Pope John Paul II’s personality illustrates most clearly what the ideal priest of the new millennium ought to be. His close friend and successor, Pope Benedict XVI, complements this ideal.
Besides the allocutions of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been, thus far, little reflection on what the new evangelization means. In fact, the newly established Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization lists as its number one task “to examine in depth the theological and pastoral meaning of the new evangelization.” In addition to the work of this Pontifical Council, the coming synod of bishops will discuss this theme. All I hope to do here is to apply the new evangelization to the sacred priesthood, with some personal reflections based on the teachings of Scripture, and the last two popes, and on the examples of contemporary saints and saintly persons. The adequate treatment of this topic would require consideration of the entire priestly formation process, and the lifelong, post-ordination work of constant learning, deepening, and re-evaluating our vocation, up to the very end of our lives. 1
The Crisis of Priestly Identity
Before the Second Vatican Council, priests in the U.S. were considered a special class, if not a caste, standing high by themselves, with the image and tasks of the priest clearly defined in the Church. Every Catholic knew that the title, “Father,” possessed immense spiritual powers. For the priest changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ; he opens and shuts the gates of heaven by granting or refusing absolution; he facilitates the entry of the dying into heaven by giving them the last rites. He holds authority over all parochial affairs, both the Church and the school; if you have any problem of conscience, you go to Father.
But, after the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the laity became popularized, people began to re-discover the traditional Catholic truth that all members of the Church share in Christ’s royal priesthood, and that each member possesses a special charism by which he or she should contribute to the building up of the Church. Alongside what was coming to be called “the ministerial priesthood,” a wide range of other ministries arose, from youth minister to marriage counselor, to religious education director, all open to laymen and laywomen in the parish. The question was asked: What, then, is the ministerial priest still good for? Except for a few sacramental rites, it now appeared that laypeople could handle everything. Instead of priestly vocation, the popular theologians talked about vocation to sacramental ministry as one of many available ministries.
If the priesthood is just one of many ministries, it is very difficult to see it as a permanent vocation. It could easily be exchanged for another job in the Church. The worn-out priest could say: “I feel I can be of greater help if I become a counselor, social worker, psychologist, or DRE in a parish. Then, of course, there should be no problem with marrying, and I could join the ‘real world.’”
As always happens in history, one extreme calls forth its opposite. In opposition to the “just call me ‘Joe’” approach of trying one’s best to appear as a “normal” person, among young seminarians and priests there arose the opposite trend. This trend emphasizes the special standing of the priest—his unique and superior position in the Church—wearing the distinguishing clerical dress, asserting his superior authority, and, often, mercilessly chastising his people from the pulpit.
Of course, I have drawn one-sided caricatures in order to shed some light on these two types of priestly self-understanding, showing that neither the liberal, nor the caste-conscious priest lives up to the priestly ideal drawn by Vatican II, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The last two popes have missed no opportunity to point out the crucial importance of the priest in the Church, while incorporating and deepening the best positive qualities of both of these types of priestly identity.
The One Priest and Many Priests
At the first Mass of a priest, Raymond Brown started his homily by pointing out that we do not find priests in the New Testament, and that the first evidence to priestly ministry appears only in the letter of Clement of Rome. Of course, Brown insisted on the importance of the priesthood, but in his other writings he urged the Church to return to a greater appreciation of the Bible. No wonder, then, that those who listened to him, and to other exegetes of a similar mindset, were not very enthusiastic to embrace the priestly vocation. Fortunately (or rather providentially), Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, along with some outstanding theologians and exegetes—such as Congar, Feuillet and Vanhoye—were able to shed light on the biblical foundations of the priesthood in the mission of the apostles. 2 As Jesus’ very existence is defined by his mission to the world—the apostles and their successors, the college of bishops and their cooperators, the presbyters—all participate, to varying extents, in the priestly mission of Jesus Christ. Unlike any other religion, there is only one priest and one sacrifice in the New Testament: Jesus Christ and his self-offering. Bishops and presbyters are not priests in their own right, but participate in Jesus’ mission by making present the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Thus, their whole existence, their very being, is defined by being sent by Christ in order to extend his mission of teaching, shepherding, and sanctifying through the centuries, and to the farthest ends of the world. The priestly character, therefore, is as permanent and indelible as the priesthood of Jesus Christ, shaping not just the “function” of the priest, but also his personality, his relationships, his recreational activities, and his public and private life.
