Monday, March 05, 2007

Tu eris sacerdos in aeternum

Martin Scorcese once said that one of the main reasons he wanted to become a priest when he was younger was that, along with the mafiosi, they were the most powerful and ubiquitous figures in his Italian neighborhood. Growing up, we all had a certain person we looked up to. In traditionally Catholic communities, the priest and whatever he said held sway. In an Anglo-Saxon environment, it could be the local philanthropist. In seedy, seemingly godless neighborhoods, the thug reigned unchallenged. But in all cases, the presence of an authoritative figure defined the community.

I grew up in a very 'Spirit of Vatican II' environment. My idea of the priest's role in the community was that of a presider, perhaps an elder, whose merits and virtues made him the sole person acceptable of being God's representative. When Mass ended, my parents would tell me to go to the priest, kiss his hand, and wait for his blessing, but that was it. I knew from an early age that only he could say the Mass, but I never really grasped the rationale behind this. I just accepted it at face value. Oh, and they told really corny jokes, too.

Of course, this was a far cry from the priests of my grandparents' and even my parents' days. In the Fifties and Sixties, priests were cast form a very different mold. Most of the priests then were still Spaniards, who still delivered sermons in Spanish. They were perpetually garbed in flowing black cassocks; their faces conveyed a serene sense of joy, but never lost their gravitas. I remember the stories my parents would tell me about how Fr. Spaniard or so and so would rise early in the morning and start sweeping the sanctuary in preparation for his Mass. They would also organize meetings with the different parish organizations, mumble their Masses, perhaps prepare for a debate with the local Arian-- er, Iglesia ni Cristo chapters, give the self-proclaimed hermit a much-needed bath in the Asperges ceremony, and say the Divine Office.

At the start of the harvest season, the farmers would bring their seeds to him so that he can bless them, and effect a bountiful reaping. The common folk flocked to him whenever the local Freemasons would mock the Church, and he, in turn, would damn them to hell in his pulpit. He was the virtual ruler of the community whom even the town's local government could not match in authority and influence.

The priesthood is the very essence of masculinity. He did his job-- not because he asked or volunteered for it-- but because he was the only one who could. He was the champion of the masses as well as the confessor to the nobility. He rebuked the superstitions of the wayward and praised and extolled the apparitions of the Virgin. He was despised by a few and loved by many, many more. At the end of the day, after hearing the vomit-inducing confessions of his flock (this actually happens, you know), performing his duties to God, and possibly winning new souls into His good graces, only then can he take care of his own salvation. He knows that he has much to answer for; if he was too strict in the confessional, he has to own up to this before God. If he confuses zeal for the salvation of souls with spiteful 'uncharitability', he must also account for it before God.

In this day and age, the idea of a celibate man dressing up in richly-embroidered silks and brocades and performing a couple of arcane gestures in front of a kitschy looking screen with images of a gore-dripping Christ and an extravagantly attired Mother of God may seem laughable, perhaps even a tad 'homosexual' to some. But then so do 'faith communities', butch-y women in red blazers pretending to be men, 'kumbaya' and a bevy of other things too horrible to mention. The Mass is not some fashion statement, anyway. He came there to do a job that only he can do; our business is not in the altar but in the pews.

Much like Rambo, with his Oscar-winning lines, or Zorro, with his pencil-thin moustache and weird choice of name (the fox?!?!?!), the priest's role is not to serve himself, but his people. He is their champion, their refuge, their very own Godfather. Perhaps that was why Roman Catholicism was so successful back then: the priest actually did his business. He asserted his authority and did the best he could, in his limited means, to provide for his parishioners' needs. He was hero and servant at the same time; truly, Our Lord could not have been more proud.

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