I would be willing to bet that every priest can remember the night before his priestly ordination. What thoughts occupy the mind of one about to be ordained?
For his part, Pope Benedict XVI once used a Roman Chrism Mass to recount the last hours of his own priestly preparation. He recalled: “On the eve of my priestly ordination, fifty-eight years ago, I opened the Sacred Scripture, because I wanted to receive once more a word from the Lord…. My gaze fell on [the] passage: ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’ Then I realized: the Lord is speaking about me…. This very same thing will be accomplished tomorrow in me. When all is said and done, we are not consecrated by rites, even though rites are necessary. The bath in which the Lord immerses us is himself – the Truth in person. Priestly ordination means being immersed in him, immersed in the Truth.”
To be immersed in Christ is indeed what the sacraments accomplish. Today, the man born blind is immersed in Christ (John 9:1-41). Our seminary patron, St. John the Evangelist, reports that the Pool of Siloam refers to the one who is sent. That is, the man is told to wash in Christ—the one sent by the Father. The lesson is simple: we are restored to health only by immersion in Jesus the one sent from the Father.
This Gospel passage carries special meaning for those preparing to be priests. The Lord’s healing manifests what Jesus accomplishes in—and through—every priest. Let us count the ways:
During these weeks of Lent the Church prays especially for catechumens, those preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. For that reason, the readings of Lent often recall the gift of Baptism and, more generally, the sacramental life of the Church. Last week, we heard of the woman at the well who seeks the living water that only Jesus brings (John 4:5-42). Next week, we will hear of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45), the miracle that anticipates what Baptism achieves—the defeat of death and promise of new life. This week, Christ’s healing miracle reveals what the sacramental life of the Church—initiated in Baptism—alone accomplishes.
The man born blind reminds us of what it means to stand in need of Christ. His predicament helps us to recall all manner of challenges in which humanity finds itself. Without the healing power of Christ, fallen man is tempted, tortured, and terrified. We all stand in need of Christ’s healing mercy.
The healing work of the priest begins by healing humanity’s wounds of ignorance. Priests’ authentic preaching introduces into the world the saving truths of the Gospel. The men of Saint John’s Seminary strive never to tire of teaching people about Jesus and his Church. We hope to teach people that they are more than they think they are, and Christ loves them beyond their imagining.
Beyond the exercise of their authentic teaching, priests heal above all through their sacramental ministration. Through the Sacrament of Penance, Christ heals the wounds of sin. “God never gets tired of forgiving,” after all, “we just get tired of asking” (Pope Francis, Sunday Angelus, 17 March 2013). When the world gets tired of asking for mercy, it falls to us to wake them up. No time spent in the confessional is wasted. The New Evangelization begins there. More important than any conversation at the White House in Washington or on 5th Avenue in New York, sacramental confessions are the most important conversations in the world.
Indeed, each of the sacraments bestows Christ’s healing mercy. Like the Pool of Siloam, each sacrament immerses us in Christ. Small wonder the Church invokes this passage to explain the power of Baptism. In fact, all seven sacraments heal wounds in our fallen world.
Baptism, Penance and Holy Anointing heal the wounds of original and actual sin and their harmful effects. Confirmation heals the fear people have of defending the faith publicly. The sacrament of Matrimony heals disorders of the concupiscible appetite so that people can live with tranquility the duties of married life. The headship bestowed in ordination to the priesthood heals division by drawing the baptized into one hierarchical communion. Most of all, the Eucharist heals and fulfills the desire for communion, fellowship, and belonging.
Like the man in today’s Gospel, every person who fruitfully receives a sacrament of the Church receives Christ’s healing mercy. To be immersed in the Pool of Siloam—in Christ, the one sent from the Father—reminds us too that those who have been healed are sent with a message. On this Laetare Sunday, we recall that the healing of Christ is a message of joy—including joy in the Cross.
As Benedict XVI pondered the night before his ordination: priestly consecration immerses one in Jesus. To be ordained, indeed, to receive any sacrament, is to be immersed in the healing mercy of Christ. To receive the sacraments is to wash in the Pool of Siloam, into Christ the one sent by the Father.