Priesthood and the Other Charisms in the Church
The ideal for the new evangelization includes the permanent abolition of a priestly caste that socially isolates itself from, and feels superior to, the laity. It also calls for continual awakening of the many charisms and services of laypeople in the life of the parish, diocese and even the universal Church. Faced with so many tasks, the priest knows that he cannot do his job by himself. He must search for all the competent laypeople he can find—not only financial experts and architects, but also people with ordinary, or extraordinary, spiritual gifts. In a good parish, many different lay ministries flourish today. They specialize in the care of the poor, the sick, the liturgy, and religious education. They counsel engaged and married couples, and help the divorced. The number of these ministries is still increasing. These multifaceted, and differentiated, activities call for a more demanding, and more sophisticated, priestly leadership. Enlisting the active cooperation of others, coordinating their activities, criticizing and encouraging them, is a much greater challenge than the one-man show of old. On the one hand, we still see too many instances of the authoritarian pastor. Some priests and bishops, on the other hand, misunderstood the demands of the post-conciliar era; they abandoned the principle of one-man responsibility, and allowed the parish staff to go their way, without providing guidance and direction. If a pastor or bishop shifts responsibility to others for what is going on in his parish or diocese, the mistake is as serious as if he had tried to do everything by himself. After all, he remains the shepherd who will have to give an account to God for each of his sheep.
The Ministerial Priesthood as Twofold Service
The priest for the new evangelization sees his vocation in the same way as Paul, and all the saintly bishops, priests and popes did: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:5). Thus, the priesthood is a twofold service. He serves Christ by preaching Christ, rather than himself, and he serves his people for the sake of Christ. He still looks at the celebration of the sacraments, and, especially, that of the Eucharist, as the center of his ministry. But he understands better today, than before, that the sacraments transform the lives of the faithful only if they are received with living faith. Consequently, the cleric spends more time and energy on preaching and teaching the Word of God in order to enkindle and deepen the faith of his people. This task can best be seen in the eucharistic celebration. By preaching the word of God, he prepares the community to receive the Word made flesh in the Eucharist. As the servant of Christ, the priest alone is enabled to make Christ present in his sacrifice, under the signs of bread and wine. Yet, the purpose of his priestly action is to actualize the priesthood of the whole community: all the faithful are called to join him in offering Christ, and themselves, through Christ to the Father.
Servant or Sacramental Representative of Christ?
Another contemporary false antinomy confuses discussion on the priest’s relationship to Christ. Is he the doulos Iesou Christou (the servant or slave of Christ), as Paul likes to refer to himself; or is he Christ’s sacramental representation, an alter Christus? In the New Testament, and in the tradition of the Church, including the latest magisterial documents, the two terms do not exclude, but rather clarify each other. Some theologians, such as Dennis Ferrara, are right in holding that the role of the priest, just as that of the apostle, is to be and to act as a servant, a slave of Christ. What theologians like him fail to see, however, is the intrinsic connection between radical servanthood, and sacramental representation. If we accept Pope John Paul II’s clarification on the latter, the complementary roles of the two definitions come to light:
… the phrase in persona Christi “means more than the offering ‘in the name of’ or ‘ in the place of’ Christ. In persona means in specific sacramental identification with the eternal High Priest, who is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice of his, a sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take his place. 3
This service implies a most radical, freely accepted slavery to Christ. If the priest were merely a delegated servant of Christ, Christ could not be “the principal subject” of the sacramental action, since only his delegate is present. Whereas, “specific sacramental identification” means that the priest does not merely act as a messenger of the absent Christ, but he freely allows Christ to expropriate his sacramental actions in such a way that Christ himself acts through him. Is such an ontological dependence on Christ not a freely accepted slavery of the most radical type? We see now the danger of misunderstanding the phrase, alter Christus. Priests do not multiply Christ; they are other persons than Christ. But, in the sacramental action, they are the living and free ‘instruments’ of the one Christ, who is present as the “principal subject of their actions.” The existential acceptance of this role, then, should lead to a conscious effort on the part of the priest to let Christ live and shine through the priest’s person and daily life; on the other hand, he should resist the constant temptation to confuse his own person with that of Christ. 4 St. Bernard relates a story about a horse carrying a prince. The horse thinks that all the honors and adulation are directed at him. Such a fool, writes Bernard, is the bishop or priest who thinks that awe and reverence are directed at his private person, rather than at Christ, whom he represents. It is, indeed, a sad experience to see a priest who forces himself to play a role that compels him to become a hypocrite. In other words, he feels it is his duty to appear holy, and in fact holier, than he really is.
