By Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz
What a joyous occasion it was for me to ordain three fine priests as they begin a lifetime journey pursuing holiness, imitating Christ in their daily lives and serving the people entrusted to their care.
In their Mass of Thanksgiving the following day, each for the first time led the faithful in the Eucharistic prayer — the most perfect prayer of Jesus in which we are privileged to participate. It is the prayer of the one sacrifice in Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation. It makes present in our community and in our hearts the Paschal mystery.
As each priest introduces the preface, the people hear the familiar words “The Lord be with you.” They answer this newly ordained priest for the first time with the response “And with your spirit.” The ordination rite and the readings of Sacred Scripture confirm that the spirit spoken of is not simply the human spirit of the person now ordained but rather the spirit of Jesus himself. With great humility, a priest speaks on behalf of Jesus for the people of God and elicits their faith-filled response.
The priest then exclaims, “Lift up your hearts!” Of course, on his own, the priest does not have the power to lift up the hearts of so many faithful.
Isaiah 61 speaks about the spirit of the Lord coming upon the suffering servant and touching the hearts of the lowly, the brokenhearted, those in captivity, those discouraged. Only the power of Jesus makes possible this instruction and exclamation.
In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote catechetical lectures, instructions for those who were preparing to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil. In a lecture on the Preface, he says “After this the priest cries aloud, ‘lift up your hearts.’ For truly ought we at that most awful hour to have our heart on high with God, and not below, thinking of earth and earthly things.”
How appropriate that the ordination ceremony included a segment from the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. St. Paul clearly speaks about the surpassing power of God flowing through earthen vessels. This image of earthen vessels provides the humility and the perpetual reminder to these newly ordained priests, and in fact to all priests, that we are truly imperfect earthen vessels used as a channel of Christ’s grace. The support that these three priests will need in the days ahead will come from their families: the presbyterate of whom they are now an essential part, their families of origin and the parishioners whom they will daily serve.
Central to the mandate “to lift up hearts” is to recall at all times that Jesus is the power of ministry within the church. I am told there is a pulpit in an old German church in St. Louis that has one verse printed so that it meets the eye of every preacher immediately before he begins to preach. The verses are from the Gospel according to Saint John 12:21. Recall that some Greeks came to visit Jesus, and so they said to Phillip words that are on that pulpit, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
In their ministry of lifting hearts, our new priests should strive to cultivate the virtues of transparency, chastity, courage and patience. During the ordination Mass, I called them to be men of transparency and chastity so that in the midst of so many scandals that have hurt so many, they will never fear the truth and always seek to lead lives of great virtue. I also called them to be men of courage and truth, to be brave in an alien culture in proposing the truth of our faith and to be patient in explaining this life-giving truth.
One might well define the entire ministry of a priest as his ability to live that Eucharistic Prayer to lift up hearts to which the faithful can truly respond, “We have lifted them up to the Lord.” It is hard for me to imagine how many pastoral visits Father Steven Reeves, Father Tony Cecil and Father Kirby Rust will make to parishioners in their homes, hospitals and nursing homes. It is difficult for me to calculate how many times a parishioner will turn to one of them for pastoral direction and encouragement.
What is not difficult to imagine is how the surpassing power of Jesus Christ flowing through them from the Holy Eucharist and deepened in their daily prayer will make them true servants of the Lord. With their words and with their actions they will for decades come to proclaim with saints like Cyril of Jerusalem and all the saints who have gone before them the powerful words of Jesus: lift up your hearts to the Lord. And the people of God in their words and especially in their hearts, in the midst of their daily challenges and joys and sufferings, will acclaim: “We have lifted them up to the Lord.”