Bishops Conference of Brazil

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Ad Limina Visit Bishops Conference of Brazil June 13, 1995

Dear Brothers in the Episcopate,

1. I welcome you today on the occasion of your ad limina Apostolorum visit, and through you I cordially greet the whole Church of God in Brazil, especially in the States of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo. Your visit brings you here to seek support from these pillars of the Church, the Apostles Peter and Paul, to give a fresh impetus to your pastoral ministry. Our meetings enable me to be more familiar with your worries and your reasons for hope, and confirm the strong ties that unite the Bishops with the Successor of Peter and put the particular Churches in communion with the universal Church.

I give thanks to God, through Jesus Christ, for all of you who proclaim the Good News in the immense "Terra de Santa Cruz", open to the fraternal acceptance of people of all origins.

The distances and difficulties of communication do not prevent you from reaching the remotest communities in your Dioceses in order to know the sheep of your flocks, showing a Pastor's soul by your witness to a simple life and, frequently, to the same personal poverty as that of your people.

Listening to you, I can appreciate the burden of your task, but at the same time I glimpse your zeal, the vitality of your faith communities and the selfless courage of the labourers who toil in the Lord's vineyard. I am grateful for the words of Bishop Geraldo Oliveira do Valle of Guaxupe, who, expressing your thoughts, has informed me of your plans and the hopes that inspire your apostolic work.

2. The celebration of the 30th anniversary of the conciliar document Presbyterorum ordinis, the result of the Second Vatican Council's reflection, is an appropriate opportunity to return to its teaching on the ministerial priesthood. Today, with you, I would like to broach the important issue of the formation of future priests, all the more necessary the greater and the more pressing the demands of the new evangelization.

Our sentiments should be those of the Lord, who "when he saw the crowds, had compassion for them.... Then he said to his disciples, 'the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest" (Mt 9:36-38). By prayer, human weakness is transformed by divine grace into strength, so that we can do all things in him who strengthens us (cf. Phil 4:13).

Praiseworthy and even more encouraging are the efforts of your Episcopal Conference which, thorough clerical associations and commissions, provides means and instruments for a better formation of your priests, and the sacrifice of the Bishops who are not afraid to be temporarily deprived of some of their co-workers so that the latter may acquire additional academic qualifications at various universities, especially in Rome.

3. Furthermore, as a joyful note of hope in your country I observe a modest but constant increase in the number of vocations to the priesthood. Even if this phenomenon does not involve all the regions of your nation, it requires special attention from all the Pastors, since it could provide topics for pastoral reflection, for a careful review of the options already chosen and for drafting new strategies and directives.

We might well ask in which regions vocations are increasing, and why? What form has the local vocations apostolate taken?

This same question could be reversed: where there is still a lack of vocations, what causes this phenomenon? The priestly vocation is a gift of God, through which "since they share in the function of the Apostles in their own degree, priests are given the grace by God to be the ministers of Jesus Christ among the nations" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2).

We know, nevertheless, that this gift must be welcomed by a sensitive heart, attentive to the call. Only a vocations apostolate that clearly represents the Catholic priesthood in the radicalness of its demands, and which helps the young to hear the Lord's call and respond to it freely and courageously in total fidelity to the Church's Magisterium and to the Successor of Peter, will achieve the great project of "the new evangelization, new in its ardour, methods and expression" (Discourse to the Bishops of CELAM, 9 March 1983; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 18 April 1983, p. 7).

To undertake such an enormous task it will be necessary to pay the keenest attention to all the stages envisaged by the Church's pedagogy for the guidance of those who are called, both in the selection of the candidates and in the formation for and reception of Holy Orders, as well as in the so-called ongoing formation. All this attention becomes indispensable for guaranteeing the constant efficacy of the ministry and for avoiding the sad phenomena of defection, which deeply wounds the heart of Christ and of the Church.

4. In giving a new impulse to the priority of your pastoral care in guiding and forming those who are called, it becomes necessary to pay special attention to the motives that lead a young man to knock at the seminary door.

How can we fail to take into consideration the crisis in family life, the environment in which the young man grows up and develops, sometimes leaving deep and not always positive scars on his personality? Or indeed, the concepts of life and values produced by the culture of permissiveness and hedonism, which create a widespread mentality foreign, if not hostile, to the spirit of sacrifice and total dedication which the priesthood demands?

