Last issue, we stepped into the “Wayback Machine” and got some historical background from the Old Testament era regarding the Levitical priesthood of Judaism, as a way of laying the groundwork for discussing the priesthood of Jesus Christ as we know it in the church today. This article will focus on the identity of the priest, and connecting his role to that of the bishop. Both the priest and the bishop share in the priesthood of Christ. Note: the role of deacons will be taken up in a later article.
It’s baseball season. I can tell because the Phillies keep moving me from joy to “agita” on a roller-coaster sports ride. I think that baseball might provide us with a good analogy for the priesthood. “How so?” you may ask. Well, priests can be very well analogous to the pitchers on a baseball team.
On a baseball team there are two very distinct types of players: there are pitchers and then there is everyone else. Pitchers are part of the team, to be sure, but they are different and distinct from the rest. I mean, just look at the stats kept for the pitcher. They are completely different from stats kept for any other position on the team.
Also, the pitcher governs much of the action; when he is on the mound he is at the center of the drama that we call a baseball game. He paces the game, varies the pitches, and nothing can happen in the game without him doing his job.
Bishop visits the mound
One could imagine that a ballgame could be played without a shortstop or a left fielder if needed, but not without a pitcher. If the pitcher has a problem, or a weakness or is just getting clobbered, another pitcher, not some other player, replaces him. A pitcher is one of the members of the team. He is playing the same game, seeking the same outcome, but his role is distinct.
The person who puts the pitcher on the mound is the manager, and the manager may be likened to a bishop. The manager cares about all the players on the team, but he has a special relationship to the pitcher. Thus, we often see the manager go out and talk to the pitcher, but how often do you see the manager go and talk to the left fielder? I am sure in the dugout that conversation occurs between the manager and the other players, but the manager is acutely interested in the performance of his pitcher, as a bishop has a special care for his priests.
So, looking at the priesthood, the priest occupies a unique place. He is chosen from among men, but his role and his place are distinct. He is a person just like the lay faithful are persons, and just as pitcher is a member of the team along with the other players. However, as a pitcher’s role on the team is unique – who he is, where he stands, what he does, what his purpose is – so too, the priest is distinct among God’s people.
Father records saves
Thus, as the pitcher stands on a mound, so the priest stands in the sanctuary. As a pitcher controls the pace of the game within its rules, so the priest celebrates the Mass and sacraments within the law of God and his church. Just as a pitcher and the players on the team share the same goal of victory, so, too, do the priest and the people of a parish likewise strive for the victory of eternal salvation in Christ. Just as when the pitcher gets a “win” or a “save,” the whole team benefits, so, too, when the priest succeeds in his ministerial work, it is a win for Christ and his church – and it saves souls, not ballgames.
So, for me, the priest as a pitcher analogy is one that sings sweeter in my ears than Olivia Newton John on a schmaltzy ballad, thus dare I say, I honestly love it.
Continuing with the analogy, let’s examine the question, “How does a man becomes a priest?” In the truest tradition, priests are born, not made. They have been called to the priesthood from the womb, but need to answer the call that beckons them to God’s priestly service to the people. Some folks will tell you that pitchers are born, not made, that there is a natural ability that some folks have in that regard. That ability can be honed and strengthened but never created. So, with that in mind, the stories of a baseball pitcher and a priest have parallels.
When a pitcher-to-be first discovers that he wants to pitch, it’s usually at a younger age and he becomes more and more acquainted with the sport by practicing his game.
Likewise, a priestly call commonly comes at a fairly young age (yes, there are those 50-year old vocations, but those are not the norm). And that person keeps following that priestly call by practicing his faith. The future pitcher may be scouted in high school or college or even after college; the future priest may be directed toward his vocation by other priests, family or a diocese’s vocation director.
Once he makes the commitment, the pitcher and the priest-to-be begin more formal training – the priest-to-be for a diocese, and the pitcher-to-be for a team.
Minors to majors
The pitcher starts down in perhaps a single-“A” short season minor league team, while the priest-to-be might start in what is called a “minor seminary” (or college seminary). If the pitcher-to-be is good, he rises to the succeeding levels, “A” to “AA” to “AAA” to the major leagues. If the priest-to-be is good he rises to the succeeding levels, “minor seminary” to “major seminary” (where theology is studied) to “lector” (he can read at Mass), to “acolyte” (he can serve at Mass), and to ordination as a transitional deacon (this is where the priest-to-be enters the major leagues: he’s not on the mound yet, but he is slated to be). As a transitional deacon, the priest-to-be can baptize, perform marriages, bury the dead, proclaim the Gospel, bring communion to the sick, etc.
Then it’s time. As per the needs of the team determined by the manager, a player is put into the game, so, too, as per the needs of the diocese determined by the bishop, the transitional deacon is called to holy orders for ordination as a priest. The priest candidate is brought to an ordination Mass, where the bishop (ministering the sacrament of holy orders) lays hands upon him, and the priest candidate makes solemn promises to the bishop and his successors.
In the course of that Rite of Ordination, the Holy Spirit descends upon the man and raises him to the “presbyterate” or “priesthood.” When that happens, from that day forward the man, now the priest, becomes conformed to Christ in a profound way – his role among the people of God is that of a sacred minister. Just like the pitcher whose role on the team is distinct because of who he is (a pitcher), so too, the priest’s role in the life of the church is distinct because of who he is.
Now, all analogies breakdown, and this does one does, too. The priest is a priest on the level of his soul and being, and he stands as an “alter Christi” (another Christ). No baseball pitcher, however good, is changed at the level of his soul and being (although Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, at their best, have occasionally caused me to ponder this point).
Also, as much as even the best pitcher loves the game, baseball is not a vocation, but an avocation. It’s for a living. It’s for enjoyment. It can even be a passion, but it can never be a way of life (although, Red Sox fans may disagree).
So, the point of this article is not to be a theological treatise on the priesthood, nor a run through the ritual or issues concerning priesthood (that’s next issue). The point of this article is to draw a common analogy to help put the priest in perspective relative to the people of God. The priest is a person, he is chosen from among men, but he is not just like everyone else. He has a unique role and that role has everything to do with who-he-is (a priest) and not just what he does.
Frankly, if the pitcher does badly, a team can still win a game, but it makes it that much harder. So, too, if the priest fails in his ministerial role, or wavers in his faith, the people of God can still find salvation through the church in all of its glory, but it makes it that much harder.
Shut out the Serpents
So, pray for your priests, that they may be strong and sound, and that by their presence and ministry may they prevent the opponent (that serpent) from scoring too many runs against our team. Just as so many moms and dads would love to see little Junior to grow up to be a pitcher, with that same fervor and same excitement, they should likewise want that he should be a priest. They should do this because vocations to the priesthood, like any great baseball game, indeed, do begin at home. Play ball!
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.