The Benedictus: Hope for Priests

Introduction: Intimidating Indicators

When asked to preach to priests, I recall the advice of a bishop: “Preach hope. The guys need to hear a hopeful message.” Presbyterates needing hope is a theme I’ve heard for many years, perhaps because there seem to be many and growing reasons for despondency. Nationally, between 1970 and 2020 the number of diocesan priests has decreased by about 30%. Meantime their average age has increased from 35 to 63 years of age. And largely due to these trends, the number of Catholics the average priest serves has almost doubled during the same period. Thus, priests on average in the United States are fewer, older, and working harder than they were fifty years ago. Finally, the morale of many priests has suffered due to both the original reasons for, and some of the unintended consequences of, the Dallas accords.

Now all these indicators focus on priests in the USA. Things are different in other countries such as Nigeria, India, Colombia, Mexico, countries who bless our own by sending wonderful priests. However, even this blessed diversity requires hard work to ensure presbyteral unity. I mention this fact not because it is a cause of concern, as is the number, age, and workload of the average diocesan priests, but rather because brothers from other countries are a blessing that requires some effort on everyone’s part to fully appreciate.

Zechariah and the Priesthood

A blessing that requires effort to appreciate also describes Zechariah, the author of a text (the Benedictus) priests pray daily. Like many readers, Zechariah is a priest of mature years. Like many priests, he and his brother priests are dispirited by the circumstances in which they find themselves, in his case the occupation of his country by a pagan nation. However, that is precisely why Zechariah offers priests hope in this canticle he proclaims. It may be why the Church requires us to pray it so much that we’ve memorized it. However, as with many memorized prayers, it’s easy to just say it rather than pray it. This article is a guided meditation especially for priests on the Benedictus.

What is the very first word of this morning praise? “Blessed.” What an odd way to begin a prayer! Priests bless objects and people, but who is so prideful as to bless God “from Whom all blessings flow”? We thank God for blessings, we ask God for blessings, but who are we to bless God?

Well, any Latin scholar knows that the etymology “blessed” or Benedictus is “to speak well.” Therefore, when Zechariah begins by blessing God, he is really speaking well of or praising God. What we’re hearing then is a priest praying liturgically by following an ancient formula of the Old Testament called the barakah, which always begins by praising God.

Thus, Zechariah was a priest praying liturgically and following a Biblical script as all priests do in the Liturgy of the Hours. Recall, however, that just months earlier he was struck mute by unbelief. But he had rather good reasons not to believe this good news! Politics dividing our country is a challenge, yet imagine Romans occupying his country. Scandals in the church are bad now, yet remember the scandalous division among Pharisees who hated Sadducees, Sadducees who hated Pharisees, both hating the zealots, all suspicious of the Essenes, and agreeing only on their shared scorn for Samaritans.

Why now in the Benedictus do we hear exactly the same priest in precisely the same situation moved from doubting despair to blissful blessing? Nothing has changed about the circumstances of his life. The same Romans still occupy his country and he’s still so old that if he isn’t over the hill yet, it’s because he’s too exhausted to get there. Nothing has changed about his circumstances; however, he has changed. Now rather than doubting or despairing, he is recalling all God’s promises fulfilled throughout the Old Testament: He is praising God Who through the desert never left us; through the deep, close kept us; through the exile, blessed us; the God Who uses even the silent prayer of a speechlessness priest to help the rest of us.

His name, Zechariah, means “God remembered.” He is a priest tasked like us to “do this in memory of me.” He does not yet know Jesus, but He knows and remembers the God Who sends Jesus. As St. Augustine asserts, mere human optimism is not hope. Rather hope is a gift and a virtue we cultivate by recalling God’s past actions. Thus, Zechariah remembers and praises God for all the good He has done for us throughout the Old Testament. Recall the fall. How did God react when we sinned in Adam? He came looking for us. We shrank in shame, but He searched for us. And the first words He speaks to are not the curse of condemnation, but the concern of care: “Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Why did you do such a thing?” Further, although He is merciless to the serpent, He is most merciful to our first parents. He makes clothes for them and provides a means of their survival though now through labor. And when in justice He banishes them from paradise, in which direction did He send them? East! East so that when the sun of salvation finally shines brighter than the cherubim’s fiery sword, we would not miss a single nanosecond of our salvation in Christ Who returns us to the Tree of Life by watering it with His life Blood.

