The Nativity of John the Baptist caught one of our more perspicacious early Mass-goers by surprise this morning. She is training to become an extraordinary minister of communion and has, as a side effect, grown entranced by our liturgical calendar.
As I locked the aged maple doors of the church, she turned back and asked me why we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist when, to the best of her observation, other saints are celebrated on their death... or, as I prefer, exit to reality.
John’s importance as a sign of messianic fulfillment and his role as the Precursor, last prophet of the Old Covenant, has traditionally been recognized as equal or greater than his importance as saint and martyr. His birth and his death prefigure the Christ who enters the stage of humanity barely a step behind him.
John the Baptist is not your garden variety holy man.
Pope Benedict chose the birth date of another John, also unique in his sainthood, to initiate what he is calling ‘a year for priests’.
The letter he wrote, outlining his purpose for this timely and urgent celebration of the priesthood, is a fitting point of departure for what will be a year’s worth of meditation on our identity and mission as priests.
I read the letter slowly and could not help but recall, as one who flips through the pages of a scrap book, the different episodes of my own journey that have been as dramatic and, at times, as commonplace as anyone blessed with this unusual vocation.
The past eight months have been particularly trying – in ways unpredicted – because of the unraveling of the Legion of Christ and the increased demands of my ministry: the administration of four struggling city parishes, the latest of which, is barely awaking from a long and dark hibernation...
Never have I felt so surpassed by my circumstances, so utterly befuddled by the twists and turns of fate, so acutely aware that a priest is one who relinquishes the reins of his life to Another...
Both Johns have something to teach me this year.