The Priest – A Life of Witness
In the light of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East
“You will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Rev. Dr. Louis Hazboun /Latin Patriarchal Seminary
During this month’s spiritual retreat for priests – Fr. Louis Hazboun, Vocations Director for the Diocese of Jerusalem, delivered the following meditation which can be summarized with the following questions:
The first question: What does Witness mean?
This question can be divided into two types of witness – there is the witness of humanity according to the law; and there is the witness of the divine through theology. The human witness as we understand it in the law, stands on the testimony of the truth of an act, of course in a formal manner. It calls to itself truth in the midst of division or an incident between two parties. The Bible speaks of this type of witness when it says: You cannot judge a person without the testimony of at least two witnesses (Numbers 5:13, Mt 18:16). The Ten Commandments forbid false witness (Deut. 5:20) because it is abhorrent to God (Prov. 6:19).
As for the divine witness and its understanding in theology; it is the witness of God which is above the witness of the human, a fact which no one can refute. For God is the witness between husband and wife in marriage (Mal. 2:14) and He is the guarantor of the promise which humanity has made in His presence (Gen 31:53-54) and He is the highest authority to whom we can take our case to overturn the testimony of a false witness. (Job 16:7-8 and 19)
Herein, we find another kind of witness – a humanly divine witness. It is not the witness made by man, but rather a special exception for those whom God has called specifically. This is the witness of a prophet (Is 55:4) an apostle and a priest. (Acts 8:1). So this witness stands on the knowledge and responsibility to proclaim the truth, to refute lies and false witness.
The Second Question: On what basis does the Priest’s witness stand?
The witness which God requests from each priest is to be like unto the one who was the fulfillment of the faithful witness – his Son Jesus. (Acts 1:5, Rev. 8:29) This then is to be followed by the faithful proclamation of the Good News. In this case the priest has a private witness and a general witness.
1. The General Witness of the Priest. This witness can be manifested by two means, a witness by his own life and the witness by his evangelization.
a. A witness by his life: The priest is obligated to live his priestly life, which he obtained via the laying on of hands and the consecratory prayer, in plain view and in a manner which is worthy of the vocation he is living out. His witness is to live in the likeness of Christ by these several ways:
i. A conversion of life privately according to the spirit of the Bible and to be a testimony of the Risen Lord following the example of the Apostles. “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)
ii. Being a witness to the truth – like his Teacher who came into the world to be a witness to the truth. (John 18:37) It is not for the priest to “be ashamed of the witness of the Lord.” (2 Tim 8:1) He is to abstain from the worldly things “with a conscious and without fault before God and the people.” (Acts 16:24). The church teaches that: “it is the duty of the priest to be firm in faith in both what he says and does and to be like Paul before the judges. (CCC 2471).
iii. “To testify to what he has seen and heard.” (Jn 3:11) This is to be done through the participation of Jesus’ own priesthood, prayer and via the source and summit of our faith – the Eucharist. Finally this is accomplished by listening to and obeying the teaching of the Church. (1 Jn 1:1-2).
iv. As Jesus proclaimed and testified to being the light of the world (Jn. 8: 13-14) so is it the duty of the priest have to testify through his consecrated life so that he can be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, as our Lord has commanded. (L. G. 31).
v. To testify against the world of evil (Jn. 7:7). The world’s actions were evil since the fall of man and as a result of this fall the world lives in darkness, it prevents many from being open to God and thereby refusing faith. “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed” (Mt. 13: 15). Here the priest has to be conscious not to love the world and its contents but rather to love the souls which are in need of him: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (Jn. 2:16).
vi. The current time in which we live, according to the Lord, is the time of spirit and witness. It is a time when the priest has to be ready to accept even martyrdom, if it is necessary for the advancement of the kingdom of God. It is very possible and befitting that the priest terminates his testimony by shedding his blood in the footsteps to St. Stephen. Luke describes his testimony as an imitation of the death of Christ himself and the fulfillment of this testimony before Pilate. (Acts 22:20, 1 Tim 6:13) In this case the one who testifies becomes the martyr – the ultimate form of testimony as is recounted in scripture: “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” (Rev. 6:9)
b. Witness by Evangelization.
The priestly vocation does not stand only on the witness of life but also on the witness of evangelization. (Mt. 24:12) We see this relationship between the bible and testimony in the life of the Apostles. Jesus made of the Apostles HIS witnesses, so as to proclaim HIS word to the whole world. (Acts 1:8) This witness requires from the priest to be:
i. To be able to bring the Bible to his people and to deepen their faith through it. Much like St. Paul who made his witness before all people (Acts 22:15). Thereby proclaiming the good news of Salvation to all people (2 Tim. 4:17).
ii. To pronounce officially the Gospel, in the footsteps of the Apostles, in all its aspects: “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us, as a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22).
iii. To educate in faith his community so that they can be conscious in accepting this witness (2 Thess. 1:10).
iv. To be aware that the message of the Gospel should not be influenced or reversed by the situation of the world – but, rather, to change the world through the power which he derives from Jesus Christ.
v. To be conscious that this testimony which is refused by the un-believing world (Jn 3:11) has its legal (canonical) value in the testimony of John the Baptist (Jn. 1:6-8), the testimony of the works of Jesus which he has performed (Jn. 5:36), is made certain by the Heavenly Father himself (Jn. 5:31-32), and, at last, the proclaimed word which makes up the Gospel (Acts 10:43). This testimony has to be accepted by us – lest we make of God a liar (1 Jn. 5:9-11).
The Second aspect of the Priest’s witness – His Private Witness.
