I was inspired to offer a little commentary on the brilliant address that the Holy Father gave this morning to the International Theological Conference, “Fidelity of Christ, Fidelity of the Priest,” organized by the Congregation for Clergy. My remarks are in italics.
The Priest: A Man Strange to Common Opinion
In the context of widespread secularization, which progressively excludes God from the public sphere and, by tendency, also from the shared social conscience, the priest often seems “strange” to common opinion, precisely because of the more fundamental aspects of his ministry, such as being a man of the sacred, removed from the world to intercede in favor of the world, constituted in that mission by God and not by men (cf. Hebrews 5:1).
The Holy Father defines the priest as (1) a man of the sacred, (2) removed from the world to intercede in favor of the world, (3) constituted in that mission by God and not by men. This three-fold definition of the priest stands in marked contrast to any number of “spiritualities of priesthood” that have been marketed and, alas, too often consumed over the past forty years. The Holy Father’s words remind me of the text of Father Lacordaire that I first read many years ago in the rectory office of my home parish where it was displayed in a frame on the wall:
To live in the midst of the world,
Without wishing its pleasures;
To be a member of each family,
yet belonging to none;
To share all sufferings,
To penetrate all secrets;
To heal all wounds;
To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers;
To return from God to men,
To bring pardon and hope!
To have a heart of fire for Charity,
And a heart of bronze for Chastity;
To teach and to pardon,
To console and to bless always.
My God! What a life!
And it is thine, O Priest of Jesus Christ.
A History of Grandeur and Holiness
For this reason, it is important to overcome the dangerous reductionism that, in past decades, using categories that were more functional than ontological, has presented the priest almost as a “social agent,” running the risk of betraying the priesthood of Christ itself. Just as the hermeneutic of continuity is increasingly revealed as urgent to understand in an appropriate way the texts of the Second Vatican Council, similarly an hermeneutic seems necessary that we could describe “of priestly continuity,” which, starting from Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, and going through the 2,000 years of the history of grandeur and holiness, of culture and piety, which the priesthood has written in the world, arrives at our days.
What a brilliant expression the Holy Father gives us here: an hermeneutic of priestly continuity. For two thousand years the priesthood of Jesus Christ continued in His Church has enriched the world with a history of grandeur and of holiness, of culture and of piety. This is a truth that, when it is not altogether forgotten, is certainly overlooked in the present crisis.
The Charism of Prophecy
Dear brother priests, at this time in which we live it is especially important that the call to participate in the one priesthood of Christ in the ordained ministry flower in the “charism of prophecy”: There is a great need of priests that speak of God to the world and that present God to the world; men not subject to ephemeral cultural ways, but capable of living in an authentic way that liberty that only the certainty of belonging to God is in conditions to give. As your Congress has pointed out well, today the most necessary prophecy is that of fidelity, which, starting from the fidelity of Christ to humanity, will lead through the Church and the ministerial priesthood to live one’s priesthood in total adherence to Christ and to the Church. In fact, the priest no longer belongs to himself but, because of the sacramental seal received (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1563;1582), is “property” of God. This “being of Another” must be made recognizable by all, through a clear witness.
The priest as prophet: he speaks of God to the world, revealing to the world the Face of Christ and His Heart. The priesthood belongs to God; he is “property of God.” All that defiles the priest is a sacrilege, an affront to the holiness of God.
In the way of thinking, of speaking, of judging the events of the world, of serving and loving, in relating to persons, also in the habit, the priest must draw prophetic strength from his sacramental belonging, from his profound being. Consequently, he must have every care to subtract himself from the prevailing mentality, which tends to associate the value of the minister not to his being, but only to his function, thus not appreciating the work of God, who influences the profound identity of the person of the priest, configuring him to himself in a definitive way (cf. Ibid., No. 1583).
This particularly dense paragraph is an effective examination of conscience for priests. It addresses one of the chief temptations threatening the priesthood today: the temptation to worldliness. The priest stands apart from the world (1) in his way of thinking, (2) in his way of speaking, (3) of judging the events of the world, (4) of serving and of loving, (5) in relating to persons, (4) and in his dress. I cannot help but think of Saint Benedict’s saying in Chapter IV of the Holy Rule: “Saeculi actibus se facere alienum,” To make oneself a stranger to the ways of the world. The cry so often raised in clerical circles that “diocesan priests are not monks,” does not stand up under the Holy Father’s scrutiny. The so-called “secular” priest will be effective in the world only insofar as he is not of the world. Hear the very word of Christ: “They are not of the world, as I also am not of the world” (Jn 17:16).
The horizon of the ontological belonging to God constitutes, moreover, the appropriate framework to understand and reaffirm, also in our days, the value of sacred celibacy, which in the Latin Church is a charism required for Holy Orders (cf. “Presbyterorum Ordinis,” 16) and is held in very great consideration in the Eastern Churches (cf. CCEO, can. 373). That is authentic prophecy of the Kingdom, sign of consecration to the Lord and to the “things of the Lord” with an undivided heart (1 Corinthians 7:32), expression of the gift of self to God and to others (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1579).
All of the tired human justifications for priestly celibacy that have been argued and found wanting — it makes one more available for ministry; it affords a certain mobility; it is economically advantageous, etc. etc. — pale in the light of the Holy Father’s central affirmation: the priest belongs to God. He is a man set apart and made over to God alone. He places himself daily upon the altar of the Holy Sacrifice becoming one victim with Christ. The very being of the priest is a “sacrificium,” in the sense explained by Saint Augustine in Book Ten of The City of God.
Prophetic Life Without Compromises
Hence, the vocation of the priest, which continues being a great mystery also for those of us who have received it as a gift, is sublime. Our limitations and weaknesses must lead us to live and protect with profound faith that precious gift, with which Christ has configured us to Himself, making us participants in his salvific mission. In fact, comprehension of the ministerial priesthood is linked to the faith and calls, ever more strongly, for a radical continuity between the formation of the seminary and permanent formation. The prophetic life, without compromises, with which we will serve God and the world, proclaiming the Gospel and celebrating the Sacraments, will foster the coming of the Kingdom of God, already present, and the growth of the People of God in the faith.
The priest cannot afford not to be aware of his limitations and weaknesses. These cast him into a state of radical and ceaseless dependence on the all-sufficient grace of Christ. The grace of Christ deployed in the weakness of a priest is itself a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God among men.
Only in the Priest
Beloved priests, the men and women of our time ask only that we be priests through and through. The lay faithful will find in many other persons what they humanly need, but only in the priest will they be able to find that Word of God that must always be on their lips (cf. “Presbyterorum Ordinis,” 4); the mercy of the Father, which is lavished abundantly and free in the sacrament of reconciliation; the Bread of New Life, “true nourishment given to men” (cf. Hymn of the Office on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi of the Roman rite).
Priests sometimes exhaust themselves in trying to be more than priests. The Holy Father makes it clear that only the priest who is content to be a priest through and through will be capable of meeting the needs of the faithful for the Word of God, the mercy of the Father, and the Bread of New Life. He does this by preaching, by forgiving sins in the Sacrament of Penance, and by nourishing souls with the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ. A priest who does these things is, in his own way, living out Saint Benedict’s injunction in Chapter 43 of the Holy Rule: “Nihil operi Dei praeponatur”, “Let nothing be put before the Work of God.” All of the priest’s other activities are ordered to these and flow from them.