On Wednesday nights during Lent, parishes in the archdiocese of Boston have been open with the light on and priests waiting, inviting people to enter and go to confession. Last night my daughter and I went. A steady stream of sinners assembled and waited patiently for the opportunity to approach the font of mercy.
What an indescribable gift! I never grow weary of hearing those heart-melting words of absolution, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I always feel so little and so humble when they are prayed over me – that God loves me personally and through Jesus has given me the forgiveness of my sins, so that I one day will be able to be with Him in heaven. Wow!
And how does He do this? Through the Church and through fallible human beings, his priests. For some, this presents a stumbling block. How can a sinful man forgive sins?
Last Saturday’s gospel reminds us of the sacredness and importance of the office despite its minister:
But one of them, Caiaphas,
who was high priest that year, said to them,
“You know nothing,
nor do you consider that it is better for you
that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”
He did not say this on his own,
but since he was high priest for that year,
he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation,
and not only for the nation,
but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
So from that day on they planned to kill him. (Jn 11:49-53)
We all know that Caiaphas was a pretty lousy high priest, corrupt and self-serving, yet he prophesied “since he was high priest.” It was by virtue of his office, his ministry, that he prophesied that Jesus “was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” The prophesy he makes is valid because he is high priest. It has nothing to do with his personal holiness.
And so it is with the priests of today. The sacrament of Holy Orders bestows an office. The ministry of that office confers grace by virtue of the fact that it was instituted by Christ. Ex opere operato:
A technical phrase used by theologians since the 13th century to signify that the sacraments produce grace of themselves, apart and distinct from the grace dependent upon the intention of the person conferring the sacrament.
The phrase was not in general use in the time of Saint Thomas but it was officially adopted by the Council of Trent and used to signify the objective character of the sacraments as producers of grace in opposition to the subjectivism of the Reformers. According to Trent, therefore, the term opus operatum signifies that the correct use of the sign instituted by Christ produces the grace irrespectively of the merits of either minister or recipient (ex opere operantis), though the intention of conferring the sacrament is required in the minister and the intention of receiving in the recipient, if he be an adult, for a valid and worthy reception of the sacrament. For the council clearly states that the sacraments “confer Grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto.” (From the New Catholic Dictionary)
As I ponder this day, Holy Thursday, gratitude overwhelms me, for tonight we remember and celebrate the institution of both the priesthood and the Eucharist. Let us give thanks and praise for these two unfathomable gifts. Let us pray for our priests, deacons, bishops, and our Holy Father – for strength, courage, and holiness in their ministries. Let us pray, too, for all those discerning a vocation to the priesthood – that they will hear and heed the call.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world. Anne