Bishop's Column

Gift and mystery

By Bishop James Conley 

A vocation to the priesthood is both a gift and a mystery. It is a gift in the sense that no one deserves or earns the call to the priesthood; it is freely given by God.

“You did not choose me,” the Lord says to his apostles in the Gospel of John, “but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”

Jesus Christ calls a man to freely offer himself as a gift when he is called to the priesthood. St. Paul, in his letter to Romans, calls a priest to offer his very body as a living sacrifice, giving himself over and over again, for the sake of others. He stands in solidarity with the spotless victim, the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ. He offers that sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary, and he hands himself over to his people, to his bride, the Church, to Christ himself — so that he, in offering himself as a gift, is drawn up into the sacrifice of Calvary.  At the heart of that offering is the mystery of faith — the mysterium fidei — the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Holy Eucharist.

While the priesthood is certainly a gift, the priesthood is also a mystery. In fact, in the early Church the sacraments were referred to as the mysteries — mysterium.  One of the reasons for using this word “mystery” to describe the sacraments, was because of fact that they were kept hidden from the pagans, the so-called Disciplina arcani, lest they become objects of ridicule or sacrilege, and they were introduced gradually to the catechumens, the new converts to Christianity.

The priest, therefore, is ordained to be the “steward” or the “custodian,” if you will,  of the mysteries of God.  In the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1).”

St. John Paul II put it this way:
“The priestly vocation is a mystery. It is a mystery of a wondrous exchange – admirable commercium – between God and man… Unless we grasp the mystery of this ‘exchange’ we will not understand how it can be that a young man, hearing the words ‘Follow me!’ can give up everything for Christ, in the certainty that if he follows this path he will find complete personal fulfillment.” (Gift and Mystery, John Paul II).

In light of the recent scandals in the Church, why would a young man want to enter the priesthood today? The answer is, the Church needs good, holy and healthy priests now more than ever. 

Lincoln fourth-year seminarian Andrew Schwenka will be ordained a transitional deacon in Rome Thursday, Sept. 27, at St. Peter’s Basilica along with more than 50 other young men from dioceses across the United States. These men make up the class of 2019 at the Pontifical North American College (NAC). Drew is from St. John the Baptist Parish in Minden, Nebraska, and he will be joined by his family and many friends on his ordination day in Rome. God willing, Drew will be ordained a priest in May for the Diocese of Lincoln.

The annual Bishop’s Appeal for Vocations in the Diocese of Lincoln will begin soon. This is the annual appeal to raise the funds to cover costs for the education of our seminarians. This year we have 42 seminarians studying for the Diocese of Lincoln, including nine new men. I am grateful to God for the courage, trust and faith of these good men. 

I am grateful, too, for our own diocesan seminary, St. Gregory the Great in Seward, and for the three theological seminaries men studying for our diocese attend – NAC, St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md. These are all institutions dedicated to the four pillars of seminary formation: spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral. In these institutions, not only are our men educated and prepared for pastoral life, but they are formed in virtue, where they learn to integrate their human sexuality in a healthy and holy way.

Jesus Christ has called our seminarians to make a gift of themselves and he calls each one of us to make a generous gift of our resources to support the mission of the Church.

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