We sit in the back of the church, ruminating over our grocery list, our weekend plans, the discussion we just had with a coworker. The bells ring twice. The Mass begins. We clear our minds and hear the Word, drifting in and out of the sermon being preached. We chuckle at the joke and consider the exhortation. Then we circle back to hear God’s call upon our lives and contemplate a change. We gaze ahead again to see the elevated Host. Domine, non sum dignus. Our lives are offered up to Him before our eyes. Domine, non sum dignus. The priest bows low and genuflects in adoration. Domine, non sum dignus.
We slowly come forward and receive Our Lord. Heaven upon our tongue, grace within our souls. Like the pagan kings who have encountered Christ, we return “to our places, these Kingdoms / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods” (“Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot). We have been changed.
The Mass concludes. Salve Regina. We sit alone once more.
All this transpires, as we have watched the veil of Heaven lifted and replaced. Heaven touches earth. How? Through the black-clad life before us. The priest in his self-offering. He is, it seems, transparent. He has opened the portal to the eternal for us, stood upon the threshold, and closed it once again. He goes upon his way. Did we notice?
Adoration may begin when Mass concludes. “O Salutaris Hostia.” Our Lord is placed before our hearts, to worship Him. How? Through the black-clad life before us.
We shuffle to the Confessional line, which stretches out along the road to Jericho. The portal of Heaven now opens with mercy for our sins. We speak to Christ of all our failings, and He consoles our hearts. We speak our penitence and absolution washes over us. “Go and sin no more.” How? Through the black-clad life that steps aside, allowing Christ to bind our wounds and make us whole again.
And who are these black-clad men? These warriors of grace, who flit in and out of our sacramental lives so seemingly unseen? Seamlessly, yes. But effortlessly? No. To be grace for us, their lives must be a constant sacrificial offering. Hidden, and often unacknowledged.
Despite all the failures we read of these days among priests and bishops, there they are, the faithful ones, where we least expect. They choose to wear their clerics on the plane, knowing that they may encounter both welcome and disdain. They walk down the street, Rosary in hand, knowing they present both a target for attack and a conduit of grace. They step into our hospital room unannounced to minister to our broken lives. Offering the sacraments, offering hope, reminding us that He is there.
A young Mexican priest who had become a chaplain in Rome to an order of Italian nuns recently told me that at home, in the neighborhoods of drug cartels, he walks in his clerics openly, fearing no reprisal, his black cloth acting as both shield and fortress. In Rome, he rarely goes out black-clad, for fear of spittle and rebuke. His call? A call of hope from John Paull II, in a half-remembered age. Another time. Another Church. And as he lit up with love in the remembrance, he turned a wistful gaze away. A tear welled in his eye. I thanked him for his answer to the Lord. I told him that he mattered.
So, to you, black-clad men of our Church, we proclaim that you matter. Not with a mere slogan, but with genuine gratitude from those you have been called to serve.
Without you, consecrated priests, nothing. No Mass. No Eucharist. No absolution. No anointing. If you disappeared, we would be left to our lack, our poverty, our desert. You bring streams into the dry land and light where shadows reign. And to do so, you must fight many days against voices of doubt and mockery. Does it matter? This sacrifice I made? Does anyone see my exhaustion, my insecurity, my hopes, my fears, my overwhelming desire to serve Our Lord, to be His hands and feet, His heart?
Yes, dear priest! We see you. In our hearts, we hold you. Your existence comforts us, as we walk the path of life. You will be there when sickness strikes, when joyful milestones come, when death looms large. You will be there in the daily evening Mass when monotony is broken by eternity. You will be there in our school, making an impression only you can make upon young hearts. You will be there because Christ is there. And where you walk, He walks. You bring Him to earth for us and allow us to encounter Him. He needs you. In your transparency before us, you are Christ. In your silent service, you are Christ. In your voice of prayer, He prays.
And so, we thank you. For all the unspoken sacrifices, we thank you. For all the outpouring of love, we thank you. For all the polishing of brass and silver, arranging of the Nativity, lighting of the candles, sweeping of the corners, raising of the Host, we thank you.
You console your busy bishops. You offer prayer that rises like incense to God. You inspire the next generation of irreplaceable vocations. You are a brotherhood of heroes. Your black-clad lives matter.
You are “chosen from among mortals” and “put in charge of things pertaining to God” on our behalf. (Hebrews 5:1) And what you do, we cannot do. What you are, we are not. Through you, He makes “a way in the wilderness” of our lives and outpours “streams in the wasteland” of our wandering age. (Isaiah 43:19)
You “must be called by God for this work.” (Hebrews 5:4) Thank you for answering His call.
*Image: Communion in Extremis by Henri Eugene Augustin Le Sidaner, 1889 [Musee de la Chartreuse, Douai, France]
You may also enjoy:
Dr. Mitchell’s The Road of Merciful Love
Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas’ What’s Really Needed for a “Eucharistic Revival”?