Priests: a gift for the Church and for the world
On Wednesday, 5 May , at the General Audience in St Peter's
Square, the Holy Father mentioned briefly the highlight of his recent
Pastoral Visit to Turin on Sunday, 2 May, his opportunity to pray before
the Holy Shroud. With the end of the Year for Priests in sight, the Pope
then returned to the specific ministry of priests and their ministry of
sanctification, which brings priests "into life-giving contact with the
mystery of God's holiness". The following is a translation of the Holy
Father's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Sunday, on my Pastoral Visit to Turin, I had the joy of pausing
in prayer before the Holy Shroud, joining the more than two million
pilgrims who have been able to contemplate it during the solemn
Exposition of these days. That sacred Cloth can nourish and foster faith
and reinvigorate Christian devotion because it is an incentive to go to
the Face of Christ, to the Body of the Crucified and Risen Christ, to
contemplate the Paschal Mystery, the heart of the Christian Message.
We, dear Brothers and Sisters, are living members of the Body of the
Risen Christ, alive and active in history (cf. Rom 12:5), each one in
accordance with the role, that is, the task the Lord has wished to
entrust to each one of us.
Today, in this Catechesis, I would like to return to the
specific tasks of priests, which tradition claims are essentially three:
teaching, sanctifying and governing.
In one of our previous Catecheses I spoke on the first of these three
duties: teaching, the proclamation of the truth, the proclamation of God
revealed in Christ or,
in other words
the prophetic task of putting the person in touch with the truth, of
helping him to know the essential of his life, of reality itself.
Today I would like to reflect with you briefly on the priest's second
duty, that of sanctifying people, above all through the sacraments and
the worship of the Church.
Here we must ask ourselves first of all: what does the word "Holy"
mean? The answer is: "Holy" is God's specific quality of being, namely,
absolute truth, goodness, love, beauty
pure light. Thus sanctifying a person means putting him or her in touch
with God, with this being light, truth, pure love.
It is obvious that such contact transforms the person. The ancients
had this firm conviction: no one can see God without dying instantly.
The power of truth and light is too great! If the human being touches
this absolute current, he cannot survive.
On the other hand there is also the conviction: without a minimal
contact with God man cannot live. Truth, goodness and love are
fundamental conditions of his being. The question is: how can man find
that contact with God, which is fundamental, without dying overpowered
by the greatness of his divine being? The Church's faith tells us that
God himself creates this contact that gradually transforms us into true
images of God.
Thus we have once again arrived at the
priest's task of "sanctifying". No man on his own, relying on his own
power, can put another in touch with God. An essential part of the
priest's grace is the gift, the task of creating this contact. This is
achieved in the proclamation of God's word in which his light comes to
meet us. It is achieved in a particularly concentrated manner in the
Sacraments. Immersion in the Paschal Mystery of the death and
Resurrection of Christ takes place in Baptism, is reinforced in
Confirmation and Reconciliation and is nourished by the Eucharist, a
sacrament that builds the Church as the People of God, Body of Christ,
Temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation
Pastores Gregis, n. 32). Thus it is Christ himself who makes
us holy, that is, who draws us into God's sphere.
However, as an act
of his infinite mercy, he calls some "to be" with him (cf. Mk 3:14) and
to become, through the Sacrament of Orders, despite their human poverty,
sharers in his own priesthood, ministers of this sanctification,
stewards of his mysteries, "bridges" to the encounter with him and of
his mediation between God and man and between man and God (cf.
Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 5).
In recent decades there have been tendencies that aim to give
precedence, in the priest's identity and mission, to the dimension of
proclamation, detaching it from that of sanctification; it is often said
that it would be necessary to go beyond a merely sacramental pastoral
ministry. Yet, is it possible to exercise the priestly ministry
authentically by "going beyond" the sacramental ministry? What exactly
does it mean for priests to evangelize, in what does the professed
"primacy of proclamation" consist?
As the Gospels report, Jesus says that the proclamation of the
Kingdom of God is the goal of his mission; this proclamation, however,
is not only a "discourse" but at the same time includes his action; the
signs and miracles that Jesus works show that the Kingdom comes as a
present reality and in the end coincides with his very Person, with his
gift of himself, as we heard today in the Gospel Reading.
And the same applies for the ordained ministry: he, the priest,
represents Christ, the One sent by the Father, he continues his mission,
through the "word" and the "sacrament", in this totality of body and
soul, of sign and word.
Referring to priests in a letter to
Bishop Honoratus of Thiabe, St Augustine says: "Let those, therefore,
who are servants of Christ, his ministers in word and sacrament, do what
he has commanded or permitted" (Letter 228, 2).
It is necessary to reflect on whether,
in some cases, having underestimated the faithful exercise of the
munus sanctificandi might not have represented a weakening of faith
itself in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments, and ultimately in the
actual action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the
Who, therefore, saves the world and man?
