A priest friend of mine in England used to joke that his working class mother would take his hands in hers and gently make fun of him by saying, “Look at these hands! So soft–never done an honest day’s work in his life…” She loved her son, and it was her wry British sense of humor way of admiring him and the priestly ministry he had been granted.
I look at a priest’s hands and think what a beautiful symbol they are of the whole priesthood. Here are his hands, and after his face, they speak of the man himself. Are they tough and rough and scarred from physical labor? So is he. Are they plump with gold rings? He probably is too. Are they unclean and not trimmed and groomed? Maybe he is a bit scruffy too. Are the nails bitten down? Maybe he’s nervous and has inner tensions that you do not know about. Are his hands soft and fat and manicured? So is he. Do they emerge from tattered old cuffs or from starched white cuffs with gold cuff links? You can see what he think of material blessings. Are they knotted in fists? He’s a fighter. Are they old, pale, thin, veined and shaky? So is he.
These are the hands that do everyday things. They chop the vegetables and pet the dog. They type the newsletter and turn on the lights and use the screwdriver and turn the page. They gesture and point and talk as he talks. They get dirty fixing the chain on the bike, digging in the garden and cleaning out the septic tank. These are the hands that fulfill the body’s functions. Yes, these hands are also hands that engage in sin. They are given over at times when the priest yields to temptation. They are used for the most ordinary, human, physical tasks, but these are also the hands that bless.
What does the priest do with these hands? He anoints the sick. He embraces a child. He lays hands on the dying and those about to be confirmed. These are the hands that are raised in blessing and folded in prayer. These are the hands that do the most ordinary and earthly things, but these are also the hands that sign the head, the lips and the breast when the gospel is proclaimed. These are the hands that float above the altar as the Holy Spirit is called down. These are the hands that lift the host and lift the chalice as God comes down to transform this matter of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. These hands are extended in peace and blessing. These hands distribute the precious body and blood of Christ. These hands bless the penitent at absolution, turn the pages of the breviary and clutch the rosary as the last action at night.
The hands of the priest are the sign of the priest–in the ordinary the extraordinary is seen. Through his humanity God’s divinity wants to shine. This is the mystery of the sacrament of ordination. Holy Church teaches that through ordination an ontological change takes place in the man. A new dimension to his humanity is unlocked. He opens out into becoming something he was not before. His ordination is a completed gift and yet also a gift that has to be completed through a life of dedication, prayer, sacrifice and suffering. This is the mystery of ordination that I have experienced: through a lifetime of following Christ I have come across priests and bishops who, from a human perspective, have been failures, losers and boors. I have come across priests who were venal, short tempered, scheming and back stabbing. I have come across priests who were child molestors, perverts and alcoholics. And yet…
And yet I also saw in each one a man who wanted to be fully conformed to the image of Christ–a man who longed to be all that God created him to be. A man, despite the cynicism and sin and fear and frailty, who longed for heaven, whose heart was once filled with faith, and who still, despite all things, longed for faith again. I insist that I saw, even in those priests, the image of Christ–supernaturally planted there by their baptism and their ordination. It may have been faded, smeared and bleared by their fallen humanity; it may have been so twisted and perverted by their weakness and human evil, but something gold was there–something glimmered in the darkness like a diamond lost at night. Something supernatural was there in a way far deeper and more mysterious than I can put into words.
All I can say is that it is a mystery–and a mystery is something that can be experienced even if it cannot be explained. This mystery of divnity working its way through our humanity like yeast in the dough is a mystery that will not be fully understood until the final day. Then we will see how even the horrors were part of the glory. Then we will see that even the most terrible terrors were woven into the divine plan. Then we will see that for the elect nothing was lost and everything was redeemed. For those who are called, and who follow Christ all will be transformed, and everything will be harvest.