The entire Old Testament, the book we share with Zechariah, is the never-ending story of God turning all things to the good of those who love him. He is merciful to Sodom at the behest of Abraham. He is merciful to Jacob who steals his brother’s birthright. He is merciful to Joseph’s murderous brothers by feeding them in Egypt. He is merciful to the recalcitrant Israelites when they cry out against Him in the desert. He is merciful when they fear the giants reported in the Holy Land. He is merciful when they want a king and when they want a temple although He decries both as acts driven by people who really just want to be like all the other nations. He is merciful when the decadent Davidic dynasty results in the Babylonian captivity and He is merciful in orchestrating their triumphant return. He is merciful to the people through the prophets and the Maccabeans. Jonah runs from Him, Job complains to Him, and through it all, although we are unworthy, His love is unwearied.

Hence, Zechariah is not blessing just any God; He is praising “the Lord, the God of Israel.” And our God grants divine hope when there is no human optimism. The Lord, the God of Israel has made a choice. We are His chosen people. And like Zechariah, it is our role as priests to liturgically remember the great deeds of our God of hope whenever we are gripped by demons of despair. Perhaps that is why we always begin the liturgy of the hours with the Invitatory. Like the priest Zechariah, when God opens our lips, our mouths too sing His praise.

Zechariah has little reason for optimism, but every reason to choose hope. From the moment he is cursed by the angel to the moment he himself blesses the God of Israel, none of his circumstances have changed. But he has. We call this change conversion, an inner disposition to hope that even the intimidating indicators of our lives most gut wrenching are but the morning sickness of the soul signifying a new birth in the Spirit.

We are God’s chosen people because God made a choice. And we have a choice to make also. Shall we choose hope? Hope is not an emotion; hope is a choice. Hope discerns an appropriate end, chooses among various means toward that end, and claims the self-confidence that with God’s help and our own perseverance, we can achieve that hopeful end. The reason the Holy Father has a death wish for clericalism is that entitlement is not hopeful. Entitlement does not strive for the good, which Aquinas says is the object of hope. Entitlement just sprawls securely awaiting privilege. Entitlement is slothful, not hopeful.  However, as Zechariah discovers, the hopeful choice to strive for the good with trust in God necessarily moves us to depend upon the love of God. The love of God impels us when everything else fails us.

So we priests, along with Zechariah, bless God every morning because “He has come to His people and sets us free.” The Lord our God comes to us. God takes the initiative even after thousands of years of our infidelity. And why does our faithful God come to us His faithless people? To set us free. Yet free from what? Remember Zechariah has not been freed from any of the circumstances that make him so much like us. He is still old as a fossil. He still groans under Roman occupation. Like us he still continually strives with scandal, in his case due to a Sanhedrin colluding with the Romans. Like us he still grieves the disunity and disagreement among his co-religious. Nothing about his circumstances has changed, but he has. In order to appreciate this conversion, permit a poetic comparison between him and the Blessed Virgin.

The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Priesthood

First, an angel appears to old Zechariah while he is ministering as a priest. We know he’s afraid because the angel declares, “Do not be afraid.” The angel makes a promise, and Zechariah replies, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” In other words, given human biology he is baffled.

Next the angel appears to youthful Mary. We know she’s afraid too because the angel again responds, “Do not be afraid.” The angel makes a promise, and Mary also replies, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” In other words, given human biology she is baffled as well.