Should we not also examine with care the easy, short-lived enthusiasm of those who are motivated by an illusory vision of a better social or financial situation for their own future or by an erroneous understanding of the clerical state and the exercise of the ministry, viewed mainly from the sociological standpoint, with party alignments and their resulting conflicts?

Constant discernment regarding the young man's ability is essential, discernment which is necessarily an ongoing process of psychological, human and spiritual formation that begins with a very careful preliminary selection. The Church is bound not only in charity but also in justice not to accept those who show obvious signs of personality disturbances which, if they are assessed superficially during the formation period, could have serious consequences and jeopardize the sacred minister's future life. The minister will overcome the difficulties he faces in the many and varied dimensions of the apostolate through a humble and wise sharing of experiences with others, and in docile and trusting communion with the proper hierarchical authorities.

Do not be afraid to be rigorous in your selection: the good of the Church and of the young men themselves demands it. It is better to have a few candidates who can be started on a serious course of formation than to see our seminaries full of candidates whose personal limitations make their own formation difficult and hinder that of others.

In a country as vast as yours, it is necessary to establish channels of communication between those in charge of vocational discernment, the rectors of seminaries and the Bishops themselves. This will prevent a candidate who has not been admitted to one formation house for valid, serious reasons from being accepted by another without the requisite information and detailed knowledge of his personal situations and the causes of his previous dismissal. Particular attention should be given then to the admission of candidates from other regions or from a territory that does not belong to their own Diocese. This strictness must be even more rigorous when it is a question of candidates approaching ordination to the diaconate or the priesthood.

5. Recognizing the new challenges to be faced in training men for the priesthood in the third millennium of Christianity, I wished to publish Pastores dabo vobis as a guide for pastors and all those concerned in their task of revitalizing the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral training of seminarians (cf. n. 42).

Bearing in mind that the priest "chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb 5:1), it is necessary for the future minister to mould his human personality "in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man" (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 43). A sense of courtesy, respect for others, generous availability and good social training, everything, in fact, must be directed in such a way that he can work in persona Christi Capitis and in the name of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1548-1553).

For her part, so that the new evangelization may bear fruit, the Church will need priests whose spiritual life has been forged by asceticism and the inner discipline that enables them to "live in intimate union" with Jesus Christ (cf. Decree on the Training of Priests Optatum totius, n. 8). For this reason, the Council told those responsible for formation that they should teach seminarians "to seek Christ in faithful meditation on the Word of God and in active participation in the sacred mysteries of the Church, especially the Eucharist and the Divine Office" (ibid.).

To tell the truth, the whole of the priest's life should be focused on the liturgy, "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows" (Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10). For this reason, "the study of sacred liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in seminaries and religious houses of studies" (ibid., n. 16).

On the other hand, the Council stressed that "priests are warned by the Bishop in the ceremony of ordination that they are to be 'mature in knowledge'.... Now a sacred minister's knowledge ought to be sacred in the sense of being deprived from a sacred source and directed to a sacred purpose" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 19). This is the great importance of intellectual training, directed at encouraging understanding of the faith.

The teaching of philosophy should really be the basis for the study of theology (cf. Optatum totius, n. 15). If theology professors, carefully chosen, should not simply teach current opinions, but should be concerned with integrating them into the Church's teaching. Future priests are not called to spread theological opinions, but to be qualified witnesses to the faith we receive from the Church's deposit and which we must faithfully pass on. "Things should be done", as has been said, "in such a way that during priestly encounters [and this also applies to the formation of future priests] the documents of the Magisterium may be studied together in a profound manner, under an authoritative guide, so that the unity of interpretation and practice—so useful in the work of evangelization—may be facilitated in the pastoral work of the Dioceses" (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 77).

Lastly, may I remind you that during the seminary period, study has priority over the obvious need for pastoral practice.

However, the latter should be undertaken as a result of studies, integrated into them like a guided apprenticeship, and geared to preparing the future work of the ordained minister. It can never justify a lack of thorough dedication to studies (cf. Pastores dabo vobis, n. 51).

6. In addition, once the proper selection of those called has been made, it will be necessary with equal zeal to be concerned with the selection and training of teachers and formation staff in seminaries and novitiates, for the sake of serene, far-sighted, stable and thorough human, cultural, spiritual and ascetic formation. For sound formation in the pastoral ministry, properly trained staff are necessary from the cultural and intellectual point of view, who are reliable and not temporary or unprepared. For this reason they must be chosen from among the best of our clergy even if, for this purpose, we have to reduce other areas of pastoral work in the Diocese.