The only answer we can give is: Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ,
Crucified and Risen. And where is the Mystery of the death and
Resurrection of Christ that brings about salvation? In Christ's action
through the Church, and in particular in the sacrament of the Eucharist,
which makes the redemptive sacrificial offering of the Son of God
present in the sacrament of Reconciliation in which from the death of
sin one returns to new life, and in every other sacramental act of
sanctification (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 5).
It is therefore important to encourage
an appropriate catechesis to help the faithful understand the value of
the sacraments; but it is likewise necessary, after the example of the
d'Ars, to be available, generous and attentive in giving the brothers
and sisters the treasures of grace that God has placed in our hands, and
of which we are not the "masters" but rather caretakers and stewards.
Especially in this time of ours, in
which, on the one hand it seems that faith is weakening, and, on the
other, a profound need and a widespread quest for spirituality are
emerging, it is essential that every priest remember that in his mission
the missionary proclamation and worship and the sacraments are never
separate and encourage a healthy sacramental ministry, to form the
People of God and to help it experience to the full the Liturgy, the
Church's worship and the sacraments as freely given gifts of God, free
and effective gestures of his saving action.
As I recalled in the Holy Chrism Mass
this year: "At the centre of the Church's worship is the notion of
'sacrament'. This means that it is not primarily we who act, but God
comes first to meet us through his action, he looks upon us and he leads
us to himself.... God touches us through material things... that he
takes up into his service, making them instruments of the encounter
between us and himself' (Chrism Mass, April 2010;
L'Osservatore Romano English edition, [ORE] 7 April 2010, p.
The truth according to which in the
Sacrament "it is not primarily we who act" (ibid.), also
concerns and must concern priestly awareness: each priest knows well
that he is an instrument necessary to God's saving action but also that
he is always only an instrument. This awareness must make priests humble
and generous in the administration of the Sacraments, in respect of the
canonical norms, but also in the deep conviction that their mission is
to ensure that all people, united to Christ, may offer themselves to God
as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him (cf. Rom 12:1).
St John Mary Vianney, once again, is
exemplary with regard to the munus sanctificandi and the correct
interpretation of the sacramental ministry; one day, to a man who was
saying that he had no faith and wished to ask him about it, the parish
priest answered: "Oh! My friend, you are not really speaking to the
right person, I do not know how to reason... but if you need some
comfort, sit there... (and he pointed to the ever present stool in the
confessional) and believe me, many others have sat there before you and
have had nothing to regret" (cf. Monnin, A., Il Curato d'Ars, Vita di
Gian-Battista-Maria Vianney, Vol. I, Turin 1870, pp.
Dear priests, experience the Liturgy and
worship with joy and love: it is an action which the Risen One carries
out with the power of the Holy Spirit in us, with us and for us. I would
like to renew the invitation made recently to "return to the
confessional as a place in which to celebrate the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, but also as a place in which 'to dwell' more often, so
that the faithful may find compassion, advice and comfort, feel that
they are loved and understood by God and experience the presence of
Divine Mercy beside the Real Presence in the Eucharist" (Address to
participants in the course on the Internal Forum organized by the
Apostolic Penitentiary, 11 March 2010; ORE, 17 March
2010, p. 7).
And I would also like to ask each priest
to celebrate and to live intensely the Eucharist which is at the heart
of the duty of sanctifying; it is Jesus who wants to be with us, to live
in us, to give himself to us, to show us God's infinite mercy and
tenderness; it is the one sacrifice of the love of Christ who makes
himself present, who makes himself real among us and arrives at the
throne of Grace, at God's presence... embraces humanity... and unites us
with him (cf. Discourse to the Parish Priests
of the Diocese of Rome,
18 February 2010; ORE, 24
February 2010, p. 5).
And the priest is called to be a minister of this great Mystery, in
the Sacrament and in life. If "the great ecclesial tradition has rightly
separated sacramental efficacy from the concrete existential situation
of the individual priest and so the legitimate expectations of the
faithful are appropriately safeguarded", this correct doctrinal
explanation takes nothing "from the necessary, indeed indispensable
aspiration to moral perfection that must dwell in every authentically
priestly heart": there is also an example of faith and the testimony of
holiness, that the People of God rightly expect from its Pastors (cf.
Benedict XVI, Address to the
Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy,
16 March 2009; ORE, 25 March 2009,
p. 22). And it is in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries that the
priest finds the root of his holiness (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis,
Dear Friends, may you be aware of the
great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world; through
their ministry the Lord continues to save men, to make himself present,
to sanctify. May you be able to thank God and above all be close to your
priests with prayer and support, especially in difficulty, so that there
may be more and more Pastors in accordance with the Heart of God. Many