The Precursor’s Nativity is celebrated by the Church because, even from the womb, he chosen and sanctified for his vocation. The Baptist is the greatest of the prophets, and is more than a prophet, for he rejoiced to see the day of the Bridegroom.
While the priest, in very specific moments, acts in persona Christi, most of his ministry is more closely tied to that of St. John the Baptist – directing people to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In this respect, St. John is a model for the priest as “friend of the Bridegroom” and “voice of one crying out in the wilderness”.
On a personal note, St. John the Baptist is particularly dear to me as a model for the priesthood, as I was ordained a priest on the Vigil of his Nativity three years ago.
“John” is his name, and a priest is called “Father”
And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. (Luke 1:59-64)
Having received his vocation when still in the womb, the Baptist was not named after his father nor after any in his family line, but rather received a new name from the Lord. St. John was not called merely to be a member of his own family, but rather was singled out from among millions to be the forerunner of the Christ. In this way, John did not so much lose his family identity, as gain a new and fuller identity in God.
So too it is with the priest. While religious often take on a new name, leaving behind their baptismal name, diocesan priests keep their given name but are now called by a new name: Father.
True, in many countries the people call the priest not “Father” but rather some variation of “Lord” or “Sir”, but the point remains the same. Upon his ordination, the priest is no longer named simply by his parents, but he is called by a new title which comes from God through the Church. His identity is no longer tied so much to his natural family, but to his spiritual family – he is now the “Father” of many, since he has been called to pastor the flock of Christ.
How necessary it is for priests to be called “Father”! We forget who the priest is, and what he is meant to be for the people, if we simply call him by his first name!
Even his own family should get into the habit of calling the priest “Father” – for he is no longer merely a son or brother or uncle, he is now called to be a priest even for those to whom he had previously been bound only by natural ties. If he was once his parents’ son, now he is their pastor, their father, and he must give his life in service for their spiritual benefit.
John was clothed in camel’s hair, and a priest wears clerics
And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying: There cometh after me one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I have baptized you with water; but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. (Mark 1:6-8)
St. John the Baptist did not dress in fine linens like a king, nor did he dress as common folk do, rather he had a distinctive apparel in order to more clearly designate his distinctive vocation.
It should be clear (not only from Canon Law and Church tradition, but also from the writings of saints and the example of good and holy priests) that a priest ought almost always to wear his clerical garb when in public (most especially the cassock, but at least the modern clerics). St. John the Baptist didn’t walk around in a t-shirt and jeans, nor did he wear a fancy suit – neither should the priest dress like a layman.
We will give an excerpt from the “Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests” (n. 66) from the Congregation for the Clergy, approved and authorized by Bl. John Paul II on 31 January 1994:
“In a secularised and materialistic society, where the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities tend to disappear, it is particularly important that the community be able to recognise the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister.
“For this reason, the clergy should wear ‘suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and the legitimate local custom’.(CIC, Canon 284) This means that the attire, when it is not the cassock, must be different from the manner in which the laity dress, and conform to the dignity and sacredness of his ministry.
“Outside of entirely exceptional cases, a cleric’s failure to use this proper ecclesiastical attire could manifest a weak sense of his identity as one consecrated to God.”
There you have it: If a priest often is not wearing his cassock (or clerical attire) he probably lacks priestly identity. Let us unite in prayer for our poor priests – so many are so, so confused!
John and the priest: Celibates who defend marriage and family life
For Herod had apprehended John and bound him, and put him into prison, because of Herodias, his brother's wife. For John said to him: It is not lawful for thee to have her. And having a mind to put him to death, he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet. (Matthew 14:3-5)
Finally, we see that St. John, a celibate, died defending the sanctity of marriage. It was not so much his direct and clear proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, nor even his baptism of repentance, but rather his defense of marriage that set the king against him.
What a model the Baptist is for the priest in this regard. The parish priest of the Latin Church is celibate, yet he is in a unique position to defend marriage and family life!
We consider past saints like Alphonsus Liguori and Francis de Sales, or modern saints like Josemaria Escriva and John Paul II – these priests gave guidance not only to the Church but to the whole world on the true means of attaining to a good, holy, and happy family life. These priests, and countless others, gave their lives of ministry in service of marriage and the family!
And what are the two greatest areas of family life where the parish priest is needed? It seems to me that these are: The family Rosary, and openness to life.
Pray, pray that priests will help families to pray the Rosary together. Bl. John Paul II was convinced of this: If only families will pray the family Rosary, there will be peace in the world and peace in the home! I scarcely can think of any devotion or practice more worthy of priestly promotion than the family Rosary!
And again, pray, pray that your priests will preach against contraception and abortion. So long as Catholics continue to practice contraception, Americans (and secular people of other nations) will commit abortion. Until the home is purified from contraception, the nation will never be free from abortion.
Pray the good Lord to send priests who will preach boldly against contraception. Pray the good Lord to send priests who would willingly sacrifice themselves to save the lives of the millions of children who are aborted each year through the use of the contraceptive pill. Pray that priests will have the courage to speak the truth: That, statistically, if a woman/couple is on the Oral Contraceptive Pill for two years, there has likely been at least one abortion (which would have likely been undetected by the couple) – this is what is meant by a “5% failure rate” which is what the contraceptive companies themselves claim. Sadly, the rate is even worse for many of the IUDs and other such methods. [for more information on this, please see an article with some good statistics (here)]
And pray that priests will speak out in defense of family life – even if that means they must sacrifice their own lives in the process. What better to die for, than the Christian family?
A final test: Confession and Communion
Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
St. John the Baptist not only proclaimed the Lord’s coming, but pointed him out when at last he came. This is the great privilege of the Forerunner, this is what makes him to be more than a prophet – he led people to Jesus.
So too, the priest’s whole life and ministry can be judged on this one point: Did he lead people to Christ?
And what better means to consider whether a priest has succeeded or failed than to ask whether he has helped the people to receive Christ worthily and devoutly in Holy Communion and whether he has aided his flock in finding Jesus’ absolution of sin through the sacrament of Confession.
If a priest has helped people to make better Confessions and grow in freedom from sin – then he is a good priest.
If a priest has helped the people to make better, more devout, and more worthy Communions – then he is a good priest.This is the final test for any priest: His whole life, and especially his ministry in the confessional and at the altar, must proclaim: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sins of the world.