John XXIII and the Encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia

Author: Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

John XXIII and the Encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

Priestly celibacy in the teachings of the Popes

At the beginning of this year [2011] a colloquium was held in Ars, France, on the theme: "Priestly Celibacy: Foundations, Joys and Challenges". The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy gave a series of talks on the teachings of the Popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI. The following is a lecture that the Cardinal gave on John XXIII.

Blessed John XXIII dedicated an entire Encyclical to the Saintly Curé of Ars, upon the first centenary of his birth in Heaven. In that Encyclical, the fundamental themes of virginity and celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven, developed by Pius XI and, above all, by Pius XII, were assimilated by John XXIII, as he shows in the exemplary figure of St John Mary Vianney, whom he presented as the quintessential representative of the Catholic Priesthood.

The Pontiff highlights how all the virtues that are necessary and proper in a priest were welcomed and lived by St John Mary Vianney, and he stressed in the Encyclical the asceticism of the priest, his role of prayer and of Eucharistic worship, and the consequent pastoral zeal. Indirectly citing Pius XI, the Encyclical recognises how, for the fulfilment of one's priestly functions a sanctity even greater than that of the religious state is required, and he stated that the greatness of the priest lies in the imitation of Jesus Christ. John XXIII stated: "It is said that the face of the Pastor of Ars shone with an angelic purity. And even now anyone who turns to him in mind and spirit cannot help being struck, not merely by the great strength of soul with which this athlete [priest] of Christ dominated his body (cf. 1 Cor 9:27), but also by the great persuasive powers he exercised over his flock of penitents whom he succeeded in drawing to follow in his footsteps" (n. 24). It is clear that, for Bl. John XXIII, the bond between ministerial efficacy and fidelity to perfect chastity for the Kingdom of Heaven was manifestly evident in the Curé of Ars, and that perfect chastity is not determined by the demands of the Ministry but that, on the contrary and against every functionalist reduction of the priesthood, it is the Ministry itself, in its widest expression, which is determined, almost results from fidelity to celibacy. The Pontiff continued: "The ascetic way of life, by which priestly chastity is preserved, does not enclose the priest's soul within the sterile confines of his own interests, but rather it makes him more eager and ready to relieve the needs of his brethren" . The Curé of Ars made this pertinent comment in this regard: "A soul adorned with the virtue of chastity cannot help loving others; for it has discovered the source and font of love — God" (n. 25).

From this way of perfectly theological reasoning, one can see how the spirit of the world and the Spirit of God are diametrically opposed. In this way we have the parameters for understanding and edification.

The Encyclical emphasised the constitutive bond between celibacy, priestly identity and the celebration of the divine Mysteries. A particular emphasis is placed on the bond between the Eucharistic offering of the Divine Sacrifice and the daily gift of oneself, in holy celibacy. Thus in 1959 the papal Magisterium recognised how much of the disorientation with regard to the fidelity and necessity of ecclesiastical celibacy was caused, and in fact is still caused by an incorrect understanding of its relationship to the Eucharistic celebration. In it, in fact, the priest participates, not in a functional but in a real manner, in the one and irrepeatable offering of Christ, which is however sacramentally actualised and represented in the Church for the salvation of the world. Such participation implies the offering of oneself, which must be fully integral, even to one's own flesh in virginity.

Who can now fail to see that there is a vital bond between the Eucharistic — Divine Worship and the ordained priesthood? The lot of divine worship and the priesthood are bound together. It is not possible to take care of one sphere without the other. It is necessary to reflect upon this when one starts priestly formation and it is also important to be conscious of the fact that the success of the new evangelization, which is absolutely indispensable, is tied to the outcome of the reform of that clergy.

The observation of the Blessed Pontiff continues to be valid today, perhaps in an even more dramatic fashion: "We urge Our beloved priests to set time aside regularly to examine themselves on how they celebrate the divine Mysteries, what their dispositions of soul and external attitude are as they ascend to the altar and what fruit they are trying to gain from it" (n. 59). The Eucharist is thus at one and the same time the source of holy celibacy and a "test" of one's fidelity to it, an effective way to measure the real offering of oneself to the Lord.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10-17 August 2011, page 3

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