A wise spiritual director liked to repeat to his seminarians: “Kneel down before your priesthood every day.” When you kiss your stole, think of this advice. We must learn to live this paradox: our participation in the priesthood of Christ should transform and define our whole personal existence, and, at the same time, nourish in us the awareness that our priesthood remains forever an undeserved gift that we have received for the sake of serving others. Bernard compares the role of the priest to that of John the Baptist. He came before Christ to prepare his way, and the greatest moment of his life was towards Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). John is the God-sent matchmaker. John’s joy is fulfilled when he hears the joyous cry of the Bridegroom, who found his bride, and found her a virgin. He must decrease, and Christ must increase. According to Bernard, the vocation of the priest is similar. He leads the souls to Christ, and rejoices in their intimate encounter, rather than putting himself between them.
Our priesthood, then, serves the priesthood of all the faithful. We enable our people to receive and activate their priesthood by baptizing them, by nourishing their faith, and making present for them the eternal sacrifice of Christ, so that we ministerial priests, and the priestly people of God, may offer Christ, and ourselves, to the Father through him, with him, and in him. St. Paul also expresses his priestly vocation in these terms: “I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God, since I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2).
Father and Mother of the Faithful
Two of the last words of the crucified Lord are addressed to his mother, and to the beloved disciple: “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Behold your mother. And from that hour,” the evangelist remarks, “the disciple took her into his own” (Jn 19: 26-27). Ratzinger knows that the Gospel of John presents the words of Jesus in such a way that we are encouraged to delve into their deeper meaning. He is aware of the saying of Augustine, “every word of the Word is brim full of mysteries.” Here, the disciple represents all the faithful, but also the apostles, and all later office-holders in the Church. And John does not say literally that the disciple received her into his home, but into his own: eis ta idia. In other words, he means: into his own personal life, into all his tasks and endeavors, into his heart. By these words, according to Ratzinger, all the bishops and priests are encouraged to introduce, into their lives and activities, the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. The results of Mary’s presence in John’s life are clearly reflected in his Gospel. John expresses the mysteries of Jesus—his inner life, his relationship to the Father, and his love for us—better than any other gospel. This is an invitation for all Christians, but especially for bishops and priests, to receive the mother of God into our own life and ministry. 5 We should be fathers for our people as Paul was: “You may have thousands of teachers in Christ but not many fathers, for I have begotten you in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). But, we should also be mothers, if we share in the heart of the Mother of God, and of the Church. We should realize that the ever-fatherly Paul understands himself, also, as the faithful’s mother: “My children, for whom I am in labor until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4:19). If we invite Mary into our heart, she will bring us closer to her Son; she will lead us into his heart; and then, we will know when to be tenderhearted toward those who are entrusted to our care. But, we will also know when—in our imitating Paul—to use the very authority, the exousia of Christ, which for Paul includes rebuke and excommunication from the church.
The Prayer of the Priest
As the lives of practically all the popes—from Blessed Pius IX to Benedict XVI—show, prayer is the primary and most effective means of priestly service. 6 In spite of their enormous workload, these popes prayed faithfully the breviary and the rosary, and also found much time for personal prayer. If they could find time for personal prayer and study, how can we say credibly: “Sorry, I would love to pray, but have no time for it”? If personal prayer—in the form of meditation, spiritual reading, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—is missing from a priestly life, then the celebration of the Mass, the sacraments, and reading the breviary become just duties in a lifeless routine, resulting often in a real crisis in our vocation. The priest begins to run away from himself, immersing himself into feverish activity. In many cases, this activity can be useful pastoral work, but the priest will end up suffering burnout, or possibly fall to addictions, or some form of sexual immorality.
Paul, in his letters, tells his readers that he is praying constantly for them, always appearing before God burdened by “solicitude for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). We priests should appear before God, carrying with us all those entrusted to our care. Let us offer all our prayers, activities and sufferings for our people. Even when we talk with God about our most intimate desires or problems, our faithful should be present in the back of our minds. I can be a “man for others” only to the extent that I am a “man of God.”
