, but this authority is situated within the context of the profession of love. Therefore, ordination, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, is the crystallization of love. The ministerial priesthood has no sense if it is not lived out as a personal expression of the love which the priest bears for Christ.
The spirituality of the priest consists in the fact that his love for Christ leads him to love for Christ’s people. In your future ministry, as a shepherd, don’t spend too much time on trying to draw the people to yourself. Rather, be drawn to Christ yourself first. If you are drawn to Christ, people will eventually see Christ through you and follow you. The crowds followed Jesus simply because He was drawn to His Father. In your parish, when you see that pews are becoming empty, don’t worry too much. Sometimes it is in losing that we gain and the Cross of Christ teaches us that. It was on the Cross that it appeared as if Christ has completely lost the battle for saving us, but it was through the Cross that He won us back and this is the paradox of the Cross.
The Mystery of the EucharistThis evening, dear brothers, I would like to meditate with you about the mystery of the Eucharist. For us Catholics, there is no greater mystery which reveals God’s love than the Eucharist in which God Incarnate comes to dwell among us under the form or the accidents of bread and wine. Let us then pause here for a moment to consider the meaning of the Eucharist so that we can discern its role in our lives and vocation.
When St. Paul passes on the account of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, he does so by recalling the simple words of our Lord at the Last Supper, “The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed, took bread and after having given thanks, he broke the bread and said, ‘This is my body which is given for you; do this in memory of me’” (1 Cor. 11:23-24).
Two words here especially strike our attention: the first is bread and the second is memory.
The essence of the Hebrew faith is memory. The Jews do not worship a God who is merely transcendent, but a God who intervened in their history. The decisive intervention was their liberation from slavery in Egypt when God opened the Red Sea and let the people pass from a land of oppression to one of freedom. The great danger for Israel’s faith is to forget. Forgetting what God has done is equivalent to idolatry. Forgetting means a false presumption of self-sufficiency. And so every year the people celebrated the feast of Passover, when they slaughtered the Passover lamb and ate unleavened bread as a remembrance of how God had liberated them.
The other important word here is bread. We know already how Jesus out of compassion fed the people with bread in the wilderness and how he offered them the bread of his teaching. My dear brothers, at every Eucharistic celebration it is as if Christ is saying to us individually, “I am bread for you. My whole life has no other purpose than to give you nourishment”. This is the mystery we are contemplating this evening.
When Jesus tells his disciples to ‘take and eat’ he wants to indicate the radical gift of self which he is making to them. His life has been a self-gift and now that gift is to be brought to completion in the self-giving of the cross. The choice of bread indicates something very ordinary and every day, before which no one need to be afraid. Jesus puts Himself into our hands without reserve. He holds nothing back. To say that Jesus is eucharistically present among us does not diminish or lessen his presence among us. Whether I am standing, seated or lying down, all these modes of being do not diminish or lessen my presence in this chapel. Therefore, this evening, here in this chapel, the eternal Son of the Father, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, the Son of Mary, if fully present.
The Eucharist represents the new exodus, the Passover from the slavery of sin to the new liberty of love. Every Eucharist, therefore, is a recalling of freedom. We recall the marvelous thing God has done for us in Christ. Christ has come to us in the form of a servant. He has loved us even to the end, to the point of laying down his life for us. The existence of the Christian community has its foundations in this event which is summoned to remember day after day.
In the Christian Eucharist the once for all death of Jesus becomes actual here and now, and the Holy Spirit has a significant role here. Every Eucharistic prayer contains an epiclesis or prayer to the Spirit in which the Holy Spirit is invoked so that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who forms the bridge between the past and the present. Through the Holy Spirit the risen Christ comes to dwell in our midst.
But, it is interesting that in the Eucharistic prayer the Spirit is not only invoked to transform the gifts but also to transform the people. In the second Eucharistic prayer, for example, we pray: “May all of those who share in the body and blood be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit”.
The Eucharist then challenges us to examine the way we relate to one another. It is interesting that, when St. Paul felt obliged to rebuke the Corinthians about their Eucharistic theology, it was not because of their orthodoxy as regards the Eucharistic species but because of their sins against the body of Christ, the Church. At Corinth, the Eucharist was the occasion of divisions and factions, especially between the rich and the poor. My dear brothers, what is our attitude when we approach the Eucharist? Are there any divisions among us? Unfortunately, yes there are. Some of us find it hard to relate to fellow brothers because they come from a certain area of the country, and those who come from other places see themselves as better than others. Those of us who are better gifted in class, speak ill of those who are struggling. A senior student sees himself better off than a first year philosopher. Our preferences of certain students over and above others disadvantage others and thus cause divisions in the community.
Dear brothers, it is impossible to receive the Body of Christ worthily if I close my eyes to the cry of the brother seating next to me. Thus, if we speak about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we must be willing to extend this real presence to the whole body of Christ.
Let me share with you this interesting story: wishing to encourage her young son’s progress on the piano, a mother took her boy to a concert of a great pianist. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend of hers and walked over to say hello. Grasping the opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, the boy wondered away from his mother until he eventually found a door marked, “NO ADMITTANCE”.
When the house lights dimmed indicating the concert was about to start, the mother returned to her seat and was shocked to find out her son was missing. Suddenly the curtains parted and the spotlights focused on an impressive Steinway on the stage. In disbelief, the mother saw her son seated at the piano, innocently playing “Twinkle, twinkle little star”. At that very moment, the great pianist made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and whispered in the boy’s ears “Don’t quit. Keep playing”. Then leaning over, the pianist reached down with his left hand and started filling in the bass part.
Together, the old master and the young boy transformed a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience. The audience was astonished that that they were unable to recall what else the master played that night. Only the classic, “Twinkle, twinkle little star”.
And that’s the way it is with God my dear brothers. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We might try our best, but the results aren’t exactly the most flowing music. But with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful. Even at this moment, in this chapel as you are struggling with something, you can still hear the voice of the Master whispering in your ear, “Don’t quit. Keep going on”. Feel Jesus’ loving arms around you. He is always here in this chapel 24 hours, 7 days a week to love and guide you onto great things.
My dear brothers, life is hard as a solo. But with God, it can be a Divine duet.