Priest: A Man of Mystery
Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.,
& Pastoral Review
In his essay in this issue on the identity of the priest, Bishop Rino
Fisichella describes the priest of the New Testament as a "man of
mystery." I want to offer here a few reflections on the notion of
the priest as a man of mystery.
The basic idea of the Greek word mysterion is of something that
is hidden or secret. It can be either natural or supernatural. Since the
Catholic priest is made such by a Sacrament instituted by Christ, in Catholic
thinking the mystery must be understood in a supernatural sense. Fr. John
Hardon, S.J., defines a Christian mystery as "A divinely revealed
truth whose very possibility cannot be rationally conceived before it
is revealed and, after revelation, whose inner essence cannot be fully
understood by the finite mind" (Modern Catholic Dictionary,
p. 365). Examples are the Trinity, the Incarnation and sanctifying grace.
The priest is a man of mystery. His call to be a priest and his free response
under the influence of grace is in itself mysterious, hidden. The secular
world does not understand him and considers him to be a fool for giving
up a family and personal freedom.
But that is just one dimension of the mystery of the priest. Once he is
ordained and begins to function as a priest, his days are full of mystery.
The reason for this is that he is an instrument of Christ for the eternal
salvation and sanctification of the people he serves and comes in contact
with, whether in person or through the written or electronic word. He
can be seen with the eyes daily offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,
absolving penitents, baptizing babies and converts, witnessing marriages
and anointing the sick and dying. He can be seen and heard preaching the
saving word of the Gospel. Sometimes his words cut to the heart of his
listeners like a two-edged sword and, assisted by divine grace, produce
an amazing conversion in a cold heart hardened by years of sin and estrangement
The results or effects of his priestly ministry are mysterious because
they involve the grace of God, which is itself a share in the life of
God who is absolute mystery. Much of what the priest does is hidden or
mysterious because we cannot see grace. But sometimes we can see its effects
in holy people like Blessed Mother Teresa and Saint Padre Pio. Thus, it
makes a lot of sense to call the priest of Jesus Christ "a man of
mystery" as Bishop Fisichella does.
In the natural order there is the visible and the invisible; there is
that which is uncovered and that which is hidden. Thus, we plant seeds;
they grow and produce fruit but we do not know how or why. We can see
and hear, but we do not know how that takes place. We have relatives and
friends who are constantly thinking and making choices in the depths of
their own soul. Thinking and willing are vital activities of the human
being but they are hidden and invisible. The only way we know what is
going on in them is according to what they do and what they tell us.
The true activity of the Church is in the spiritual order. Jesus Christ
came into this world to give us a share in his divine life. He says in
John 17:3, "This is eternal life, that they may know thee the only
true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent." The spiritual activity
of the Church and grace, which is the eternal life of the soul, is something
we cannot see with our eyes or touch with our hands. It is hidden; it
is invisible; it is mysterious. And the priest who, according to St. Paul
(2 Cor. 5:20), is an ambassador for Christ, is the normal instrument used
by God to produce that invisible, mysterious life.
Therefore, Bishop Fisichella is certainly on the mark when he refers to
the Catholic priest as "the man of mystery." Reflection on this
important truth should help priests to hold their priesthood in high regard
as a great gift from God. It should also help lay-persons to show proper
respect for priests, for without them there would be no sacraments and
no access to the salvation that comes from Christ through them.
(This editorial recently appeared in Homiletic
& Pastoral Review, edited by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.)
Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., is author of the best
of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction
to the Scripture, Inside
the Bible. He has been editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review
for over thirty years.