According to the NAB, these two annunciations seem perfectly paralleled. Despite differences of age and gender, these are still two humans, both mutually startled by the same angel, and together asking equally reasonable questions based on their respective, God-given reproductive systems. However, the old man is cursed while the youthful woman is blessed. And remember Luke says Zechariah was “observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” Thus, we have a priest who is following all the rubrics. And yet at the very moment he is righteously celebrating the liturgy, the angel pushes the mute button. All he did was feel fear as all humans when touched by an angel because it’s as scary as being touched by an anvil. And then he asks apparently the same question as Mary. So why is he struck speechless?

Well, the angel explains to Zechariah: “. . . because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” Does this mean that a priest can be liturgically correct and yet still lack faith? And that a lay person, including a most probably illiterate girl who wouldn’t know a zucchetto from a zucchini, may have more faith than her religious leaders? Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve known hundreds of lay folk, including many women, who have more faith than I. I’m not implying that liturgical correctness is unimportant. I’m all in favor of following the rubrics, but find it helpful to remind myself that while rubrics are necessary, by themselves they are insufficient for faith. The liturgically righteous Zechariah only rediscovered his faith after experiencing Mary, the woman of faith. Mary was the indispensable instrument for Zechariah to free himself from unbelief. Like Zechariah, all priests are freer to believe what we celebrate liturgically when we are devoted to the Queen of the clergy. Again, consider the parallels Luke presents between Mary Queen of the clergy and her priest. As Mary’s womb was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, so too Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And as she swelled with the Word, he also expanded as a prophet. Before Pentecost, before the baptism in the Jordan, before any other male and certainly before any other priest, Zechariah is anointed again, this time not with oil, but with the Holy Spirit through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin.

This new devotion to Mary has not changed the intimidating indicators of his outward circumstances. There is still more sand at the bottom of his hourglass than at the top. However, conversion made him free to choose belief despite his unchosen circumstances. We’re often tempted by “the golden days of yore,” but every day is golden because God alone has the Midas touch to turn everything into gold or as Scriptures says, make all things work for the good of those who love the Lord.

As a brotherhood we priests might be as old as a fossil, but we can also be helpful as a relic. Like Zechariah, we continually strive with scandal, but we can also provide example. We grieve the disunity and disagreement among our co-religious, but we can also be instruments of peace. And although we are mostly at an age when just getting ourselves together each morning feels like a part-time job, yet we too may praise and bless God every morning for all the good He has done for us, especially that He has come to us, and for the freedom He has won for us. Anointed with holy oils and the Holy Spirit, we strive mightily to minister righteously and to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries properly. And if like Zechariah we sometimes doubt or feel barren, we too may turn to the Queen of the clergy to free us from fear and fill us with faith.

St. Luke and the Priesthood

Not all of us are as old as this journal (c. 1900), but readers may think that before completing this meditation, you will be! Thus, for brevity, I refer you to the antiphons of the Benedictus. Unlike the psalm prayer or the title given to any psalm, the antiphon may never be omitted, in fact, it is repeated. The role of the antiphon is not only to provide variety, but also to provide a concise insight into the emphasis of the psalm.

The antiphons of the Benedictus, like Zechariah himself, always refer to Christ. During ordinary time they tend to do this directly by quoting a phrase from the Gospel, but during the other seasons they more likely give a typological meaning to the psalm by showing its fulfillment in Christ. And we see both of these dynamics in verse two. God raises up a mighty savior from the house of David. The typological meaning clearly shows Jesus as God’s fulfillment of His promise to David by becoming our savior. However, note Zechariah says God raises up this savior. It is the resurrection of Christ which fulfills this promise. God in Christ is not restoring the sovereignty of the holy land; God in Christ is fulfilling the Holy Scriptures.