As seminarians are preparing for the priesthood, they will endure many temptations, many struggles to be accepted, struggles with obedience, and for acquiring study habits, for purity and humility. At such times, let them become aware that they fight and suffer, not only for themselves, but also for all those will be entrusted to their pastoral care. If they defeat the temptations, they can credibly testify that God’s grace is powerful in our weakness. If they lose, they will also lose credibility. We can effectively encourage young people to build up a solid Christian character if, before listening to our words, they see it in our life. We should be able to tell our teenagers that the power of Christ is stronger than the wild beasts of passion, raging in their hearts. They can chain their beasts, and later, they can even domesticate them, to the point that they can use their sublimated energies for God’s purposes.
Success and Failure in Priestly Lives
The example of Christ, and of the saints, can effectively teach us about success and failure in our priestly life. Jesus was sent in his earthly life only to Israel, but he failed to convert his own people. Rather, he stirred up the rage of the ruling class, who put him to death in the most shameful way—a punishment given to slaves. Not even after his resurrection, and outpouring of the Spirit, did the apostles succeed in their mission to the larger part of Israel. When Peter and Paul were executed in Rome, it seemed very likely that Christianity would be uprooted by the emperor Nero, and corrupted by the spreading of heresies. Yet, in two centuries Christianity became the dominant force in the Roman Empire. The Church always wins by losing; just as Jesus entered into his glory through the defeat of the cross. Even the robust, athletic Pope John Paul II ended up as a helpless invalid. Think of his much-publicized last picture, in which John Paul is standing at the window of the papal apartments on Easter Sunday 2005, unable to utter a single word of the papal blessing. Yet, John Paul was more effective in his suffering than most are in their health. God’s power is revealed when the weak are made strong; when the dead are raised to life. So, why should we expect a different outcome for ourselves? Perhaps, we are better examples of humility and charity in our sickness and weakness, than even when we are delivering our best homily.
Our job is to carry out, step-by-step, God’s plan in our lives. We should try to be the most faithful servants of Christ as possible. But, we should never try to measure the success of our ministry. We should place the outcome in God’s hands.
The Call for a New Evangelization in the New World We Are Facing
We have been called to a new evangelization, because the contemporary world, which is being born before our eyes, calls for a fresh assessment of the new situation. We are to read the “signs of times,” using new energies, new saints, new insights and new words—ultimately a new Pentecost—to proclaim Jesus Christ in a way that reaches the hearts of believers, and unbelievers, alike.
Whatever news we read, one of the most frequent words we find in it is “globalization”: global perspective, global economic crisis, global warming, the global market, global internet, global media, etc. The more global we become, the more we face the global danger of a nuclear holocaust. But, even now, we see local wars and uprisings, terrorist actions that send global waves of immigrants, seeking safety and food, and, above all, a home in a new country, where they can find relative peace.
The most important factor, however, for a unified world is still missing: an inner spiritual unity, which is able to create harmony and peace in this bewildering diversity of religions, cultures, nations and ethnic groups. Pope Benedict XVI accepts, and even appreciates, the fact that Christians, practicing Christians, are a minority in the world. He likes to point out that it was always creative minorities that changed the world. Consider the example of ancient Greece. Within the world of antiquity, Greece was a small nation. Yet, their culture conquered Europe, and most of the world. Think of Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century. They were a minority in the Roman Empire, and yet, they transformed into a Christian commonwealth, consisting of, not only the existing Greco-Roman culture, but also the invading barbarian tribes.
The direct goal of the bishops and priests cannot be the transformation of the international society into a peaceful, harmonious unity in diversity. That is the role of the Christian laity. The ministers of the Church should aim at building up the Christian community, the body of Christ. St. Paul speaks about his vocation as an apostle in these terms: “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, in performing the priestly service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:16).
This, then, is the vocation of the priest: to preach, to teach, and to celebrate the sacraments, enabling the faithful of his community to offer up themselves as a spiritual sacrifice to God—in, and through, and with the self-offering of Jesus Christ. The individual Christian’s call is primarily the offering up of his own body; the priest’s call is to help the whole community, entrusted to his care, to be shaped and molded into this spiritual worship. According to Tertullian, the pagans in the second century said of Christians: “Look how they love one another.” As a result, many of them volunteered to join the Church. If, on the other hand, priests aim at political action, and consider their primary goal to be social workers in their environment, they will become conformed to society, and swallowed up in its frictions and conflicts. This is the paradox of the priestly vocation: only if priests focus on enabling their people to seek first the Kingdom of God, will this people act as a leaven in the larger society.
