|Word and Sacrament the
Pillars of the Priesthood
On Wednesday, 1 July , at the General Audience
in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father spoke to the faithful on the most
essential elements of the priestly ministry. The following is a
translation of his Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The celebration of First Vespers of the Solemnity of the
Holy Apostles, Peter and Paul in the Basilica of St
Paul-Outside-the-Walls on 28 June, as you know, brought to a close the
Pauline Year commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the
Apostle to the Gentiles.
Let us thank the Lord for the spiritual fruit that this
important initiative has brought to so many Christian communities.
We may accept the Apostle's invitation to deepen our
knowledge of the mystery of Christ as a precious heritage of the Pauline
Year because he is at the heart and the centre of our personal and
community existence. This is in fact the indispensable condition for a
true spiritual and ecclesial renewal.
As I emphasized during the first Eucharistic Celebration
in the Sistine Chapel after my election as Successor of the Apostle
Peter, it is precisely from full communion with Christ that "flows every
other element of the Church's life: first of all, communion among all
the faithful, the commitment to proclaiming and witnessing to the
Gospel, the ardour of love for all, especially the poorest and lowliest"
(L'Osservatore Romano English edition, [ORE], 27 April
2005, p. 3).
This applies to priests in the first place. For this
reason let us thank God's Providence for offering us the possibility of
celebrating the Year for Priests now. My heartfelt hope for every priest
is that it will be an opportunity for inner renewal and, consequently,
that it will firmly strengthen him in his commitment to his mission.
Just as during the Pauline Year our constant reference
point was St Paul, so in the coming months we shall look in the first
place to St John Mary Vianney, the Holy Curé
d'Ars, recalling the 150th anniversary of his death. In the Letter I
wrote to priests on this occasion, I wished to underline what shines
brightest in the life of this humble minister of the altar: his
"complete identification... with his ministry" (ORE, 24 June
2009, p. 3).
He used to like to say that "a good shepherd, a pastor
after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can
grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy",
and, almost not managing to understand the greatness of the gift and
task entrusted to a poor human creature, he would sigh: "O, how great is
the priest! ... If he realized what he is, he would die... God obeys
him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his
voice, to be contained within a small host" (ibid., p.
In fact, precisely by considering the pairing of
identity with mission each priest is able to be more aware of the need
for that gradual identification with Christ which will guarantee him
fidelity and the fruitfulness of Gospel witness.
The very title of the Year for Priests
Faithfulness of Christ, faithfulness of priests
highlights the fact that the gift of divine grace precedes every
possible human response and pastoral initiative. Thus, in the priest's
life, missionary preaching and worship can never be separated, just as
the ontological-sacramental identity and evangelizing mission must never
be separated. Moreover, we might say that the purpose of every priest's
mission is one of worship. Thus may all people offer themselves to God
as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him (cf. Rm 12:1), which
in Creation itself, in people, becomes worship, praise of the Creator,
receiving that love which they in turn are called to offer to each other
The early Christian communities were already clearly
aware of this. St John Chrysostom said, for example, that the sacrament
of the altar and the "sacrament of the brother" or "sacrament of the
poor man", are two aspects of the same mystery. Love for one's neighbour,
attention to justice and to the poor are not so much themes of a moral
society as they are an expression of a sacramental conception of
Christian morality. This is because, through the ministry of priests,
the spiritual sacrifice of all the faithful is fulfilled in union with
that of Christ, the one Mediator: a sacrifice that priests offer in an
unbloody and sacramental way as they wait for the Lord to come again.
This is the principal, essentially missionary and dynamic dimension of
the priestly ministry and identity: through the proclamation of the
Gospel they generate faith in those who do not yet believe, so that they
may combine their sacrifice with Christ's through love of God and of
Dear brothers and sisters, in the face of so much
uncertainty and weariness that also arises in the exercise of the
priestly ministry, the recovery of a clear and unequivocal opinion on
the absolute primacy of divine grace is urgent, remembering what St
Thomas Aquinas wrote: "The good of grace in one is greater than the good
of nature in the whole universe" (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 113,
a. 9, ad 2).
The mission of each individual priest will therefore
depend also and above all on knowledge of the sacramental reality of his
"new being". His ever renewed enthusiasm for the mission depends on the
certainty of his own identity
not artificially and humanly constructed but freely and divinely given
And what I wrote in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est
also applies to priests: "Being Christian is not the result of an
ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a
person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (n. 1).
Having received such an extraordinary gift of grace with
their "consecration", priests become permanent witnesses of their
encounter with Christ. Starting precisely from this inner awareness,
they can fully carry out their "mission" through the proclamation of the
word and the administration of the Sacraments.
After the Second Vatican Council, an impression spread
that there was a more pressing need in the mission of priests in our
time; some thought that above all it was necessary for a new society to
be built. The Gospel passage that we heard at the outset recalls instead
the two essential elements of the priestly ministry. Jesus sends the
Apostles out to proclaim the Gospel and gives them the power to expel
evil spirits. "Proclamation" and "power", that is, "word" and
"sacrament", are therefore the two basic pillars of priestly service,
over and above its possible multiple circumstances.
When the "diptych" of consecration and mission is not
taken into account, it becomes truly difficult to understand the
identity of the priest and his ministry in the Church. Indeed, who is
the priest if not a man who has been converted and renewed by the
Spirit, who lives on his personal relationship with Christ, ceaselessly
making the Gospel criteria his own? Who is the priest if not a man of
unity and truth, aware of his own limitations and at the same time of
the extraordinary greatness, of the vocation he has received, namely
that of helping to spread the Kingdom of God to the very ends of the
earth? Yes! The priest is a man who belongs totally to the Lord, for it
is God himself who has called him and establishes him in his apostolic
service. For the very reason that he belongs completely to the Lord, he
belongs completely to the people, for the people.
During this Year for Priests that will last until the
next Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, let us pray for all priests. Let us
— in dioceses, parishes, religious and especially monastic
communities, in associations and movements, in the various pastoral
groups that exist throughout the world
there may be an increase in prayer initiatives and in particular in
Eucharistic Adoration for the sanctification of the clergy and for
priestly vocations, in response to Jesus' invitation to pray "the Lord
of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest" (Mt 9:38).
Prayer is the first commitment, the true path of
sanctification for priests and the soul of an authentic "vocations
ministry". Not only must the scarcity of ordinations to the priesthood
in certain countries not discourage us, but it must also be an incentive
to increase the number of places of silence and listening to the word,
to better attend to spiritual direction and the sacrament of Confession.
In this way God's voice, which always continues to call and to
strengthen, may be heard and promptly followed by numerous young people.
Those who pray are not afraid; those who pray are never alone; those who
pray are saved! St John Mary Vianney is without a doubt the model of an
existence made prayer.
May Mary, Mother of the Church, help all priests to
follow his example in order to be, like him, witnesses of Christ and
apostles of the Gospel.