One might say that the first antiphon of the Benedictus was: “John is his name.” Like an antiphon, it is repeated twice (first by Elizabeth and then by Zechariah); it is typological in that it alludes to Genesis when God grants humanity the power to name; and it concisely introduces the emphasis of the Canticle. However, the word appearing most frequently in the Benedictus, and therefore is emphasized like an antiphon, is “free.” Freedom is mentioned three times, but never in reference to John; rather, freedom is a gift only Jesus gives. John’s role is to prepare people for this gift of freedom by preaching knowledge, forgiveness, compassion, and peace.

This part of the canticle concludes with the promise of the prophets to save us from enemies and from hatred, as well as to show the fidelity of God with His people. However, only the two words “enemy” and “holy” are mentioned twice in these brief verses. Some scholars believe that while in the Old Testament an enemy is anyone who hates us, in the New Testament an enemy is just an adversary or opponent. At least, this seems the approach in Luke’s Gospel, significant when we recall that only Luke gives us the Benedictus. The best example of Luke’s emphasis that opponents need not be enemies is illustrated through his unique portrayal of the Pharisees, often dismissed as only nemeses of Christ.

On the one hand, Luke depicts the Pharisees debating Christ, and Christ often criticizing them. However, on the other hand, Pharisees are never mentioned in Luke’s account of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. Pharisees do not testify against Him nor gloat over Him.

Now Luke is a master story-teller, so why does he create a plot with Jesus as the protagonist and the Pharisees as the antagonist only to omit those very antagonists at the most crucial moment of conflict? Why does he introduce new enemies of Christ with the high priest, King Herod, and Pilate? It’s like building up to the final conflict between Frodo and Gollum, only to introject Sponge Bob Squarepants.

For Luke, two opponents, like Jesus and the Pharisees, are not necessarily enemies when they duel in debate. Rather if both use the sword of truth, then each sword are mutually sharpened by a respectful debate that forces both opponents to think more deeply and articulate more clearly. After all, we wouldn’t have many of Jesus’ best parables had He not been forced to debate the Pharisees.

In Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisees were Jesus’ intellectual opponents, but not his enemies. Consider how they often show him respect by inviting him into their home or by calling him “Rabbi.” Further they are respectful enough not to mention a critique even when they can’t help thinking it, which is why Luke often says Jesus knew what was in their hearts. Maybe the Pharisees were sharply debating Jesus in a sincere quest for the truth. In such a sharp but respectful debate, one may convince the other as Jesus does Nicodemus. But even if they continue to disagree, the pursuit of truth is served when both intellects like dueling swords are mutually sharpened. At least in Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisees are Jesus’ intellectual opponents in a mutual quest for truth, but not his enemies. That would explain why they duel with Christ, but never attempt a fatal blow like Herod and Pilate.

Hence, if the first part of the canticle is all about the change of conversion rather than the change of circumstance, what is the change in us the Canticle requires? Perhaps for a Christian, the greatest conversion is to love our enemies in the sense that we refuse to treat our opponents as enemies at all.

Consequently, because God made an unwavering choice to come to us and set us free, we may make a choice as well. By God’s grace, our choice is conversion. Like Zechariah, our choice is seldom about changing the circumstances of our lives. Both before and after Zechariah was struck mute he was old, his country was occupied, his religious leaders were scandalous, and his countrymen were divided. Nothing changed except Zechariah himself. Now, after his conversion, he is free to believe that all things, including those things that feel like a Cross, work for the good of those who love the Lord.

However, let’s not forget the context of the Canticle. Zechariah is not looking only to the past of the Old Testament, but also to the present of his Savior in one womb sleeping and his son in another leaping. It is Christ who grants us freedom with His spend-thrift Spirit; it is Christ Who breaks down the enmity that stood between us; it is Christ Who enables us to love our opponents rather than hate our enemies. That is the freedom of conversion that makes us “holy and righteous all the days of our life” as we now “worship God without fear.” A person without enemies has no one to fear. The circumstances that provoke our fears have not changed; but we change when we choose the freedom of conversion in Christ Who makes all things, even our supposed enemies, a new creation.

