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Priest: A Man of Mystery

Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.,
Editor, Homiletic & 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 from God.

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 selling Fundamentals 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.


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