Priesthood … is a call from Christ to “participation in a new life.” Every priest must cultivate in his own life a deep and abiding union with Christ, who is the perfect high priest, and the one whom every priest imagines in his ministry within the Church.
Introduction: Celebrating the Priesthood
In his address of 16 March 2009 to the Vatican Congregation for Clergy, his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI announced the celebration of a special year dedicated to the priesthood. The Year of the Priest began on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, 19 June 2009, and ends on the same feast on 2010. This special year focused on priesthood coincides with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests, and a model shepherd. The Cure of Ars wrote that: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” This beautiful sentence accentuates the appropriateness of the Holy Father’s choice to begin the Year of the Priest on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart.
As the Holy Father explains in his address, the Year of the Priest is directed toward encouraging priests in striving for spiritual perfection on which their ministry depends. The Pope reminds priests of the “aspiration to moral perfection that must dwell in every authentically priestly heart.” Priesthood is more than ministerial activity; it is a call from Christ to “participation in a new life.” Every priest must cultivate in his own life a deep and abiding union with Christ, who is the perfect high priest, and the one whom every priest imagines in his ministry within the Church.
This Year of the Priest also provides an opportunity to recall the true identity and mission of the priesthood, proclaiming that truth for the good of the whole Church. The Holy Father reminds us all that “the ministerial priesthood…is ontologically distinct, and not only by rank, from the baptismal priesthood that is also known as the ‘common priesthood.’” Furthermore, the priest’s mission is carried out “in the Church.” The priest does not proclaim himself but, rather, brings God to the world. The priest ministers in communion with the Church, in its hierarchical and doctrinal context. Solid formation of priests, rooted in the uninterrupted Tradition of the Church, is essential. The life of the Church depends on good priests, formed in the mind and heart of the Church, to bring the love of the heart of Jesus to the world. “As priests,” the Pope said, “we proclaim Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Christ, Crucified and Risen…in the glad certainty that this truth coincides with the deepest expectations of the human heart.”
Finally, for the whole Church, this Year of the Priest is a time to be reminded of the unique and indispensible gift of the priesthood to the Church. It is a time to appreciate our priests, expressing our appreciation to them in prayer and deeds of love. It is a time to pray earnestly for priestly vocations, that the Church may never be deprived of an abundance of love and grace, flowing from the Sacred Heart of Christ, through the heart of every priest, and into the hearts of all believers.
St. John Vianney: Patron Saint of Priests
St. John Marie Vianney was ordained a priest in 1815. Three years later, he was made pastor of Ars, a remote French village, where his reputation as a confessor and a director of souls made him known throughout the Christian world. As a parish priest, his ministry was extraordinary in many ways.
His life was one of extreme mortification. Accustomed to the most severe austerities, approached by swarms of penitents, and besieged by the devil, this great mystic manifested a constant loving patience. He sacrificed the comforts of this world—eating simple means and wearing a tattered cassock—in order to spend his energy and resources on providing the very best for the Lord, and the celebration of the Liturgy. He was a wonderworker loved by the crowds, but he retained a childlike simplicity, remaining to this day the living image of the priest after the heart of Christ.
St. John Vianney was a true priest and a man of the Church. He heard confessions of people from all over the world for up to sixteen hours each day, preached the faith with zeal, loved his parishioners, and celebrated the Mass with sincere devotion. His life was filled with works of charity. It is recorded that even the staunchest of sinners were converted at his mere word.
He died August 4, 1859, and was canonized May 31, 1925.
The life and ministry of St. John Vianney recalls for us the core of the priesthood: a life of constant prayer; a simple life devoted to Christ; a life in tune with the heart of Christ and the mind of the Church; a life devoted to the celebration of the sacraments and preaching of the Word.
The Year of the Priest commemorates the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests. Through his powerful intercession, we pray for the holiness of all priests and for an increase in men zealously devoted to the fullness of the priesthood.
The Identity of the Priest
Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord, is the Son of God made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. In him, the fullness of the old law and the prophets is manifest; God’s saving action throughout history finds its fulfillment.
Jesus is priest, prophet, and king. As universal king, he inaugurates an eternal and universal kingdom: “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” (Preface of Christ the King) As Prophet, he proclaims the good news, as he announced at the beginning of his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18).
As high priest, Jesus fulfills and surpasses the ancient sacrifices by offering the one, new and perfect sacrifice of himself on the altar of the cross for the salvation of the whole human race. On the cross, Jesus is both the priest, who offers sacrifice, and the victim, who is offered. From the pierced side of Jesus as he died on the cross, flowed the saving tide of blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the Church. The water symbolizes baptism, the gateway to the Church and the sacraments. The blood prefigures the Eucharist, the divine nourishment that unites us to Christ and the whole Church.
The sacrifice of the cross prefigures and is re-presented in every Mass, as Christ is made present each day on altars throughout the world, and God’s faithful people are drawn into the reality of Christ’s saving death. The celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the essential sacred action for which every priest is ordained and consecrated. In the Mass, the priest discovers his identity and mission. He is called to make Christ present to the world, and to lay down his life for the Church, as Jesus did on the cross.
On the eve of his passion, Jesus instituted the sacred priesthood as he also instituted the Eucharist. The two sacraments are essentially united in the life of the Church for the salvation of souls. Without the priesthood there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church. During the Last Supper, Jesus gave the apostles a share in his divine life in a unique way as priests, who are called to live and minister in persona Christi capitis, “in the person of Christ, the head of the body,” the Church. Jesus had prepared the apostles for years by his teaching and institution of the sacraments. At Pentecost, the apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire them to follow Jesus’ great commission to make disciples of all nations.