So we’ve come to the end of the first half of the Canticle that is all about Zechariah’s conversion, and next we’ll address John who is the subject of the second half of the canticle.

John the Baptist and the Priesthood

John’s ministry foretold in the Benedictus is fulfilled in chapter 3. This chapter reads like two facing pages of an open atlas. The left page maps details of Judea, Galilee, Ituraea, Trachonitis, Lysanias, and Abilene as well as the river Jordan.  The first page of this open atlas describes that obscure portion of the Roman Empire, specifically the province of Galilee around the river Jordan. This well-known landscape with famous names such as Herod, Philip, and Pilate is as clear today as in the time of Caesar.

However, while the first page of that metaphorical, open atlas is well-defined, the second is wild and unrefined. That facing page begins with the famous Advent allusion to Isaiah that depicts an unrefined vista of unknown hills, unnamed mountains, rough, winding roads, and the deep valleys of some untamed area as wild today as in the time of the prophets. That is Holy Land too, but it is the scenery of the soul; an unrefined wilderness of prophecy and penance, baptism and belief, forgiveness and faith.

These two topographical descriptions are like two Testaments. On one page the clear limits of Law, on the other the limitless wildness of love. But like an Atlas, these facing pages need someone with spine to bind the two together. Obviously, someone of the Sanhedrin, the religious professionals of Israel, would be the logical choice. Yet while the unlettered and unrefined rushed into the wild and wet for John’s baptism and their repentance, not a single religious professional bowed to baptism or responded with repentance. No scribe stopped scribbling; no lawyer lifted nose from notes; nary a solitary Levite moved to the margins of the well-defined limits of Law into the limitless wildness of love. Why? Because only John would preach to people truth hard to hear with love that let them long to listen. People knew he loved them because he sacrificed for them. He willingly chose to dress like a camel rather than a cleric; eat like a peasant rather than a priest; and leave the sanctuary reserved for the ritually pure to seek out the unclean and unsure. John was the last of the Jewish patriarchs and the first of the Christian pioneers because he had the spine to bind together Law and love, justice and mercy. John preached to people truth hard to hear with love that let them long to listen.

And they flocked to him like sheep to a shepherd. He led them to verdant pastures because John’s love filled the bitter valleys of their lives; his sympathy straightened the winding roads of their hearts; and his prayer guided wounded souls to the Lord’s mountain where enemies are reconciled like lolling lion and lamb. All creation is made new in the proclamation of what is true with love that lets us long to listen.

To the very end John had the spine to bind together both law and love. Imagine the misery of his nomadic soul that once roamed wild as a bee when later he is sealed up in Herod’s hive. And yet, even there he spoke truth hard to hear with love that let that misled lord long to listen. Imagine Herod descending dark stairs into a deep dungeon with just one candle lest a servant see. With soft footfalls he holds his robes close away from molding walls. Although he would later descend into madness, he now descends into gladness. The Gospel says he liked to listen to John. Even Herod liked to listen to his bee speak truths which stung yet were sweet as honey.

How does the Benedictus describe this sweet sting which was the teaching of John the Baptist? First, it describes him as a child, reminding us of Jesus’ words that we must be like children to enter the Kingdom. And this child-like prophet prepares the way of his Lord by giving. There is no mention of tithes or sacrifices as there were in the Temple. John gives as freely as he receives. And what does he give? “Knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin.” This “little child” John the Baptist is to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching knowledge, forgiveness, compassion, and peace. Not a bad description for the ministry of a pastor.

The Benedictus teaches us all that those intimidating indicators are as fickle as the weather, and like our climate, little influenced by our choice. We may choose to complain based on the shifting weathervane of circumstance or we may choose conversion, that is, choose to freely to believe the promises of God, which give hope to believers even when our situation appears hopeless.

Jesus Christ and the Priesthood  

Consider what we have in common with Zechariah. We commenced in our mother’s womb without our choice. Due to original sin, we are all unwillingly born into suffering and then we die. The way each generation suffers is different, but the fact of suffering is always the same.