Great care is still needed in the choice of spiritual directors, who must also be psychologically able to gain the candidates' trust and openness, in order to give them balanced and prudent direction. Even if they should not encroach upon the internal forum, it is the duty of the teaching staff to contribute to the candidates' spiritual and ascetic formation by methodically explaining the real moral and spiritual implications linked with fulfilling the priestly ministry.

7. Before deciding in favour of admission to Holy Orders, it is necessary to verify, in order to be morally certain, that the candidate has a clear awareness of what his future life will be and that he has been trained to make a free and personal choice on the basis of his natural capacities and the help of grace. It is therefore important to pay particular attention to the full examination of the candidate, especially before he is admitted to Orders, with the scrupulous and religious observance of the so-called "scrutinium" (Code of Canon Law, can. 1051) in order to be certain of his canonical suitability (ibid., can. 1029) for the sacred ministry.

The gradual nature of formation implies an increase in demands, little by little, as the definitive decision draws nearer. The diaconate must be the key point, an entrance into the ranks of the clergy and as the moment of definitive commitment to the choice of ecclesiastical celibacy. In this regard, particular attention should be paid to the virtue of chastity and the full maturing of the personality of those in formation. The virtues and gifts required will be evidenced by overcoming the foreseeable personal problems associated with loneliness, with the exemplary observance of the life of celibacy, sustained and nourished by prayer, frequent recourse to the sacraments, priestly communion and dedication to pastoral work.

I cannot but call your attention to the Bishops' personal responsibility in laying his hands upon the candidate as he ordains him deacon or priest. We will answer to God and to the Church for the ordinations we confer. In this context, it is important to state once again the need for the major seminary, as the place for priestly formation, as the proper place for formation, "the normal place, in the material sense as well, for a community and hierarchical life" (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 60), now that other types of formational experience have been tried and have proved insufficient or unsatisfactory.

8. Taking into due account the difficulties listed above, whose importance and gravity change not only in relation to the ministerial context, but also to the specific characteristics of the "sacred minister", it will be necessary for your provident consideration, venerable Brothers, to include, in addition to what we have called initial formation, the so-called ongoing formation of the sacred ministers themselves.

In 1992, the Synod Fathers justified this need, "revealing its nature as 'faithfulness' to the priestly ministry and as a 'process of continual conversion'" (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 70). I know of many Dioceses which promote regular meetings of the Bishop with young priests, who are followed closely in various ways during the first years of their priesthood; I would like to express my encouragement and support to them. The same is true for the formation of priests with years of experience in the ministry, even of the elderly. To follow them is a duty of justice and sensitive love, since it is a question of helping them constantly to rediscover the "source of priestly spirituality" (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 94) and the sense of their own consecration to God. A holy priest will sanctify the flock entrusted to him; a priest who does not fulfil his duties, by his bad example will first lead it to abandon religion and then—God forbid!—towards religious indifferentism, a possible prelude to the loss of faith.

The Final Declaration of the First Latin American Congress on Vocations, which took place in 1994, reaffirmed the conviction that any vocation is primarily the work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This requires a prayerful attitude from the Church and from those involved in the vocation's apostolate. In her listening, her life and response to God, Mary most holy is the model for both those called and for those in vocation work.

The Church and the world need priests who burn with zeal and who dedicate themselves body and soul to the cause of the kingdom:  "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!" (Lk 12:49).

We are on the threshold of the third Christian millennium. It is priests who will bear the "torches" of light, life and warmth that radiate from God's heart. The Lord's command—"you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8)—is still far from being totally achieved. This is why it is urgent for Christians to be imbued with the spirit of the new evangelization so that, inspired by the enthusiasm of our holy ministers, they may transform the environment where they live.

9. Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, go back to your beloved homeland, certain of my esteem and affection for all your people. Remind your priests, seminarians, religious and lay people of my love in Jesus Christ, and tell them that in Rome "we give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers" (1 Thes 1:2). In entrusting Brazilian Catholics to the loving intercession of the Virgen de Aparecida, I wholeheartedly impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of unity and peace in her divine son.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 June 1995

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