“‘To be or not to be?’; that is the question.”

I don’t mean to sound cliché by beginning with those massively-overused words, penned by none other than William Shakespeare in one of his most famous plays, “Hamlet”. Yet, it is a question that has arisen in my heart and in my mind as I reflect on the restrictions mandated to priests during this time when the world is paralyzed by the coronavirus. As I prepared today’s homily, I couldn’t help reflecting on what it truly means “to be a priest or not to be a priest?”. That is the question for this reflection on today’s Gospel. 

We hear our Lord sternly rebuke the disbelieving apostles, still hiding and weeping like scared children. I have to admit, this is a scene which is hard for me to meditate upon. To be a faithful priest is scary business these days. To ponder what the Lord expects of all of His priests is to ponder what the Lord sacrifices as the true High Priest, HIMSELF upon the Cross. As Pope Benedict XVI states: “It is a mistake to think that the great privilege of living in the company of Jesus is enough to make a person holy; we have to give ourselves entirely to Jesus, we have to enter into full communion with Him, so that we think and act as He did, in total obedience to the Father” (Inside the Vatican, March 2020). Like Christ, priests are expected to speak boldly against the countless lies that are vomited out upon our society. Like Christ, to be a priest we have to expose the hypocrisy within the Church and among self-proclaimed “Catholic” politicians. Priests are expected to protect and defend the Sanctuary, like the sword-wielding Levites from the Old Testament. Priests must restore sacredness to the Holy Mass and offer the Mass with reverence and humility. Priests must have the courage to reform Catholic education. Like Christ, priests must silence and boldly refute error and heresy that unfortunately come from many poorly-formed and ill-motivated priests who play the role of Judas in our own era. To be or not to be?… 

These are only some of the expectations of a validly-ordained Catholic Priest. Judas reminds us how true Pope Benedict’s words are for priests, that it is not enough for us to live in the company of Christ; we have to become like Christ, an alter Christus. If we do not become an alter Christus, we will inevitably become an alter Judas. For the Gospels warns us that, “Satan entered into the heart of Judas…” (Luke 22:3). While it is daunting to reflect on the expectations of my priesthood, it is equally frightening to ponder what will happen to my soul if I don’t do what our Lord is expecting of me as HIS priest on earth! You see, we can deny God’s Will in time and space, and maybe even get away with it for a while, but we cannot deny God’s Will in eternity. 

Priests will certainly be held more responsible for such a denial of God’s Will because we are the ordained instruments of His Sacramental Grace on earth. In Question 19, article 6, of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas treats on the subject of God’s Will. In summary, he says, “Even though we may depart from God’s Will in the now, we can NEVER depart from His will in Eternity, because we will have to face the final judgment of our soul.” To the priest who is listening to these words, “to whom much has been given, much will be expected” (Luke 12:48). To be or not to be?… 

Let’s get back to the Gospel! This is a most unusual room that the Apostles are hiding in. It is difficult for me to hear our Lord Jesus rebuke His “hide-away-priests,” since we are all “hide-away-priests,” due to the Coronavirus lockdown! But what exactly is this “room”? Is it a house that they’re hiding in where they have the ability to move from one room to another? Is it some dark and musty chamber where the Apostles cower like sardines, packed side by side? Is it a dark cellar or some confined attic where they are waiting and weeping? Well, Scripture is quite vague about it, so we need to use our imaginations based on how we see priests living today. Most priests today, here in the USA and even in our Carmelite Mission in Uganda, Africa, live in nice, comfortable homes. There is someone hired for cooking and cleaning, the parishes provide plenty of food, and all the utilities are paid for on time. 

Are the Apostles in today’s Gospel free to come and go, as long as they are disguised in street clothes, like so many priests today? Were the Apostles fearful that they might be seen by others, scorned and rejected by the people, afraid of being arrested and flogged with mockery and threats: “See, your king is dead, and we will kill you also!” Are the Apostles eating well in their quarantined situation? Who is providing for them while they are closed off from the world in their “Upper Room”—or house? Or maybe it is a mansion? Who is caring for the work they once had? Their jobs are long abandoned, their families and friends were left behind when they began to follow Christ, and all their responsibilities are now just “water under the bridge”. 

While this room that the Apostles are hiding in may be mysterious to us, it is a room with significance, as it is mentioned in most of the Gospel readings during this Easter week. I just thought it would be interesting to flesh it out and see what it might appear like in your imaginations. Let’s have some fun and draw a parallel between the Apostles hiding in the “Upper Room” and all the priests in quarantine today! Imagine all of the bishops and priests hiding today because of the coronavirus. What questions arise for you as you meditate upon the Scripture passages from this last week? Well, what kind of rooms are they hiding in? Do they live in big houses, maybe even mansions? Some do. Who’s caring for their every need while they are in quarantine and forced unemployment? Are they worried about their incomes? Are they worried about groceries? Are they worried about the electricity which supplies their “Upper Room”? Are these priests standing in line at 6:00 a.m., waiting to get into Costco so they can buy the next pallet of toilet paper? Are they rushing out to the grocery to score the last box of eggs? 

The answer to all these questions is, “No!” I’m not picking on priests; after all, I am one! I’m just giving an insight into our lives that you might not know about and maybe have never considered. It causes me some embarrassment to admit that I, too, am privileged with all of these amenities. I am not trying to imply that the Apostles were living in luxury in this “Upper Room,” nor am I implying that all priests today live in luxury. Rather, I am reflecting on WHY priests today are cared for in the way described above. 

