New priests are being ordained in this season. Subsequently, many veteran priests observe their jubilees (the 25th for me this year). Here is a prayer from the traditional, Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass which a priest can add “Pro seipso sacerdote … For the priest himself” on his anniversary. This is the Secret, pronounced softly, at the offertory: “Huius, Domine, virtute sacramenti, peccatorum meorum maculas absterge:et praesta; ut ad exsequendum injuncti offícii ministerium, me tua gratia dignum effíciat.”
Slavishly literal version: “O Lord, by the power of this sacrament, cleanse the stains of my sins, and grant that it may make me worthy by Your grace unto the performance of the ministry of the office that has been imposed.”
Only God can make a priest worthy. God alone can save his soul. Priests and bishops are sinners in need of a Saviour just like everyone else. They confess sins and receive absolution like everyone else. They must do penance for past sins like everyone else. They come to the altar as sinners. The texts of the older, traditional form of Holy Mass (far less so in the Novus Ordo) constantly remind the priest of who he is and who he isn’t.
This prayer also brings to mind the burden of the priesthood, symbolised by the priestly vestment, the chasuble. As the priest dons it he says: “O Lord, who said: my yoke is sweet and my burden light; grant that I may be able to bear it in such a way that I obtain Thy grace.”
In worldly terms the iugum, yoke, is the ancient symbol of defeat and slavery. A victorious Roman general compelled the vanquished to pass under a yoke (sub-iugum, “subjugate”) of spears. Prisoners were yoked and paraded in the returning general’s triumphal procession. Those to be crucified bore the beams like a yoke. Jesus says His yoke is “sweet” and “light”. Through the image of His yoke upon our shoulders, Christ invites us to learn His ways (Mt 11:29-30). True freedom lies precisely in subjugation to Him. His yokes are sweet yokes. He did not defeat us to give us His yoke. He defeated death in us to raise us by His yoke.
Priesthood bestows great dignity. It also imposes great burdens. The priest is, simultaneously, the one who offers sacrifice and the one being sacrificed. Pray for your priests, especially for those who are heavy laden.