When a bride makes thoughtful consideration of the necessary qualities to be found in her bridegroom, it surprises no one that she would look for a certain depth of heart in the relationship, an ability to properly perceive the difficulties and problems that arise in life, an ease in meeting and engaging in meaningful dialogue, an attitude that creates trust and cooperation, and skill in expressing serene and objective judgments.
What is more, she would want him to be a balanced person, a man who is strong and free, able to bear the responsibilities of married life. She loves him because he loves the truth, is loyal and true to his word, is respectful of others and possesses a strong sense of justice, is a man of integrity, balanced in judgment and behavior, and genuinely compassionate. Lacking arrogance and quarrelsomeness, if her beloved be affable, hospitable, sincere in both words and movements of the heart, prudent, discreet, generous, ready to serve, open to proper relationships, and quick to understand, forgive, and console, she would be foolish, at best, to turn away from such a prize for a husband.
It is no coincidence that Blessed John Paul II, considering his long and fruitful experience in preparing couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony, would include in his charter for priestly formation, Pastores dabo vobis, all of the qualities listed for men preparing to become the “other Christs” for the Church, the beloved Bride of Christ (cf. PDV, 43-44; PPF, 74-82). Echoing the human qualities necessary for those called to priestly ministry enunciated by the Second Vatican Council, Pastores dabo vobis emphasizes the fundamental value of human formation in the seminary as the basis upon which the spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral pillars are built up within the context of the integral development of the whole person.
Put another way, the same human qualities and skills that distinguish a fine candidate for marriage are necessary, as well, for fine candidates for the priesthood. Without the basic and proper human formation in virtue and living with others, the priestly virtues and graces are hindered in reaching their full potential and strength, i.e. grace builds on nature (cf. Summa Theoolgiae, I, 1, 8 ad 2). For this reason, particular care must be taken to provide focused and clear formation in the human virtues, rejecting nothing that is genuinely human, excluding all that is sinful, and submitting in love the entire person to the call and love of Christ.
The model for this facet of preparation for Sacred Orders is none other than Jesus himself, who became one like us in all things but sin. He embraced all that was genuinely human in the Incarnation, St. Irenaeus noted (cf. Adversus haereses, III, 21, 9), safeguarding it and reliving every dimension of authentic humanity, from conception to death, within the context of the unity of His equal and full natures, in His one divine Personhood. Thus, one sees true human perfection “that shines forth in the Incarnate Son of God” (PDV, 14).
Because he is configured by the Holy Spirit to be a “living image” of Christ for the Church, a priestly candidate must strive to place his entire humanity at the foot of the Cross, returning it completely to the service of his Redeemer for the salvation of souls. “Every high priest,” St. Paul instructs the Hebrews, “chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God.” (Heb. 5:1) From the moment of his ordination, a priest is intensely related to God for the sake of his fellow man, to offer gifts and sacrifices, first and foremost of himself. It is this sacrifice of self, and the constancy of desire to conform oneself to Christ, that points to the kenotic and spousal love given to the Church, thus allowing him to be filled with Christ. With such his poignant poverty, and his identification with the poor, Christ speaks volumes to a world fixated on materialism and self-fulfillment.
Pope Benedict XVI expounded on this reality while reflecting on Baptism, wherein the “old nature” is exchanged for the “new nature” (cf. Eph. 4:22-26). In the Sacrament of Orders, “the priest now acts and speaks in persona Christi. In the sacred mysteries, he does not represent himself, and does not speak expressing himself, but speaks for the Other, for Christ” (Chrism Mass Homily, April 5, 2007).
This exchange demands from the priestly candidate a self sacrifice that strives for and desires authentic and prudent, affective maturity, an integrated sense and understanding of the gift of his own sexuality and male identity within the sublime call to chaste celibacy, the exercise of freedom that allows loving obedience and self mastery, and the humble refining and growth in moral conscience. As such, as a worthy bridegroom, the life of the future sacred minister is animated by his total, personal self-gift to the Church and an “authentic pastoral charity” (PO, 14; PDV, 23).
Successful human formation is measured by how humanly credible and acceptable one’s ministry is received by the faithful. It is also measured by how much of a bridge to knowing Christ has been made of one’s personality, gifts, and actions in persona Christi. Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes put it this way: “Christ’s salvific action is thus made present: it is made tangible in a specific place and time and—if it be accepted by the faithful—can also have a salvific effect … it is Christ who makes the presbyter’s action effective; it is in Christ that the unique and irreplaceable competence of the presbyter lies.” (Why Priests? 139)
In a culture with an increasingly confused understanding of spousal love, the real possibility of meeting Jesus is the only truly efficacious means of a return to the truth about mankind. It is, therefore, imperative that priests, religious and parents, in particular, model and cultivate the basic human virtues through lives of holiness and faith for the “other Christs” yet to come.
- Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, Why Priests? translated by P. Spring and A. Figueiredo, (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2010)
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Program of Priestly Formation (Fifth Ed.)(Washington, D.C.:USCCB, 2006)