In Matthew’s Gospel, the first Mass begins with a rather chilling revelation: “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Jesus is gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover. Before he took the bread and broke it, Jesus warned them that His betrayer was in their midst. Upon hearing this, the disciples were greatly distressed and began to cry out “Surely it is not I, Lord!” According to Luke’s Gospel, this disturbing announcement is following by a debate among the disciples as to “which of them should be regarded as the greatest.” They’ve just been told that one of them will betray their Lord and next thing you know – they’re arguing over who’s the most important! Jesus has to remind them to follow His example as “the one who serves.”
Jesus proceeds to give them another reality check: “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.'” When Peter tells Jesus that his faith will never be shaken, Jesus replies with that memorable warning: “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Not just once will Peter deny, but three times!
Yet despite this full knowledge of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, Jesus institutes two sacraments: the Eucharist and Holy Orders. He tells them to “do this in commemoration of me” and with these words his apostles now became his first priests partaking in the first Mass. This understanding of the institution of the priesthood was made very clear at the Council of Trent: “If anyone shall say that by the words ‘Do this in commemoration of me’ Christ did not institute the apostles priests, or did not ordain that they and other priests should offer his body and blood: let him be anathema.” The Council Fathers did not mince words on this crucial point!
Of course, these two sacraments are spiritually and practically intertwined so it is fitting that they would be instituted at the same time. Without priests to celebrate Mass and consecrate hosts, there would be no Holy Eucharist. Yet it is fascinating to realize that Jesus instituted these two sacraments at the same time that he predicted the betrayals and denials of the men who were now his priests as well as his disciples.
Not all of the disciples betrayed or denied so dramatically as Judas and Peter. Most of them neither denied nor acknowledged him – they weren’t there to do either. Andrew, James and Matthew, for example, were not questioned by the high priest’s maid as Peter was. Peter “followed at a distance” as Jesus was led to the high priest’s house, which is how he came to be questioned in the courtyard. The other apostles had simply scattered after Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t know where they went. The shepherd had been struck and the sheep of the flock had indeed dispersed.
We can learn much from pondering the sources of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. All four Gospels point to greed as the primary motive for Judas’ actions. He is a complex character with likely multiple motives, but greed for those infamous 30 pieces of silver is generally understood as the origin of his betrayal. It is also likely that Judas did not or could not accept that the “kingdom of God,” of which Jesus so frequently spoke, would not be an earthly, powerful kingdom. Judas sought a political – not a peaceful – messiah. (I could write a post on this topic alone, so I will have to stop myself here.)
As for Peter, his denials were caused by a lack of moral courage. The Catholic dictionary defines courage as: the virtue of bravery in facing difficulties, especially in overcoming the fear of consequences in doing good. As moral courage, it enables a person to pursue a course deemed right, through which one may incur contempt, disapproval, or opprobrium. Had Peter rejected the temptation to deny Jesus, he would have certainly faced criticism or censure from those assembled in the high priest’s courtyard. In John’s Gospel, the final person to question Peter was a relative of the high priest’s slave, whose ear Peter had cut off not that long ago. The man asked him: “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Now Peter is really under pressure – his questioner was in the garden and, worse, may have witnessed Peter’s violent action, which Jesus remedied with a healing. Mark’s Gospel describes Peter’s third denial in this manner: “He began to curse and to swear, ‘I do not know this man about whom you are talking.'” This was no subtle refutation – it was quite a dramatic denial. Interestingly, Peter does not use his master’s name in his response. The maidservant had used his name “You too were with the Nazarene, Jesus” when she questioned Peter. But Peter cannot bring himself to say that name and simply denies knowing “this man.” The memorable rooster would crow soon thereafter.
Reflections such as these automatically make me think of the current leadership of our Church – the bishops who are the direct descendants of the apostles. As we are sadly aware, the hierarchy of our Church is frequently motivated by greed or at least an undue focus on financial matters. They often are more focused on the externals – optics, PR, reputation, titles, etc. – as though their diocese were their kingdom and they must maintain their power and influence over it. Likewise, many of our bishops and cardinals greatly lack the moral courage that is so much needed in these difficult times. And in my experience at the Chancery, the name of Jesus is not heard nearly as much as you would expect. We were all working there because of “this man,” but how little did I hear His Holy Name.