As we said in the beginning, for the priest there is a general witness and a private witness. The private witness depends on the milieu and situation where he lives. The Holy Land is the place where God wants us to be a priest and to be a witness to Jesus Christ with active charity. This testimony has several aspects:
i. The Christian Existence in the Holy Land. The testimony to Jesus Christ requires from us to deepen our faith in Jesus communally in order to be at the level of holiness which is befitting with this part of the world. This is an invitation to us to be in touch with our glorious and holy past and to tie this past into our modern civilization, in order to make a presence which is connected to its roots from vitality in her holy history. It also asks us to see ourselves in our own eyes, not with the eyes of foreigners, and to read our history and our cultural heritage in our language and our mentality and not in foreign language or mentality. Otherwise our Christian presence will be threatened as a community and as land.
Attachment to this Holy Land gained its authentic meaning through our faith in Jesus Christ, by living his teaching and testifying to him. This attachment is required in order for us to be his disciples, despite all of the feats and difficulties which we encounter. It is our duty to make these difficulties a sign of our faith – through which Jesus sanctified the world. For it is the cradle of Christianity and remains its beating heart. In fact, we are not passive invitees in this world which God loved and sent his Son to live here. Rather, we are called to proclaim our faith in the kingdom of God which comes to us through Christ who lived and was born here – so here we are his witnesses: “You will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
ii. Inter-Christian Relationships. The divisions and conflicts which exist between Christians limits the witness which we are able to give. So it is necessary to have a witness through our close bonds which exist – for we have a common life and must make an effort to overcome the obstacles and wounds of history. We must set our gaze to the future. Our brotherly unity is in the service of the faithful which is one, and is a reflection of the unity of the Trinity. (CCC 877) As one of the participants of the synod said: “We must not pull our churches and faithful to the religious ghetto, this is a great danger.”
iii. Dialogue between faiths. The dialogue between the people of faith (Jews, Christians and Muslims). This relationship which we live here forms a vivid model for the relationships between Christians and Muslims and Jews and Christians throughout the world. In such a way, when we have accomplished unity and peace here in the Holy Land we will have that same peace and unity will be spread throughout the world. “We have first to diagnose the religious and social situation in order to give the Christian a meaning of our presence in the midst of Islamic-Isreali society. And about their vital role and message in the world.”(Synod 4) Doing this we prepare them to be real witness to Jesus. Accordingly, we have to initiate dialogue with Muslims and Jews in the different domains: religiously, politically, socially, and in daily life, as one of the participants of the synod said. Lastly, we must perform via our life and words, a clear dialogue with Muslims and Jews in order to open pathways to co-existence, in accordance with their mentality and culture – thereby leading them to know the good news of the Gospel.
iv. Christian Love (Charity) in our schools and charitable institutions. Our Christian witness stands on our participation in the efforts of Education, Socio-Economic assistance and Health to every person without regard to religious or social difference and without discrimination. Cannon law asks from the institutions “to make a special effort to give, as it were, a collective testimony of charity and poverty. They are to do all in their power to donate something from their own resources to help the needs of the Church and the support of the poor.” (Can. 640). Cannon Law also instructs the bishop to care for those in charge of religious education, stating: “The local Ordinary is to be careful that those who are appointed as teachers of religion in schools, even non-Catholic ones, are outstanding in true doctrine, in the witness of their Christian life, and in their teaching ability.”(Can. 804 Sec. 2) So we appeal to those who are responsible in the church to make a renewed effort to find people: Priests, religious, lay people – men and woman necessary for religious education, the formation of clergy and administration of schools.
v. Work for justice and peace. The situation in the Holy Land is very difficult. Conflict and Instability have made the road to political and social maturity a muddy one in most of our lands. Working for justice and peace is a Christian witness to prepare a better future for our people and country, requiring those who are responsible in the church (Priests and Bishops) to motivate the Israeli party to return to a dialogue about the path to peace, not only about fear and the past of the Holocaust, as one of the participants of the Synod has commented.
vi. The different religious Institutions. The most important apostolic work for the religious priest is his testimony by his consecrated life which is fed by prayer and penitence (Can. 763) and “the importance of being dressed in his religious habit as a token of his consecration and testimony of his vow of poverty.” (Can. 669 Sec.1) We notice here that there is no indigenous religious institution which is consecrated to meditation and a contemplative life, so it is recommended that one such community is founded to pray and intercede for all our society.
vii. The Christian minority. The church does not ask from the disciple of Jesus to keep and live his faith, solely, but also to recognize Jesus in front of people and to follow him on the way of the cross, in the midst of the persecution which never parts from the church. (CCC 1816) “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32-33) How much more than, is the priest obligated to serve the faith and to testify to it for salvation?
Conclusion. The fathers of the synod appeal to us to continue testifying to the divine life, (1Jn 1:1-3) this divine life which appeared to the apostles before 2000 years in the person of our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ. The same divine life which the church has lived and testified to for 2000 years in history. This life will always remain, it is the life of our church in the Middle East and is the subject of our testimony. This life remains as our support, promises the Lord: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20) We will continue our path in hope, “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom 5:5) The synod fathers also invite us to study the message of the synod and its recommendations in order to make them applicable, in each of our parishes and the various situations in which we live. We hope that this work is accomplished ecumenically.
Let us now put this all before our Blessed Mother, the Mother of the Church, who received from the crucified Lord the new mission: to be mother to all who yearn in His faith, to all who follow in His steps, and to all who are making way towards a new horizon for humanity. In this faith, in Jesus and in the power of His word we pray that this promise, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5) will allow us to live a new Pentecost in the light of the teachings of the synod on the Middle East.