You also see how superficial, and even false, it is to oppose two, so-called “priestly ideals”: the priest who celebrates the sacraments, and the priest who celebrates life. If the celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, does not motivate and empower people to love and serve as Jesus Christ, then, they waste the grace of the sacraments for themselves. Grace is offered to us in every Eucharist, but its acceptance is not automatic. If the priest preaches, teaches and celebrates the sacraments in the right way, and his people respond with sincerity, then both priest and congregation will find themselves, also together, in what some call “real life”—going after and serving those who are searching for truth, who suffer and hunger both for material and spiritual nourishment. But if the priest celebrates only the so-called “real life,” and neglects his sacramental ministry, his love and service will not be very different from that of a good social worker. Let me add that, restricting the vocation of the priest to “sacramental ministry” is very dangerous; it may very easily result in restricting the role of the priest to the sacristy and the altar, providing him with an easy excuse for withdrawing from animating and exemplifying the service he should expect from his people.
John Paul II spoke on June 9, 1979 in Mogila, Poland, for the first time about the “new evangelization” during his first visit to his homeland after becoming Pope. He addressed a large crowd, standing in front of where a new cross and a new church had been built by the people at the Shrine of the Holy Cross (in Nowa Huta), in spite of the many roadblocks the communist regime had set up to prevent it. In fact, it was the then-Cardinal Wojtyła who had led the fight which resulted in the new cross and the new church. Let me quote from his homily:
The new wooden cross was raised not far from here at the very time we were celebrating the Millennium (of Poland). With it, we were given a sign that, on the threshold of the new millennium, in these new times, these new conditions of life, the Gospel is again being proclaimed. A new evangelization has begun, as if it were a new proclamation, even if in reality it is the same as ever. The cross stands high over the revolving world.
The setting is symbolic. John Paul proclaims the new evangelization in the midst of a hostile atheist system of government, intent on eliminating Christianity. He shows his people the necessary link between the Gospel, and the humanity of man, the future of Poland, and that of the world. Eliminate the cross, and you eliminate the worth and dignity of the human being, and you deprive Poland of its soul. This inescapable connection between faith in God, and true humanism, would be the very center of his preaching and writing during his twenty-four years in the seat of Peter, while he was, first, confronting communism, and after its collapse, unbridled capitalism. Without God, the humanity of the person is eclipsed, and the person is shrunk to a mere useful, or useless, cog in the machine of utilitarian forces.
Even more than his words, however, the personality of John Paul II embodied the ideal of the new evangelization. His rich and mature humanity made a deep and lasting impression on people. Many may not have understood his long and abstract sentences, but they were still enthusiastic about what they saw and heard. At times, he was thundering and reprimanding; at other times, embracing suffering people, as tenderly as a mother, while always radiating a love, and inner strength. This made the leaders of Poland cower before him, eventually softening up and disarming, even the old anti-Church foe, Fidel Castro. His humanity was simultaneously universal—embracing all the different races—yet, genuinely Polish. He was so personable and fatherly that the young people of Toronto, Canada, when seeing him, yelled out: “You are our father and grandfather.” Even in his old age, when Parkinson’s disease had frozen his face into a rigid mask, there radiated a youthful strength from his eyes, that moved the hearts of the young, through the very end of his life. It was not simply a pious lie, when they chanted at his last World Youth Day, that: “The Pope is young.” When he died, about three million people flocked to Rome, Catholic and non-Catholic. Even many non-Catholics felt that, in his dying, they had lost their own father or grandfather.
