Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Living in faith: anticipating Christ’s return in glory

Sunday, December 4, 2011

During the four weeks of Advent, we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago by looking forward to his coming again at the end of time. Faith in what God has revealed in Christ brings us into a world that now interacts uneasily with the everyday world of sin and corruption. The world of faith will become the everyday world when Christ returns in glory at the end of time; but in the meantime, in our time, things aren’t always crystal clear. Our vision, now shaped by faith and lived in love, will be perfectly clear only in the Beatific Vision of heaven.

On earth, the church keeps us connected to this heavenly vision through the preaching of the Gospel, the celebration of the sacraments and the love experienced among the faithful gathered around pastors who govern in Christ’s name. Faith is neither a set of rules nor an abstract formula for service, although moral living flows from belief. Faith is first of all, however, a condition for relating to God and others in Christ. Faith is a trusting response, made possible by God’s grace, to the truths that entered our world with the Incarnation of God’s eternal Word in Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus, now risen from the dead and sitting at the right hand of the Father, uses his church to introduce himself to the world. He cannot be separated from his church. Those who would do so lose him. Those who come to hate or disdain the church will find themselves separated from Christ himself. They will lose faith, its vision and its relationships.

Living in faith depends on coming to understand and accept the truths about God that are revealed in and by Christ and taught through the church. It means encountering Christ in the Eucharist each Sunday and receiving the other sacraments given us for our salvation. It means living united to the pastors who govern the church in Christ’s name. This particular dimension of faithful living is problematic when priests and bishops do not give good witness to the faith that tells them and the world who they are. Moral failure is disillusioning and causes discouragement in everyone’s life; but sin can be forgiven. That’s the first thing we learn about Jesus: he saves us from our sins. A priest’s or bishop’s failure to teach and govern well, however, not only weakens his personal link to God, it also causes the church to unravel. Priestly infidelity darkens the light of faith and fractures the world of faith.

As we ponder again who Christ is during this Advent season and deepen our faith in Jesus as Son of God and Son of Mary, Savior of the World and Head of his Body, the church, let us pray for those who mediate Christ’s presence to his church, our priests. Let us pray for those whom God is calling to the ordained priesthood in the church and for priestly fidelity among those already ordained.

We have hundreds of truly exemplary priests in the archdiocese, those who have given their lives to this local church, those visiting and studying here, those serving here but who belong to religious orders and congregations. They make us rightfully proud. They each, after long preparation designed to make them at home in the world of faith, profess their belief in what God makes known through the teaching of the church and promise to teach it faithfully. They promise to anticipate in their own lives Christ’s return in glory by living chastely as celibate men for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven and by living in obedience to their bishop. These promises put them squarely into the world of faith with Jesus himself, who reveals the truths we must believe in order to live with him now and forever, who was totally given to the family he called into being through his death and resurrection, and who fulfilled his saving mission in perfect obedience to his Father.

Since truth and chastity and obedience are often in short supply in this world, their demands are personally challenging. The world doesn’t understand why priests live the way they do and often lionizes those who separate themselves from priestly obedience or celibacy or who publicly disclaim truths of faith. Once a priest leaves the church, however, and is no longer useful to those who really want only to weaken or destroy the faith, he usually disappears from public life. All of us have lived through this tragedy of priestly attrition in recent decades. What God has given to set the priest free — the truths of revelation, the promises of celibacy and obedience in conformity to Christ’s own life — become for him a prison. The tragedy is that a priest who does not teach what the church teaches brands himself a hypocrite; and a priest who breaks his promise of celibacy or obedience shows himself unlikely to keep other promises. These situations are tragic not only for the priest himself but for the entire church, precisely because he is a priest.

Priests inhabit the same world of faith that all Catholics live in; they cannot be priests without the people God gives them to govern and to love. Priests support and love their brother priests, and this fraternity is also key to priestly fidelity. Prayer keeps the priest personally in union with Christ himself and with all those Christ loves. Priesthood is at the nexus of the network of relationships that constitute the church, the community of faith. Priests make the mystery of Christ’s relationship to his people visible through their lives and ministry.

During Advent each year, on Dec. 21, I celebrate the anniversary of my own ordination to the Catholic priesthood here in Chicago in 1963. I usually celebrate it quietly but always joyfully and gratefully. In thanking God for the vocation to ordained priesthood, every priest also thanks God for the people who are in his life because he is a priest of the church. Pray for our priests. Let us tighten the bonds this Advent; let us live more resolutely in the world of faith; let us use this season to introduce others to Christ, so that there will be faith on earth when he returns in glory.