The joy in being a priest

By Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. The church should be a community in which people discover God’s delight in them. This is the ministry of priests. This is my life.

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Image: “It belongs to our priesthood that we rejoice in the very existence of people,” says Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.

LET ME MAKE a confession. As the time for me to be ordained drew near, I began to have terrible doubts as to whether I was called to be a priest. I had become deeply repelled by any hint of priestly superiority. I dreaded the hypocrisy of it, because I knew that I was no better than anyone else. I only accepted ordination in obedience to my Dominican brethren. I could identify with Saint Augustine who wept when he was ordained a priest. The cynics thought that he was weeping because he had not been made a bishop, but in fact it was because he had no desire to be a priest at all.

After my ordination I saw with horror my parent’s parish priest advancing toward me. Only two years before, he had commanded me to leave “those heretical Dominicans” so that I might save my soul. Now he threw himself down before me and asked for a blessing from my sacred hands. I fled from the reception to my room, to recover my calm. I was only driven back because one of my German brothers followed me upstairs and tried to talk to me about the philosopher Heidegger. That was even worse.

At one with sinners

I finally came to love my priesthood in the confessional box. It was here that I discovered that ordination brings us close to people just when they feel farthest away from God. We are one with them, at their sides, as together we face human frailty, failure, and sin, ours and theirs.

Father Timothy Radcliff, O.P. in conversation with one of his brother Dominicans.
Father Timothy Radcliff, O.P. in conversation with one of his brother Dominicans.

Priesthood not only makes us close to people who have failed, it also pushes us close to people on the margins. One of the most sacred occasions I’ve ever been a part of was the funeral of a man called Benedict, some 25 years ago. I anointed him just before he died of AIDS, and his last request was that I bury him from Westminster Cathedral. Now that took some negotiation! At the funeral, the coffin was there at the center of the cathedral, and around were gathered his friends, many of them also with AIDS. Here at the symbolic center of Catholic life in Britain was the body of someone who represented so much exclusion, a gay man who suffered until his death with AIDS. In that moment we could see the epiphany of God’s radiant holiness.

This vision of the priesthood that this story brings to mind is essentially missionary: reaching out. It means that serving the Christian community cannot be the one and only ministry of priests, to the exclusion of all other ministries. However great the shortage of priests, the church must try to free some of us priests for other forms of outreach, so that those who would never come near a church can be touched and welcomed. Even when a priest’s ministry is to a parish, then the parish community must be in some sense missionary, turned outward.

The holiness of the priesthood does not mean that we priests are necessarily morally superior to anyone else. It is the opposite of elitist. It expresses the scandalous outreach of God to those who are on the edge. This implies a certain social dislocation for the ordained priest. We do not have a clear place in the social hierarchy. We are slippery figures who should be equally at home with dukes or dustmen. We are to embody an inclusiveness that cannot be fully comprehensible to our present society and to summon it beyond all its inclusions and exclusions.

Not duty but delight

Finally, for priests the joy of the kingdom of God must break in now. When Jesus was baptized, a voice was heard from heaven saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I delight” (Matthew 3:17). At the heart of the life of the Holy Trinity is God’s sheer delight in God, the Father’s joy in the Son, which is the Holy Spirit. Jesus the High Priest embraces us within that delight. Priests are taken up into the Father’s own pleasure in the Son. The holiness of God radiates this joy that God has in all that exists. When Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was not a duty. It was utter delight in their company, in their very being. When Jesus touched the untouchable, it was not a clinical gesture, but the hug of joy.

So it belongs to our priesthood that we rejoice in the very existence of people, with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married or divorced or single, whether they are straight or gay, whether their lives are lived in accordance with church teaching or not. The holiness of the priesthood is radiant with this joy. The church should be a community in which people discover God’s delight in them. This is the ministry of priests. This is my life. Which is why I’m so very glad all these years later that God brought me beyond my doubts to accept ordination so that this joy could be my joy as well.

Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. is a Dominican friar of the priory at Blackfriars in Oxford, England. He was Master of the worldwide Order of Preachers (Dominicans) from 1992-2001. He is a frequent speaker and the author of several books, the latest being What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (Burns & Oates).

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