I needed to draw this short outline of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II’s personality since that illustrates most clearly what, mutatis mutandis, the ideal priest of the new millennium ought to be. His close, but very different, friend and successor, Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, complements this ideal. He lacks the rock-star qualities of Pope John Paul II, the overpowering weight of his personal presence. Yet, Pope Benedict’s genuine warmth, humility and kindness have won over even some of his former enemies. Very few know, however, how much this transformation has cost him—the change from a shy university professor, to a globetrotting missionary, whose gentle smile wants to embrace every human being on our planet. He intends to build upon John Paul’s heritage. He continues to talk about the need for a new evangelization, and recently, in spite of his well-known opposition to any increase in Vatican bureaucracy, he instituted the “Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization,” choosing the theme of the New Evangelization for the next Synod of Bishops in Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI also wants to address all of the historically Christian West, reminding these nations of their Catholic roots. Yet, his focus seems to be narrower, or more realistic, than that of John Paul II. He hopes to build up strong and creative Christian minorities, since he is convinced that creative minorities always shape the culture. At his first papal audience, the reporters were stunned. As one of them put it: “We actually understand what he says,” which was not very often the case with John Paul II. But, more than that, is what Benedict has achieved. He speaks about the basic mysteries of Christianity in such a fresh new way, that even his well-informed Christian hearers are astonished, confessing: “We have never realized that this is what this mystery means up to now.”
In our new world, in which the number of college graduates is sharply increasing, a hardly perceived new challenge is facing the Catholic priest today. More and more American Catholics are in desperate need of intellectual leadership, which would help them preserve their Catholic faith in the midst of an increasingly secular culture. Just as a highly educated Protestant might disdain his fundamentalist origins, many educated Catholics do not find themselves at home in their neighborhood parish. Most priests cannot help them make the connection between their faith and education—between God’s revelation and the world of philosophy, science, literature, and the arts. We have forgotten, to a large extent, that the Catholic Church, precisely because it is catholic (having a mission to transform all men and the whole life of man), has inspired and shaped culture throughout her history. Who could prove convincingly to our laity that the Church is a promoter and inspirer of learning, if not the Catholic priest? Some priests should manifest, in their own lives, that reason and faith, secular knowledge and theology, scholarship and Catholic identity, that are natural allies, rather than irreconcilable enemies. Such priests would not be teachers and scholars in addition to their priesthood, but priests who live and practice their priesthood through teaching and scholarly work. They would not punctuate a math class with religious exhortations, or give first place in a literature course to Christian authors. They would rather have a reverence for the truth, wherever it is to be found. By fostering knowledge of the truth, they would lead their students closer to God, the source of all truth. Only a commitment to all truths, and to the truth for truth’s sake, is Catholic.
The sectarian approach is diametrically opposed to the priesthood. Whether non-Catholic or Catholic, the sectarian is interested in the truth only to the extent that it furthers his movement. Preoccupied with religion and morality, narrowly understood, he is indifferent, or even hostile, to “merely” human values, such as science, literature and the arts. If educated, he uses his learning as a weapon to “defeat the enemy”—whether it be the Protestant, the atheist, or, more recently, “the exploiting capitalist.”
This, then, is one of the great challenges the American Catholic priest faces today: to provide intellectual leadership for the formation of a Catholic intelligentsia. He should help the faithful understand and formulate their Catholic faith in such a way that it makes sense in today’s world. He should inspire them to value, criticize, and deepen the intellectual life of the country.
I wrote more extensively on the need for intellectual leadership, not because this is the only challenge the American Catholic clergy faces today, but because this is the least perceived, and the most neglected. There are many other urgent tasks that should be explored in a more detailed account. Let me mention only a few. More than eighty million Americans do not belong to any of the Christian churches. We need to devise ways to reach them, explaining to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should also educate the rich and middle class Catholics about their moral obligation to help the poor. Catholic laymen and laywomen should cooperate with other Americans in finding ways to eliminate poverty in our country, helping Third World countries raise themselves out of the quicksand of an ever-worsening poverty.
Paradoxically, the clergy will be successful in providing intellectual leadership, and influencing the social consciousness of Americans, only if it does not consider these as their central tasks. The center of the Gospel is God’s call to an eternal communion of life with himself, and with one another, by conforming to the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Our transformation into Christ extends to the whole person. Therefore, it must shape culture and society. Our share in the love of Christ is real only if we love, not only by words, but also by deeds. Hence, our duty is to help the poor and oppressed. But the Gospel must not be distorted into a mere cultural or social concern. It can transform the world only because it calls us beyond this world. Here, we can only anticipate and prepare for the wedding feast of heaven.
