From the global crisis of the Catholic priesthood today, to the victimization of priests as daily holocaust across Nigeria, and in memory of our priest and brother Father Peter Sweneyaw Joe, the theme of priesthood as sacrifice comes readily to mind. Drawing our attention to the sacrificial character of the priesthood, hopefully, would reinforce our appreciation of this most noble vocation, while encouraging priests to live the priesthood the best that is possible.
The daily victimization of priests in today’s Nigeria, points in a special way to the sacrificial nature of priestly existence. Amidst Nigeria’s security failure priests have been more vulnerable, perhaps than any other group of persons across the country. More than the civil servant or the private businessman, or anyone of other vocations, the very details of priestly life and ministry exposes the priest to a world of danger. Fr. David Tanko was ambushed on his way for a peace meeting and burnt to death in Taraba State, barely a week ago. We may recall the tragic murder of Frs. Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, the two priests who were ambushed and killed right at the altar of the Holy Mass, alongside 11 parishioners, at Ukpor-Mbalom, Benue State, April 24 2018. Priests are readily sold off out to evil men by the very garments they wear, as by the truth they proclaim, and the values they defend publicly.
Catherine Dougherty defines a priest as “a man who has crucified himself”. Priests have become the sacrificial lamb amidst Nigeria’s State failure. Whereas the politicians who have willfully driven our ship of State into disaster are escorted by military troops even within their own living rooms, the priest, whose schedules for Masses are known even to Satan, becomes the only freely accessible sane fellow in many violent districts and neighborhoods across Nigeria. The priest becomes the victim, the lamb of sacrifice.
Perhaps, it is at the death of a priest that the sacrificial character of the priesthood rings again like a bell in our minds. At his death a priest’s life impresses itself anew in our forgetful minds that priestly existence is but a huge sacrifice. There goes the man who in every sense of the word owns nothing! Other members of the Church who are going to the same heaven with the priest take their time to build their families and cultivate estates that may endure to future generations. Even if the priest explores his talents into secular domains, becomes a successful farmer, fisherman or professor, or he ventures into real estate and property development, everything finally ends in charity, he lives and dies a sacrifice. Archbishop Fulton Sheen puts this in a simple phrase, “the priest is not his own”.
The priesthood as sacrifice is lived out through the triple vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, called evangelical counsels because they are sacrifices accepted for the sake of the Church’s evangelical mission. The challenge associated with keeping this has been poignantly displayed in the pedophilia crisis. Whereas individual priests bear responsibility for their personal failures, it is for the ministry of the Church that the priest accepted this most sacrificial vocation in the first instance. Nor can the obsessive negative focus on the priest by the secular media be explained without reference to modern opposition to the Church as the last bastion of moral authority. Here again, without playing down on the priestly calling for holiness of life, we see that the choice for the priesthood becomes a choice for victimhood, a self-offering as sacrifice, a holocaust for the life of the Church and of the world.
It therefore, seems right and just to see priests first as “a libation poured out”, “a drink offering” (II Tim 4:6; Phil 2:17) offered, or they offer themselves, for the life of the Church in every generation. Also, rather than see priests as pretenders on account of their weaknesses, charity and fairness requires that they be seen as wounded soldiers, as “treasure in clay”, a description aptly used by St Paul in II Cor 4:7 and beautifully employed by Archbishop Fulton Sheen as title of his autobiography. Sheen draws our attention to the contrast between the “divinity” and “nobility” of the priestly vocation and the “humanity” and “frailty” of the men who answer the call. It is true of priests what Shakespeare said of the Jews through Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: priests have “organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions”; “if you prick us we do bleed, if you tickle us we do laugh”. Priests can be tempted, or frustrated, they can be deceived or helped to be effective; but in all these, there is no priesthood without victimhood. Following Jesus, the Priest-Victim and model of New Testament priesthood, priestly life is nothing but one big sacrifice.