Jesus formed the Church throughout his earthly life when he called the disciples together, taught them, instituted each of the sacraments, and formed them as a community of faith. Through baptism, all the faithful share in the one priesthood of Christ and are called to live their own unique vocations as followers of Jesus. From within the community of the faithful, God chooses men for the ministerial priesthood. They are ordained (chosen) and consecrated (set apart) for sacred ministry.
The ministerial priest finds his identity in Christ. He is configured to Christ, the head, and sent forth to bring him to others in word, sacrament, and in his manner of life. The priest’s whole life and work is meant to be an ever-deepening relationship with Christ, a relationship that is experienced in the mind and heart of the Church, a relationship with the Lord that bears rich fruit for the salvation of souls.
The Mission of the Priest
The mission of the priest, and the many duties that make up priestly ministry, manifests the fundamental relationship the priest cultivates with Christ. Priesthood is a constant revealing of the person of Christ in the midst of the world. It is, therefore, much more than performing functions of ministry, however valuable these are in themselves.
The Year of the Priest opened solemnly with veneration of the relic of Saint John Vianney, vespers, and Eucharistic adoration on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. During the veneration, a reflection on priesthood was offered by Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, focusing on the loving heart of the priest, and the loving heart of the holy Cure of Ars, who taught that “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”
In his reflection, Archbishop Piacenza said: “The priesthood is not something we do. We are priests…we are about a holy business that is always an outgrowth of our being…” The preaching of the Word, teaching, spiritual direction, even administrative duties, and especially the celebration of the Mass and other sacraments, are not mere functions. A priest is not just a priest when he is visibly doing priestly things. He is always a priest, his ministry flowing from the reality of the priesthood and his relationship with Christ.
This is exemplified in the way we understand the priest during the celebration ofMass. The priest is often described as “presider,” a word that makes it seem as if he is performing one function among many. Instead, the priest is the one through whom Christ is made present in the Eucharist; without him, the Mass would not exist. While all the liturgical roles are valuable, the “priest celebrant” or “principal celebrant” (as the official liturgical texts read) is indispensible. His sacred duties flow from his very being as one conformed to Christ, the head of his body, the Church. In the priest, Christ himself is present, and through the priest’s words and ritual action, makes Christ substantially present in the Holy Eucharist.
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28).
While these words of Jesus, before his Ascension, truly apply to the whole Church in certain ways, they contain a uniquely priestly commission: preaching the Word and celebrating the sacraments are the unique and essential priestly tasks. In word and in sacrament—indeed, in his whole life of loving service and witness to the truth and love of Christ—the priest brings Christ into the lives of men and women.
The mission of the priest could be summed up in a few words by Bishop Donald W. Trautman to seminarians being installed in the ministry of lector in 2004: “Bring Christ to others!” This ultimately means that the priest must constantly strive to become more like Christ—through his prayer, spiritual discipline, and constant offering of himself in union with his offering of the Mass—so that the presence of Christ may be seen in his ministry.
As their spiritual perfection increases, priests become more configured to Christ, in whose person they stand as they exercise priestly ministry. Then “the love of the heart of Jesus” is able to enliven them, radiating throughout their ministry. The whole Church ought to pray and support her priests, imploring God to aid them by his grace in their journey toward moral and spiritual perfection. The Church needs good priests; even more she needs holy priests! She needs priests who strive daily to be united to Christ and who, with passionate love, make his presence known in the world.
Priesthood is a vocation—a call from God to a specific way of life that involves total giving of oneself to God, and for the sake of the Church. Every Catholic young man, as he matures and discerns his path in life, ought to consider whether God might be calling him to priesthood. He ought to ask God in prayer if his life is meant for the high calling of the priesthood.
Priestly life demands a commitment to chaste celibacy, respect and obedience to the bishop, and faithful praying of the Liturgy of the Hours—the Church’s daily prayer revolving around the Psalms, and prayed and various times of the day. Priests are called to exemplify simplicity of life, remain devoted to constant prayer, and spend their lives in service to the Church.
It is the duty of every priest to be a “vocation director” within his parish or ministerial assignment. We are each called to inspire young men to the priesthood, by the example of prayer, of joyful service, and of a priesthood lived well, in communion with the Church and for the sake of God’s people.
Mary, Mother of Priests
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Great High Priest, is indeed the mother of all priests. On Holy Thursday 1988, Pope John Paul II spoke to the world’s priests: “When we celebrate the Eucharist and stand each day on Golgotha, we need to have near us the one, who through heroic faith, carried to its zenith her union with her Son, precisely then on Golgotha.” Mary was with Jesus in his passion, in the fulfillment of his salvific mission. So, she is with the Church, as the saving moment of Calvary is re-presented in every Mass, and as Jesus’ saving mission is carried out by her priests. Every priest ought to keep her near throughout his whole life, trusting in her maternal care and powerful intercession.
The Priesthood Today
In the 21st century, the essence of the priesthood remains always the same while the needs of the Church, and the culture effecting priests, are always changing. New demands are placed on the Church’s priests, which require them to remain even more rooted in Christ, through prayer, study, priestly fraternity and authentic human relationships. The gems taken from the Word of God, and the teaching of the Church, and provided herein for reflection, reveal a wealth of wisdom from centuries past that serves as a foundation for today’s priests, and beyond. The future of priestly ministry is always a mystery. In every age and cultural situation, the faithfulness of Christ is revealed in the faithfulness of his priests, who bring to the world the saving love of Jesus, for the glory of God, and the sanctification of his people.