The readings for this Sunday feature two things that help to define every priest: his clothing and his keys.
Our first reading mentions clothing as a sign of authority. Due in part to his self-seeking political ambition and his ostentatious display, Shebna is thrust from the office of the king’s prime minster. (Let us priests beware!) Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord tells Shebna that he will clothe his successor Eliakim with Shebna’s own robe. He would gird Eliakim with Shebna’s sash. A robe was a symbol of honor and authority (see Lk 15:22). The girdle was a badge of power (see Job 12:18). The Lord would make sure that everyone knew that Eliakim was the new man in charge.
It is amazing how much the individual identity of a priest is hidden in his clothing. How beautiful it is to see a priest vested for the first time at his ordination! The visual sign does not end there. When a priest wakes up every morning and stares into the bathroom mirror, the naked reality is that he is human—limited, frail, and weak.
Pope Saint John Paul II tells the celibate in the Theology of the Body that celibacy for the kingdom “must demonstrate that man, in his deepest constitution, is… ‘alone’ before God, with God.” We priests are sinners like any other man. However, once he dresses himself in his Roman collar, people see him as an icon of Christ, as unworthy as he is. He kisses his stole as he vests for Mass or confession. The faithful see him as one who possesses divine authority and brings the presence of God to them. The intellectual, physical, and emotional defects of his humanity are swallowed up by a beautifully ornate chasuble that allows the believer to see him act in persona Christi.
How about the keys? The Lord would also place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder. The large wooden key, possibly borne on the shoulder in an investiture ceremony, was a symbol of authority over all in the royal palace. While the shoulder was where one placed marks of dignity in the ancient world, the shoulder was also where burdens were carried.
The modern day priest possesses a multitude of keys, especially if he is a pastor. That heavy collection of keys to the church, the school, the rectory, the safe deposit box, etc. are all a reminder of all that has been entrusted to him. None of those keys are as heavy as the keys of the kingdom of heaven whereby priests are given the authority of Jesus Christ to forgive sins in his name (Mt 16:19; Mt 18:18; CCC 1444).
The keys of temporal and spiritual authority can sometimes feel like a heavy burden for us priests. It helps to remember that this authority is an expression of our fatherly service. The Lord God says of Eliakim that “he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.”
It is true that Jesus asks every disciple the same question that he asked Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” However, our Lord asks priests this question in a special way. The faith with which we respond does not come solely from us. It is a gift from the Father: “Blessed are you… for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
Our people watch us as we freely exercise this gift of faith. They watch and listen to us as we tell them who Jesus is. “Who do you say that I am?” Priests answer this question not only with our preaching, but with everything that we say and do. Every man and every priest is called in some way to be both a gift and fruitful in our spiritual fatherhood.
Through our fruitful, celibate chastity, we tell the world that Jesus is a Lord worthy of our total consecration. Through our reverent celebration of the sacraments we tell the world that Jesus is really and truly present. As we sit in the confessional we tell the world that Jesus is the one who patiently waits for them.
What a gift the priesthood is! The humanity of the priest is a mixed-bag. Still the Lord accepts us, heals us, teaches us, humbles us, purifies us, elevates our natural gifts, dresses us in his identity, and entrusts us with his authority all so that we can be fathers.
“Who do you say that I am?” Today may we speak our answer with our fatherly service.
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Christopher DiTomo was ordained in 2011 for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. He is currently the Pastor of St. Gall Parish in the rural town of Elburn. He holds a S.T.B. from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL. Fr. DiTomo has taken courses and served as a chaplain for the Theology of the Body Institute.