Back in 2009, the Year of the Priest, His Eminence, Claudio Cardinal Hummes, addressed the following letter to priests. My own comments, as I wrote them then, are in italics. Under Cardinal Hummes and then, even more, under Cardinal Piacenza the Congregation for the Clergy was a powerhouse of spiritual encouragement for priests; one sensed a pastoral “heart for priests” in the various letters, teachings, and initiatives emanating at that time from the Congregation for the Clergy. The 2009 Advent letter has lost nothing of its relevance.
Prayer necessarily occupies a central place in the life of the priest. This is not hard to understand, since prayer fosters the disciple’s intimacy with his Master, Jesus Christ. We all know that when prayer lessens, faith is weakened and the ministry loses content and meaning. The essential consequence of this is that the priest will have less joy and less happiness in his daily ministry. It is as if, following Jesus along the road, the priest, who walks along with many others, were to begin to lag behind bit by bit and so distance himself from the Master, even losing sight of him on the horizon. From that moment he will find himself lost and uncertain.
Held Fast in the Friendship of Christ
Yes, a priest who neglects prayer will become weak in faith, joyless, and uncertain of the very things that should be life giving for him. At the origin of every crisis in the life of a priest is a lack of prayer, that is, of conscious surrender to the Friendship of Christ. Nowhere can a priest experience the Friendship of Christ more effectively than in the radiance of His Eucharistic Face. Priests who pray daily for one hour before the Blessed Sacrament attest to the purifying, healing, and transforming effect of such prayer on their lives.
St. John Chrysostom, in a homily commenting on the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, observes wisely: “The devil attacks the shepherd. In fact, if by killing the sheep the flock is reduced, by instead eliminating the shepherd he will destroy the entire flock.” This statement makes one think about many contemporary situations. Chrysostom warns us that the lessening of the shepherds will and does make the number of the faithful and of communities decrease. Without shepherds our communities will be destroyed!
A Distinctively Marian Grace
The Evil One hates the priests of Jesus Christ, and will do everything in his power to drag or push them into patterns of sin, to confuse their thinking, to corrupt their hearts, and to destroy their confidence in the Mercy of God. Who then, among priests, can be saved? The priest who takes refuge beneath the mantle of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, his Mother and his Advocate. The priest who cherishes Mary with a love that is at once filial and spousal. Mary’s most precious gift to her priests is a gentle, but compelling, inclination to prayer. Saint Benedict speaks in the Holy Rule of “falling frequently to prayer.” This is, I think, a distinctively Marian grace.
But here I would like above all to talk about the needfulness of prayer so that, as Chrysostom might say, the shepherds can defeat the devil and so that they are not lessened. Truly, without the vital food of prayer the priest becomes sick, the disciple does not find the strength to follow the Master, and thus dies of hunger. As a consequence his flock is scattered, and dies in its own turn.
Praying Priests Make for a Praying People
Priests who pray generate communities that pray. A prayerful priest will generate a praying parish. Where priest and people persevere together in prayer, with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is poured out in abundance, quickening the life of the Church, and causing the face of the Church to shine with joy even in the midst of great sufferings.
In fact every priest finds an essential reference point in the ecclesial community. He is a very special disciple of the Lord who called him and who, by the sacrament of Order, configured him to Himself as Head and Shepherd of the Church. Christ is the one Shepherd, but he has deigned to make the Twelve and their Successors partake in His Ministry, amongst whom Priests also participate in this sacrament, albeit in a lower grade, in such a way that they also take part in the ministry of Christ, Head and Shepherd. This carries with it an essential bond between the priest and the ecclesial community. He cannot do any less than his duty, since without a shepherd the community withers. Rather, following the example of Moses, he must be found with his arms raised to Heaven in prayer so that the people will not perish.
The Recollected Priest
This paragraph causes me to think, not only of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, but also of Saint Gaetano Catanoso, and of the vast brotherhood of parish priests who, though uncanonised and unsung, prayed their flocks into a great holiness. I am reminded of the example of Father Edgar J. Farrell, whose Mass I often served as a boy; he would prepare for Holy Mass with prayer, kneeling at his prie-dieu in the sacristy, and prolong his thanksgiving after Mass. In recent years, the “Protestant” custom of greeting the faithful at the door of the church after Holy Mass has become widespread. We ought to recover, it seems to me, the paradigm of the recollected priest, intent on making his thanksgiving after Mass in the sanctuary, in view of his people. How much more fruitful would this be than the banal greeting and trivial remarks at the door of the church.
It is for this reason that the priest, if he is to remain faithful to Christ and faithful to the community, must be a man of prayer, a man who lives close to the Lord. Moreover, he needs to be strengthened by the prayer of the Church and of every Christian. Let the sheep pray for their shepherd! When the shepherd becomes aware that his life of prayer is weakening, it is time for him to turn to the Holy Spirit and to beseech like the poor of heart. The Spirit will rekindle the fire in his heart. He will rekindle the passion and the enchantment of the Lord, who is ever present and wishes to eat with him.
Prayer for Priests
Surrounding every priest who prays is a community that prays for him and with him. The criticism of priests often leads to sins of rash judgment, defamation, and slander. The temptation to speak ill of a priest can become, in effect, an invitation to pray for him, to fast for him, and to represent him before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, close to His Open Heart.
We wish to pray with and for priests in this Year for Priests with perseverance and great love. To this end, the Congregation for the Clergy celebrates a Eucharistic-Marian Hour for and with priests, at 4 p.m. in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, Rome, each first Thursday of the month during the Year for Priests. Many people joyfully come to pray with us.
Dear Priests, the Nativity of Jesus Christ draws near. I wish to express my best and heartfelt good wishes to you for a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year 2010. The Child Jesus lying in the manger invites us to renew this closeness with him of a friend and disciple, so as to send us out again as his evangelizers.
Cardinal Cláudio Hummes
Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo
Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy
[Translation distributed by the Congregation for Clergy]