Priests: A Truly Essential Service
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement in late May that places of worship may reopen for public worship during Level 3 of the nationwide lockdown was met with mixed emotions, but his declaration of religious leaders as essential frontline workers for the spiritual care of the people was welcomed by many.
Of course, they always have provided a unique service to humanity.
For the Catholic faithful, priests, who are obliged to pray for them daily, are particularly close to the people, even though this has been physically impossible for the past few months.
A priest, one could say, is first and foremost, a shepherd who cares for the whole flock. More than a job, this is truly a vocation.
We have all been particularly inspired by the manner in which the bishops of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa have provided spiritual accompaniment while reminding the people about their obligation to care for the common good of all and encouraging outreach to the poor.
Priests, young and old, have tried in creative ways to reach out to the people they serve, mainly through social media platforms. They have done so through livestreaming of the liturgy and providing devotional literature, through reflections in videos or voice-notes.
Some have tried to encourage the faithful through captivating short inspirational messages from the Scriptures or quotes from the saints.
All of this shows the concern of the priest for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful which makes a difference through their entire lives.
But the priest is also an intercessor, a role he can carry out in full view of the people or often in “secret”.
A consolation for the faithful
At his ordination he resolves to celebrate the mysteries of Christ, especially the Blessed Eucharist, faithfully and reverently, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people.
Even though it is desirable that at least some of the faithful be present, in certain cases, priests have been celebrating the Holy Mass without the physical presence of the people.
Pastors of souls—our parish priests—have an obligation to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice for all the people of their parishes every week and on holy days of obligation (technically called the Missa Pro Populo in canon law).
Indeed, the Holy Mass is celebrated daily, from the rising of the sun to its setting (even if livestreaming is not made available), and this must be a consolation to the faithful during these uncertain times, when they cannot have access to the sacraments for now.
Similarly, the priest resolves at his ordination, to implore (with the bishops) God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to his care by observing the command to pray without ceasing.
One way he does this, already since the time of his diaconate ordination, is to celebrate every day the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office or Prayer of the Church), a prayer of intercession for the Church and the whole world at different hours of the day, particularly in the morning and evening.
Priests, as essential workers, have been providing an essential service since time immemorial, a service of love, in imitation of Christ, the faithful and merciful High Priest (cf Hebrews 4:14-16).
We all look forward to the day when we will be reunited in our churches.
In the meantime, as always, your priests are praying for you; would you please pray for us, too?