So, what gives! Why the exposé of the lifestyle of the priesthood? The reason WHY priests are cared for in this way is so that they can avail themselves TOTALLY to the spiritual needs of the People of God, specifically to the faithful and reverent celebration of the Sacraments. We are cared for so that we can care for you with undivided attention! I remember one of the instructors at Mt. Angel Seminary, who was a diocesan priest, sternly warning his soon-to-be-ordained students about the “cared for” life that Catholic Bishops and priests are given in most dioceses. He warned us to be careful and to understand that “to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” 

Yet, too often, we find our priesthood dominated by office work, meetings, and finances. Sometimes I feel like a CEO rather than a Shepherd of Souls. This “CEO priesthood” is a perversion to the ministry of Jesus Christ, and it forces the priest to abandon his role as the instrument of Sacramental Grace. I have heard with my own ears priests who say they do not have time to sit in the confessional. I have seen with my own eyes priests who sloppily rush through Holy Mass. We priests need to refocus our priority on the Sacraments, not on running a corporation. Besides, we are not good at running corporations or pretending to be bankers. We are priests! To be or not to be?… 

Priests should be unobstructed in our ministry of caring for the souls that Christ has entrusted to us through the Sacramental Grace which we received at our ordinations. We are to exhaust our lives for the care of souls and in providing the Sacraments to them, just as any father is exhausted when he returns home from a hard day’s work. It is too easy for priests to hide in their “Upper Rooms,” neglecting to sit in the confessional waiting for the “prodigal son or daughter” to return to the Father. We hide when we do not go to the hospital to attend to the needs of a sick parishioner. We hide from Christ when we do not prepare well our homilies. We hide from Christ when we fail to celebrate the Holy Mass with reverence and dignity. We hide in fear from our duty to shepherd our flocks in truth when we neglect our schools. We hide in fear when we abandon the flock of Christ by allowing the “culture of ugly” to dominate the Sanctuary. To be or not to be?… 

The unfortunate reality is that, like the Apostles during the time of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection—when our Lord expected them to follow Him—priests sometimes run from our responsibilities and duties. The same unfortunate reality exists today for many Bishops and priests. But NOT ALL BISHOPS AND PRIESTS! While some run from their confessional, others are faithfully waiting, listening, and absolving. For there is no hiding or running from Christ! This is the reality of today’s Gospel: Jesus will rebuke us, and we shepherds will be held accountable at the Final Reckoning! We will not be recognized at the Last Judgment for the Parish Center we built, the large collection we managed, or even the fancy degrees we earned in the name of Christ. No, priests will be held accountable for the souls that we have saved and the souls that we have lost. To be or not to be?… 

The sense of urgency seems to be lost among many of the Shepherds in the Church today. But I suppose this was the case and the problem among the priesthood even during the time of Jesus Christ in the first century. Jesus certainly had problems, to say the least, with the priests of the temple who plotted to entrap Him, the scholars who studied the laws, and the Pharisees who tried to arrest and kill Him. Why should we priests think it would be any different today? Is there a division among the priests today as there was in the time of Christ? Yes and, surprisingly, God allows it. This allowing of dissension and lack of understanding in the priesthood is even seen in the life of Judas, the Apostle of Christ, the companion of Christ, the betrayer of Christ. Even Pope Francis recognizes this confusion, division, and betrayal among the priests today in his statement: “The mystery of Judas hangs over our time”. Cardinal Sarah, who uses these words of the pope in his book, “THE DAY IS NOW FAR SPENT,” continues the statement of the Holy Father by saying, “The mystery of betrayal oozes from the walls of the church.” 

I know these are heavy words and a strong approach to today’s Gospel, but let’s keep in mind that our Lord is rebuking the Apostles of the Church for hiding, for disbelieving, and for not trusting in Him. It’s just an ironic reality that priests are hiding today in their “Upper Rooms,” their furnished apartments, comfortable homes, paid-for rectories, etc., while many are faced with unemployment and with struggling to provide for their families; meanwhile, the good Catholics who hunger for the Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacraments are denied what rightfully belongs to them. The physical and spiritual depravity of this coronavirus lockdown is unbelievable! Churches are locked up, the Sacramental life of the Church is cut off from the faithful, people are starving for the Eucharist and desirous of returning to their Father’s House! All the while, the bishops and priests who are hiding are completely cared for, in the comforts of their “Upper Rooms”. 

To be or not be? That really is the question. To my brother priests, let us stop acting like CEOs and presidents of corporations! We need to be men of God, men of prayer, men who will courageously confront the enemy with the Sword of Truth and in the Power of the Holy Spirit, men who will exhaust their lives providing the Sacramental Grace to God’s children. We pastors must also be mindful that the last canon of the Code of Canon Law treats the removal of pastors when they do not effectively care for the salvation of souls. We priests are cared for in all of our needs and more, so that we can care for the salvation of souls. So, how is that working out for you in your “Upper Room”? 

“On the day of Pentecost…” is how the readings commence this week from the Acts of the Apostles. We see that the strong and vigorous apostles, Peter and John, these newly-reborn bishops, have emerged from their quarantined cocoon and now stand in the Power of the Holy Spirit! They work effortlessly to baptize thousands, to heal the sick, and to boldly preach the truth, as Peter proclaims, “It is better for us to obey God than man!” 

How do we interpret these words in light of today’s crisis? Fr. John Cihak once said to me at Mount Angel Seminary during a conversation at lunch, “Wait for the day when Christ will unleash His Priesthood upon the enemy!” When the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, will we run to the Confessionals to wait for the prodigal sons and daughters to return home? On the Day of Pentecost, will we take more seriously our role as Shepherds of Souls rather than as CEO’s? On the Day of Pentecost, what will we do differently? 

Like the Apostles in today’s Gospel, this time of quarantine is a time of preparation, reflection, and awareness that Christ is with us! Christus Nobiscum, state! “Be not faithless but be believing!” (John 20:27). 

“To be or not to be?”  That is the question of the priesthood.