You want to see a really good movie? Try the 1982 Jim Henson movie The Dark Crystal. A thousand years ago, on the planet Thra, the planet’s crystal was shattered, and a coven of ancient, grumpy, lizard-like beings have for for all that time hoarded the power of the crystal for themselves. I think of them today as this image very easily corresponds to how we can think of the hierarchy of the Church. And if this is how we think of them, we understandably want to sweep them away ASAP.
However God says to us today that the Church’s hierarchy is a gift to us and to all of humanity. As we heard in the second reading: Every high priest has been taken out of mankind and is appointed to act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. In other words, the hierarchy is there, first of all, because all being is hierarchical. Our bodies, for example, have a certain order. If my head was to be where my arm is, not only would my body be in disorder – but I would be dead. My body can only function in a sort of order. The same goes for everything else: our body, all creatures, every social organism and every society. If anything exists at all, it is first of all because it exists in a certain order – each with a different yet equally valuable role. So it’s utterly unsurprising to find that the Church too is hierarchical. She exists. Therefore she is hierarchical.
But Father, why should there be this kind of order? Because God himself put it there. No one takes this honour on himself, but each one is called by God, as Aaron was. This is what Jesus was doing at the Last Supper. Holy Thursday is the anniversary of institution of two sacraments:- Holy Communion; and Holy Orders – at the service of this very Communion.
This highlights the third reason the hierarchy is such a gift to us: it is an antidote to our tendencies towards selfish self-sufficiency. A Christian, by definition, is not self-sufficient: they receive the Gospel from others, they are redeemed (through the sacraments) by and through the others, and they will enter eternal life grace of the help and prayers of the others – the Body of Christ.
And there is the fourth and final reason: that the Eternal Father himself made the Co-Eternal Son part of this hierarchy. Nor did Christ give himself the glory of becoming high priest, but he had it from the one who said to him: You are my son, today I have become your father, and in another text: You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever. So God himself lays down his life to shepherd his people through the Orders of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
None of this means individual clergy are immune from fault or correction: like the twelve themselves, we are poor sinners, answerable to civil and church law, dependent on the help of our brothers and sisters, and above all utterly dependent on the help of God. But, if they are like any of the clergy I know, they are there for one reason alone: because Jesus called them. And asked them this service – to give up everything and lay down their lives daily for his sheep. We are not so perfect as we would like to be: so please pray for us daily; help us and fraternally correct us to lay down our lives properly; and encourage us where we do good. Let us pray today for all our clergy – that they fearlessly be shepherds after the Heart of Jesus. Amen.