A Less Well-Known but Essential Role of the Priest

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Painting: Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin (c. 1851)

By Msgr. Charles Pope • March 1, 2018

There are many roles that come to mind when one thinks of a parish priest or pastor: he is to celebrate the Liturgy, to preach, to teach, and to care for the people’s pastoral needs. In the reading for Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent, Jeremiah refers to a role many of us would not think of. As he reflects on his prophetic role, Jeremiah says to the Lord,

Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them (Jer 18:20).

Very few people would say, “My pastor turns away God’s wrath from me.” Part of the reason for this is that we have “domesticated” God, even trivialized Him. Many think of God more as a grandfather than a father. The idea that we need to be prepared to see Him has often been replaced by the notion that He will simply welcome us into Heaven.

We must also be careful to understand what is meant by the “wrath” of God. It does not mean that He is angry or in a bad temper; God is not moody. Scripture says,

  • In God there is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17).

  • For I, the LORD, do not change (Malachi 3:6).

  • And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: (Ex 3:14).

God is not wrathful one moment and serene the next.

The wrath of God is not in Him; it is in us. It is our possible experience of God if we are not ready to encounter Him. For example, if we are used to moral darkness, the glorious brightness of God’s holiness will seem harsh and unbearable to us. We might call this the “horror of God,” but the horror is in us not in Him. Similarly, if we are used to the coldness of this world of sin, the fiery warmth of God’s love will seem to us as a blazing, wrathful inferno. The problem is in us, not in God. (I have written more on this topic here: What is the Wrath of God?.)

Jeremiah sees a role for the preacher as turning away the wrath of God from His people. The bishop, priest, or deacon does this by accustoming God’s people to the light of truth and the temperature of glory. As we are repeatedly taught God’s ways and learn them, the proclaimed word of God does more than inform us; it transforms us (if we let it). This prepares us to see God—and we must be prepared to see Him.

St Gregory the Great says this of the priest:

The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts … Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows (Pope Gregory Pastoral Guide, Book 2:4).

We almost never speak of Jesus this way, as “terrible judge.” Of course, “terrible” is used here more in the sense of awe or reverential fear. The word “terrible” literally means “able to cause terror.” If there is a terror, though, it is in us, not in God, who is love. Thus St. Gregory is actually saying the same thing that Jeremiah did: the role of the priest is to prepare God’s people so that terror is not their experience on their day of judgment. The judgment seat of Christ is nothing to be cavalier about. It will be a place of great honesty—and most of us are made uncomfortable by that! Therefore, we must be prepared by Word and Sacrament for our day of judgment.