On Maundy Thursday bishops and priests will celebrate the Chrism Mass and renew the promises made at ordination. Many are demoralised by the scandals besetting the priesthood, as are many laity.
It’s necessary to remember that the cultic power of priesthood to make Christ present is as undiminished as ever, even though the actions of some have seriously impaired the prophetic witness of priesthood. It is the latter that many sought to emphasise at the expense of the former following the Council. It was no longer enough that the priest was “a man invested with all the power of God”, as St John Vianney put it. To borrow an inexact analogy from another vocation, it was the bedside manner and commitment to public health, not medical or surgical expertise, which now defined the character of priesthood.
Any apparent conflict between a cultic and a prophetic priesthood is a misunderstanding. The cultic activity of priesthood is the wellspring of its prophetic witness because this alone guarantees the action of Christ. A recovered appreciation of worship as the source of priestly identity must inspire us at a time when the prophetic role is hobbled by scandal.
Blessed John Henry Newman had a maxim, “No institution escapes the law of its own origin”, and as we celebrate the institution of the New Testament priesthood on Maundy Thursday, this can inform our hope. Jesus begins the Passover meal knowing all things, including that one of his trusted disciples will betray him, another – the chosen leader – will deny any association with him, and all but one will flee the coming trial.
Jesus celebrates a ritual recapitulating the saving action of God in history, a celebration pregnant with expectation. His disciples believe it is the Messiah who breaks bread and speaks of drinking new wine in his kingdom. So heightened is the expectation that Philip dares to ask the unthinkable: “Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” They are shown a man who makes you screen your face, so disfigured he seems barely human, covered with insults and spittle.
To them, Jesus’s prophetic ministry ends in failure. The radical teachings and the miracles have failed to convince the religious authorities or enough people of his true identity. Many of these will be levelled against him as evidence of hubris and blasphemy.
Prophetic witness is now mediated through the priestly, cultic dimension of sacrifice, a sacrifice like no other, fulfilling and completing all previous ones because it is not merely symbolic of a desire to atone for sin, or to invoke and honour the deity. It makes present and real communion with the Father. It is the priestly offering of the Paschal Victim, the Lamb of God of which not one bone shall be broken; the victim whose heart pours forth blood and water in kenotic sacrifice. The definitive prophetic witness is the Son lifted up on a cross. This is how he will draw all to himself, through and with and in him in his sacrificial death. The Messianic power to bring about a new religious and social order is wielded by a king who reigns from the Cross, from the altar of sacrifice.
“Behold the Cross of the Lord! Flee all his enemies!” is still a command powerful against all the forces of hell. The sacrifice of the Cross retains all its power in our present crisis. The dynamism of priesthood today derives not from prophetic success but from the cultic, sacrificial gift of Christ the High Priest, whose presence and power is ministered by priests.
It is to the scandal of His Cross that every priest vows himself on ordination day and on Maundy Thursday, promising to model his life on the mysteries he celebrates.