I never found out from the conversation what it was that drove him to that conclusion. His point to me was what his mother said to him, "You don't go to confession to see the priest. He is only the channel of God's mercy. You go so that you can receive Jesus' mercy."
We have all recognized, as we grow more deeply into our understanding of the faith, that Jesus is the living water. We priests are only the vessel that holds that precious gift that is meant to be generously and freely distributed.
Not all containers are alike. Not all vessels are always the most attractive. It is what they hold that counts.
I thought of this conversation when recently I read the results of a media poll that showed that while Catholics may be disappointed and even angry with the way Church leadership handled clergy abuse cases decades ago, they have not, on that account, left the Church. We as Catholics have always understood that our priests and bishops are human instruments of God's grace, images of Christ in our midst, but that what they bring us is God, not themselves. We see the priest as the one who brings us Jesus. But ultimately our faith is in Jesus.
At the conclusion of every confirmation, I am reminded of my role - as a vessel - when I conclude the Prayer of the Faithful with this ritual oration: "God our Father, you sent your Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and through them and their successors you give the Spirit to your people."
No one seriously thinks that the gift of the Holy Spirit comes from me. It comes from God. But Catholic faith instructs us, according to what Jesus told us, that the bishop is there to be the vessel, the vehicle of the gift. For nearly 2,000 years, since the days of the apostles, we bishops have done our best to do so. There have been some disedifying bishops in the twenty centuries of the Church. There have also been some very holy ones. But all were vessels of God's grace.
This Saturday I will ordain eight new priests, each one of whom brings his gifts, talents, abilities and limitations to the service of the Church, God's people, Jesus Christ. Each will be endowed with the power, through a configuration to Christ himself, to carry out the work of Jesus.
The first thing I do at the conclusion of the ordination Mass is kneel and ask an individual blessing from each of the newly ordained priests. These blessings are not only a spiritual gift for me, but a reminder to myself and everyone present that we look to these new priests as the continuation in the Church of the great gift of priesthood. It is the faith of the Church that in ordination a priest is configured to Christ to act in the person of Christ as head of the Church. He is to participate with the bishop in the three-fold task of teaching, leading and sanctifying God's people.
This year we are particularly mindful that ordination takes place at the conclusion of the Year for Priests decreed by Pope Benedict XVI. At the opening of this year, our Holy Father urged all priests to strive for holiness and said the ordained ministry was indispensable for the Church and the world.
"The Church needs priests who are holy ministers, ministers who help the faithful experience the merciful love of the Lord and who are convinced witnesses of that love," Pope Benedict said at a prayer service in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome the day he announced the Year for Priests. At the liturgy celebrated on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a day of prayer for the sanctification of priests, the pope said, the "essential nucleus of Christianity" is found in the heart of Jesus: the saving love of God that "invites us to step outside of ourselves" and "make ourselves a gift of love without reserve."
Priests, and in a special way our eight newly ordained priests, can rejoice in the realization that they are consecrated to serve humbly and with authority all of the faithful entrusted to their care.
This year as we end the Year for Priests, we salute our new priests and ask God to continue to bless them and through them his holy Church.
(Originally posted here.)