We do not choose suffering; suffering chooses us, and that seems senseless. However, what is even more senseless is that unlike us, God in Christ does not have to suffer. God is incapable of sin, immune to death, free of suffering. Unlike us, God is not limited by the flesh. Therefore, God never had to be born in the flesh or suffer in the flesh or die in the flesh. However, God in Christ chose to suffer: Why? Because God chooses to communicate to us by becoming one of us, and speaking through suffering. Augustine says that The Cross is Christ’s pulpit because only from there could He preach the syllables of suffering we need to understand salvation. Christ alone chooses the commencement of His own suffering, and when His suffering commenced, all our suffering finally makes sense.

That is how Jesus fulfills the Benedictus. He has come to His people. God in Christ takes the initiative. Even when we did not choose to love God, God always loved us. God so loved the world, that in Jesus He shows us the way out of suffering and death whose senseless commencement begins with our sin. Jesus chooses to Himself become the Way, the way of the Cross; Jesus Himself chooses to become the Truth, the truth that God so loved the world He sacrifices His only Son; and Jesus Himself chooses to become the Life because He frees us from slavery to death when we believe in His Love proven by His sharing with us every nail and thorn of our sin and death.

Our personal knowledge of forgiveness, compassion, and resulting peace wholly independent of our circumstances, and rather completely dependent on Christ, is what we preach. We may not preach well with our words, but we may all preach eloquently by our example.

What dark, bitter valleys in our lives can only be filled by our forgiveness? Whose winding roads might only be straightened by our sympathy? With which other wounded soul need we be reconciled to climb the Lord’s lofty mountain where lion and lamb are friends?

That is how Jesus fulfills the Benedictus. He fulfills it by making all things including those unchosen circumstance we wish could change, work for the good of those who love Him. Those unchosen circumstances of our life are nothing but suffering and death that is completely arbitrary if we do not choose He Who died and was buried.


Zechariah inspires me to repent of everything that seals my lips from making the immediate, free choice of Mary. The angel Gabriel did not speak to me, but the Church spoke when it said: “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” Note how this is the same mandate Zechariah gives to his son John. Thus, we try to stay healthy and recruit new priests and find new ways to facilitate the Spirit to work through the pastoral challenges we face. Nonetheless, much of the circumstances we face we did not choose and cannot change. That is not coincidence; that is our Cross. Or perhaps better stated, when we carry the Cross, difficult coincidence opens us to providence.

Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv. About Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv.

Conventual Franciscan Father Kenneth G. Davis is the visiting professor of spirituality at Saint Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, who publishes frequently about various aspects of priestly spirituality and ministry.


  1. The conversion of an opponent into a collaborator in seeking a more peaceful future is a core theme of my latest work on the Divine Collaboration protocol, a robust conflict resolution approach. This work was inspired by my earlier integration of Franciscan peacemaking with contemporary conflict resolution as practiced in the courts. The inspiring tale of Francis taming the fierce wolf of Gubbio presents the arc of mediation so beautifully. See Taming the Wolf: Peace through Faith.

    The manner in which Christ converts enemies is captured nicely in your piece. He does not overwhelm and crush an enemy with crude force, rather he changes the very being so that an enemy is no longer, by nature, an enemy. This is conversion at at mega level, a change of the very nature of the person. Good to see this concept brought into the prayers of the priesthood.

  2. Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    I appreciated your walk through the Benedictus. As I read, I wondered is there not a need for all of us, baptized into the priesthood of Christ, to take the walk with you through the Benedictus? Every Sunday, we see the worn out sometimes depressed priests performing the liturgical ritual. Many of us are willing to lessen their burden, but have been turned away when we offered to share in the work of the priesthood of Christ. In my opinion, we will not go back to when there was a priesthood average age of 35. The new way not yet discovered, but in the story of Zachariah we can find a model that leads to Christ in whom is our hope and salvation.