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Bishop Paul Sirba: Priests, too, ‘bear this treasure in earthen vessels,’ so pray for them

Christ Jesus offered himself for us. From his wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of life for his people.

This June, not only are the clergy moves announced in the Northern Cross, but the Holy Father has designated June 8, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, as the day of sanctification of the clergy.

Bishop Paul Sirba
Bishop Paul Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua

What I appreciate about the message and the timing announcing the sanctification of the clergy is the relational dimension of the announcement. If your parish is one that is directly affected by the transfer of a new pastor, there may be some added incentive for you to pray as well.

Pope Francis calls us all back to our initial encounter with Our Lord. He says, “In fact, all of us ‘have had in our life some encounter with Him’, and each of us can make his own spiritual remembrance and return to the joy of that moment ‘in which I felt that Jesus was looking at me’” (Pope Francis, Homily at Santa Marta, April 24, 2015).

I guess I’d like to state the obvious. Priests are not cut out of any cookie- cutter mold. Each one of us is unique and distinct. We have strengths and weaknesses, we have virtues and vices.

As I mentioned in my Chrism Mass homily this year, Catholics (and non- Catholics) many times expect that because priests preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and administer the sacraments, they should automatically, by the Sacrament of Orders, be perfect themselves — not so much! We are human.

Pope Francis described himself as a sinner, I do too — me, not him. Our priests, please God, frequently or regularly go to the confessional box. We have sins for which we need to be accountable, but accountability does not mean we are fair game for gossip.

Mr. John Sondag wrote a piece for The Catholic Servant on “Criticizing our Priests.” He had, I think, some very important things to say. He said, “Some parishioners want their priests to be heroes, but not every priest can be a hero, because heroes are persons who do great things that are out of the ordinary, and most men are not that extraordinary. Yet, our Lord chooses ordinary men to sanctify, teach, and guide His flock, and that’s the mystery of the sacraments. Our Lord uses ordinary things — bread, wine, oil, water, ordinary men — to manifest His presence and grace in the world. It’s really the same principle as the mystery of the Incarnation: God (Who is spiritual) becoming man (Whom we can see, hear, and touch).”

God shows His power working through our human weakness. He uses vessels of clay to manifest His power — a treasure in earthen vessels.

Quoting from Pope St. John Paul II’s letter to priests in the year 2000, many times the frailty of priests has made it hard for the people of God to see in them the face of Christ. “Here in the Upper Room why should this amaze us? Not only did the betrayal of Judas reach its climax here, but Peter himself had to reckon with his weakness as he heard the bitter prediction of his denial. In choosing men like the Twelve, Christ was certainly under no illusions: it was upon this human weakness that he set the sacramental seal of his presence. And Paul shows us why: ‘We bear this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it might be clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and not from us’” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

During the time of St. Augustine, the Church had to wrestle with the idea of the Donatists in the fourth century. They believed that the sacramental power of the priest was only valid when the priest was in the state of grace. The Church ultimately condemned this position, saying that even a priest who is in the state of mortal sin could validly administer the sacraments — ex opere operato — when he intends to do what the Church intends.

Obviously, we all want to be, along with our priests, in the state of grace. We want to be holy and perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. But God’s hands are not tied even by the lives of offending priests. Infallibility is not dependent on impeccability (being without sin).

I was encouraged by a woman religious in my seminary years that God would use me and my brothers in the seminary in a unique way. We would relate to our people in a way unlike any other. God chooses men to maximize his reach. We are different, unique, strong and weak, saints and sinners. God uses a variety of persons to be instruments of His grace.

My dear people, please continue to pray for our priests. Pray for our seminarians. Let us all resolve to be more united with Jesus and His Sacred Heart, to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God. May the Lord keep us all in his charity and lead all of us, shepherds and flock, to eternal life. Amen.

Bishop Paul Sirba is the ninth bishop of Duluth.