Serving the Servants: A Football Analogy

Notre Dame Marching Band

Already Notre Dame’s campus feels like it is gearing up for football season. The new ads are out, scouting reports are being circulated, and various “count-downs to” have begun. It is hard to escape football fever on this campus.  So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that in my various attempts to describe to people why I wanted to become a priest, one of the helpful ways of talking about is a football analogy.

Especially since Vatican II, the Church has emphasized the importance of the life of the lay faithful as a, if not the, primary focus for the Church’s work and ministry. This has been a hugely important pivot:  the recognition that the Church’s ministry, and even the Sacraments, exist to serve the faithful, not the faithful to serve the Sacraments. In this way, the liturgy can be seen as a continuation of Christ’s Incarnation—Jesus continues to come to his people and to lavish them with the gifts of his grace.

Now to the analogy:  if we were to say that the lay faithful are like the players on the field—they are the ones out there living and struggling, sometimes pushed back but always striving forward—then where are the priests?

Priests on the sideline

The priests are, for the most part, not the players on the field, but rather are the support team that helps keep the players in the game. They are the position coaches, helping give informed advice about problems, questions and strategies. Pastors are the head coach giving the weekly half-time pep-talk with his homily, encouraging the team to give it their all and to not become discouraged if the game hasn’t been going our way. They are the water-boys, sharing the refreshment of the Eucharist, our Food for the journey, to keep up our strength through the long fight. They are the trainers who rush onto the field if a player has been injured, pouring the healing oil on the sick and sharing the healing words of absolution in Confession, while also dispensing the physical therapy of penance.  Most of all they are the cheerleaders who constantly share the good news with the team that, even if this play goes poorly, we are assured of the victory, because it has already been won by Christ.

The desire to be of service to your sisters and brothers, especially to your fellow Catholics, but also to all those in need, is one of the defining features of a call to the priesthood or religious life. It is, to be sure, in no way limited to those two vocations, because our baptism also reorients us as Christ-like servants to others. We affirm the universality of this calling rooted in Baptism while also recognizing a specific expression of that service that animates the lives of priests.

For me, one of the most powerful ways I experienced that desire to be of service as an ordained minister was through giving blessings. Any Christian can invoke a blessing for anyone, but the cruciform blessing (“The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”) is reserved to clergy. It is a privilege, not a right, to be able to give a blessing, but it is also a sacred duty. Clergy have a holy obligation to share Christ’s blessing with the world, and to dispense, in times of joy, sorrow or any need, an effective reminder of God’s love and presence. To share this grace, or the grace of the sacraments, is like sharing that cold, refreshing water with those who have worked and given their all in the struggle, knowing victory is at hand.

Prayer of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to the Immaculate Heart for Priests

Mary and Her Immaculate Heart

Immaculate Mother
Let your presence cause new blooms to burst forth
in the desert of our loneliness,
let it cause the sun to shine on our darkness,
let it restore calm after the tempest,
so that all mankind shall see the salvation of the Lord,
who has the name and the face of Jesus,
who is reflected in our hearts,
forever united to yours!  Amen!

Pray the rest of this prayer on the Vatican website.

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