Concluding Remarks on Priestly Spirituality
Here I summarize, and draw to a conclusion, what has been said above regarding priestly spirituality. It should be based on what the priest is. He is “set apart for the Gospel of God” (Rom 1:1) so that he may act in accord with the charism he received in ordination. “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ the Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Christ” (2 Cor 4:5). The priest represents both Christ and the Church by being the servant of both Christ and the Church.
He prays in the name of the Church, in union with Christ, to the Father (Eucharist, Sacrament of Reconciliation, Liturgy of the Hours); but, he also acts in the person of Christ (sacramental identification), pronouncing words of consecration and absolution. In his person, Christ’s action, and the Church’s action, meet and join together.
He should live up to this twofold representation by freely allowing himself to be expropriated by Christ and the Church, keeping in mind that he is not Christ, but represents Christ. Like John the Baptist, he should decrease, so that Christ may increase in him. As that wise spiritual director said: “Kneel down every day before your priesthood!”
If the priest allows Christ to live and act in him, he can “widen” his heart, and embrace with the very love (literally, “with the guts”) of Christ (Phil 1:7-8), all his people, all the world, and all those individuals who come to him for help (2 Cor 6:11-13; 7:2-4). Like Paul, the priest should strive to become all to all, so that he may save some (1 Cor 9:22-23).
He should personally enter into the sacramental actions that he performs by making the prayers of the Church, and Christ, his own personal prayer. Paul tells his faithful at the beginning of his letters that he constantly prays for them, and gives thanks to God for them. So the priest should become a man of prayer who brings his people’s needs to God.
Like St. Paul, a priest is to act as a father and a mother toward his people (1 Cor 4:15; Gal 4:19). But when necessary, he must be strong and uncompromising, using the authority (exousia) that he received from Christ (2 Cor 12:19-21; 13:10).
The priest will experience his inadequacy, just as Paul did; but, he should trust that the power of God will be perfected in weakness (2 Cor 12:7-10). He should try to be effective, but never dare to determine how effective his ministry is. Like the Apostle Paul, the priest should accept that his life will be sacrificed without tangible success. When imprisoned and facing the eventuality of a death sentence, he is still rejoicing: “Even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you” (Phil 2:17). In the twentieth century, thousands of priests were tortured and killed by the Nazi and Communist regimes, priests who could not see any tangible fruit of their sacrifice. Yet, many of them felt what one sick priest in the prison hospital told his secret visitor: “Tell my brothers that I am happy.” Since then, his religious community has revived, and even given life to a new foundation. The Church’s energy and glory always buds forth anew from the Cross of Christ.
- This address was first delivered to the community of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary at the Rigali Center in Saint Louis, Missouri, as the annual Kenrick Lecture in October of 2011. ↩
- Yves Congar, Gospel Priesthood (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967); André Feuillet, The Priesthood of Christ and His Ministers (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975); Albert Vanhoye, Old Testament Priests and the New Priest (Petersham, MS: St. Bede’s Publications, 1986). ↩
- Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist (Dominicae Cenae;24 February 1980) 8, quoted in the Encyclical on the Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church(Ecclesia de Eucharistia; 17 April 2003) 29. The Pope here clarifies the often misunderstood meaning of the blanket identification of the ministerial priest with the one High Priest Jesus Christ (“the one celebrating by a peculiar and sacramental way is completely the same as the ‘high and eternal Priest,’”) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Letter Sacerdotium ministeriale (6 August 1983) 4, in AAS 75 (1983), 1001-1009, at 1006. The phrase “completely the same” must be understood in the sense of “specific sacramental identification.” Cf. also Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter insigniores; 15 October 1976), in AAS 69 (1977) 98-116, at 112-113. See the criticism of these documents by Robert Daly, who relies on Edward Kilmartin’s studies: R. J. Daly, “Robert Bellarmine and Post-Tridentine Eucharistic Theology,” Theological Studies 61 (2000) 239-260, at 240; and E. J. Kilmartin, The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology, ed. R.J. Daly (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998) 384. In spite of his critique, Kilmartin (pp. 375-376) also admits that, in some sense, the celebrating priest does represent Christ. ↩
- Cf. D. Ferrara, “In Persona Christi: Representation of Christ or Servant of Christ’s Presence,” CTSA Proceedings 50 (1995) 138-145. ↩
- Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Mary, the Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 56-59. ↩
- Cf., Roch Kereszty, “Prayer in the Life of the Priest,” Communio 26 (2009) 607-622. ↩