Judas and Peter were two of Christ’s closest companions. They lived with him throughout his three years of public ministry. They witnessed his healings, his miracles, his preaching. They were there the day He multiplied the loaves and fish with enough left over to open a fish sandwich shop. They were there the day He raised Lazarus from the dead. They saw and heard and experienced it all. And still they betrayed and denied while the others scattered in fear. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “it is a mistake to think that the great privilege of living in company with Jesus is enough to make a person holy.” Judas and Peter prove that point very poignantly. They also teach us an important lesson for our modern times: “great privilege” in the Church does not automatically lead to personal holiness. In fact, it can often lead in the opposite direction.
But then there’s John, who I have intentionally neglected to mention until now. John is generally considered the youngest of the apostles and was described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John was the only apostle who did not abandon Jesus during His Passion. He stood faithfully at the foot of the cross while Jesus suffered and died. Jesus addressed him directly from the cross with those beautiful words, “Behold, your mother.” From that day forward, John cared for Mary as though he were her son. John offers us a vivid example of love for the Lord, faithfulness in the face of fear, and devotion to our Blessed Mother.
Just as young John must have been a source of great consolation for Jesus during his Passion and death, the young priests of our Church are a source of hope and consolation for us. They are so often filled with great love for the Lord and His Mother. From what I have witnessed or been told, they are remaining faithful to their vows to God and their commitment to His people. They are dedicated to being the “ones who serve” instead of striving for great privilege, lofty titles or plush appointments. This June, eight men will be ordained priests for the Diocese of Buffalo. That is the largest number of ordinands since the year I was born – 1983. What a great sign of hope for our Church!
This Holy Thursday, our Church remains embroiled in a massive scandal related to clerical sexual abuse. But Holy Thursday itself was not immune to scandal. One of Jesus’ longtime followers would betray him in a garden. The apostle who would eventually lead His Church would deny Him three times in a courtyard. The rest of His apostles – save one – would desert Jesus out of fear and weakness. Had there been a Church already present at the time, can you imagine what a scandal this would have been?! Judas was essentially the treasurer for the apostles – the keeper of their collective funds. “Follow the money,” I imagine people would have said. “I knew that Judas guy was shady.” You might have heard people exclaiming: “Peter’s going to be Pope after he denied Jesus three times? What kind of leadership is this?!”
On this Holy Thursday, let us pray for our priests, who give us the gift of Jesus through the Holy Eucharist. Let us pray for our young priests, our seminarians and those about to be ordained. Let us pray for our Church’s leaders – who were priests long before they were prelates. As difficult as it may be, let us pray for abusive priests, whose ordinations imprinted an indelible sacramental character on their souls. Their immortal, priestly souls are in danger. Let us pray for mercy while we work for justice.
Abusive priests have betrayed their God, their vows and their people.
Complicit bishops have denied the abuse, the cover-ups and the relocations.
But unlike most of Jesus’ disciples that Holy Thursday night, we will not scatter. We are His disciples too and we will remain faithful! In the midst of this painful scandal, we will not abandon Jesus despite the sins and failings of some of His ministers. We must stand strong in support of the good priests who far outnumber the bad ones. We must stand in solidarity with each other as we demand moral courage from our Church leadership. And we must be willing to stand at the foot of the cross with the victims of clerical sexual abuse. We must be committed to helping them obtain the help and healing they need to come back from the death of their innocence.
A Prayer for Priests by St. Charles Borromeo
O Holy Mother of God, pray for the priests your Son has chosen to serve the Church. Help them, by your intercession, to be holy, zealous and chaste. Make them models of virtue in the service of God’s people. Help them be pious in meditation, efficacious in preaching, and zealous in the daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Help them administer the Sacraments with love and joy. Amen.