The word and the sign are indivisible
in the ministry of priests
On Wednesday, 24 June , at the General Audience
in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father reflected on the Apostle Paul and
St John Mary Vianney, the humble Cure d'Ars, at the end of the Pauline
Year and the beginning of the Year for Priests, which he inaugurated on
the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Friday, 19 June. The following is a
translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Friday, 19 June, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart
of Jesus and a Day traditionally dedicated to prayer for the
sanctification of priests, I had the joy of inaugurating the Year for
Priests which I established on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of
the "birth in Heaven" of the Cure d'Ars, St John Baptist Mary Vianney.
And on entering the Vatican Basilica for the celebration of Vespers,
first by way of a symbolic gesture I paused in the Chapel of the Choir
to venerate the relic of this holy pastor of souls: his heart.
Why a Year for Priests? Why precisely in memory of the
Holy Cure d'Ars who did not, apparently, achieve anything extraordinary?
Divine Providence has ensured that his figure be
juxtaposed with that of St Paul. Indeed, while the Pauline Year,
dedicated to the Apostle to the Gentiles
an extraordinary evangelizer who made several missionary voyages in
order to spread the Gospel
is drawing to a close, this new Jubilee Year invites us to look at a
poor peasant who became a humble parish priest and carried out his
pastoral service in a small village.
If the two saints differ widely because of the paths
through life that characterized them
one went from one region to the next to proclaim the Gospel, the other
welcomed thousands and thousands of the faithful while remaining in his
own tiny parish
some basic factor binds them together nevertheless; and it is their
total identification with their own ministry, their communion with
Christ, which made St Paul say "I have been crucified with Christ; it is
no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). And St
John Mary Vianney used to like to repeat: "if we had faith, we would see
God hidden in the priest like a light behind glass or like wine mixed
The purpose of this Year for Priests, as I wrote in my
Letter addressed to priests for this occasion, is therefore to encourage
every priest in this striving for spiritual perfection on which, above
all, the effectiveness of their ministry depends, and first and foremost
to help priests
and with them the entire People of God
to rediscover and to reinforce their knowledge of the extraordinary,
indispensable gift of Grace which the ordained minister represents for
those who have received it, for the whole Church and for the world which
would be lost without the Real Presence of Christ.
There is no doubt that the historical and social
conditions in which the Cure d'Ars lived have changed and it is right to
wonder how priests in today's globalized societies can imitate him by
identifying with him in their own ministries.
In a world in which the common vision of life includes
less and less of the sacred, instead of which "functionality" becomes
the only crucial element, the Catholic concept of the priesthood might
risk losing its natural esteem, at times even within the ecclesial
Two different conceptions of the priesthood are
frequently compared and at times even set against one another, in
theological milieus as well as in actual pastoral practice and the
formation of the clergy.
In this regard I pointed out several years ago that
there is: "on the one hand a social and functional concept that defines
the essence of the priesthood with the concept of 'service': service to
the community in the fulfilment of a function.... Moreover, there is the
sacramental-ontological concept, which of course does not deny the
priesthood's character of service but sees it anchored to the minister's
existence and claims that this existence is determined by a gift granted
by the Lord through the mediation of the Church, whose name is
sacrament" (J. Ratzinger, Ministero e vita del Sacerdote, in
Elementi di Teologia fondamentale. Saggio su fede e ministero,
Brescia 2005, p. 165).
The terminological shifting of the word "priesthood" to
"service, ministry, assignment", is also a sign of this different
The primacy of the Eucharist, moreover, is linked to the
former, the ontological-sacramental conception, in the dual term:
"priesthood-sacrifice", whereas the primacy of the word and of the
service of proclamation is held to correspond with the latter.
Clearly these two concepts are not contradictory and the
tension which nevertheless exists between them may be resolved from
Thus the Decree of the Second Vatican Council on the
Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, says: "For,
through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God is
called together and assembled so that when all who belong to this People
have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, they can offer themselves as 'a
sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God' (Rm 12:1). Through the
ministry of priests the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made
perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the sole Mediator.
Through the hands of priests and in the name of the whole Church, the
Lord's sacrifice is offered in the Eucharist in an unbloody and
sacramental manner until he himself returns" (n. 2).
Then let us ask ourselves: "What precisely does 'to
evangelize' mean for priests? What does the 'primacy' of proclamation
Jesus speaks of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God
as the true purpose of his coming into the world and his proclamation is
not only a "discourse". At the same time it includes his action: the
signs and miracles that he works show that the Kingdom comes into the
world as a present reality which ultimately coincides with Jesus
In this sense it is only right to recall that even in
the primacy of proclamation, the word and the sign are indivisible.
Christian preaching does not proclaim "words", but the Word, and the
proclamation coincides with the very Person of Christ, ontologically
open to the relationship with the Father and obedient to his will.
Thus, an authentic service to the Word requires of the
priest that he strive for deeper self-denial, to the point that he can
say, with the Apostle, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives
The priest cannot consider himself "master" of the Word,
but its servant. He is not the Word but, as John the Baptist, whose
birth we are celebrating precisely today, proclaimed, he is the "voice"
of the Word: "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way
of, the Lord, make his paths straight (Mk 1:3).
For the priest, then, being the "voice" of the Word is
not merely a functional aspect. On the contrary, it implies a
substantial "losing of himself" in Christ, participating with his whole
being in the mystery of Christ's death and Resurrection: his
understanding, his freedom, his will and the offering of his body as a
living sacrifice (cf. Rm 12:1-2).
Only participation in Christ's sacrifice, in his
kenosis, makes preaching authentic! And this is the way he must take
with Christ to reach the point of being able to say to the Father,
together with Christ: let "not what I will, but what you will" be done
Proclamation, therefore, always involves self-sacrifice,
a prerequisite for its authenticity and efficacy.
As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly
united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the
form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2:5-11 ). The priest is a
servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ
ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: he is in
Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of
Because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at
the service of all people: he is the minister of their salvation, their
happiness and their authentic liberation, developing, in this gradual
assumption of Christ's will, in prayer, in "being heart to heart" with
him. Therefore this is the indispensable condition for every
proclamation, which entails participation in the sacramental offering of
the Eucharist and docile obedience to the Church.
The saintly Cure d'Ars would often say with tears in his
eyes: "How dreadful it is to be a priest!". And he would add: "How a
priest who celebrates Mass like an ordinary event is to be pitied! How
unfortunate is a priest with no inner life!".
May the Year for Priests lead all priests to identify
totally with the Crucified and Risen Jesus so that, in imitation of St
John the Baptist, they may be prepared to "shrink" that Christ may grow
and that, in following the example of the Cure d'Ars, they feel
constantly and profoundly the responsibility of their mission, which is
the sign and presence of God's infinite mercy.
Let us entrust to Our Lady, Mother of the Church, the
Year for Priests which has just begun and all the priests of the world.