The Year for Priests

Editorial, August 2009

On March 16 in a talk to the Congregation of the Clergy Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was declaring a “Year for Priests” to begin on June 19, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, and to end on June 19, 2010. This special year dedicated to the priesthood affects all of us who have been ordained for service in the Church.

The Pope lists two main purposes for the Year for Priests: 1) “to encourage priests in striving for spiritual perfection on which, above all, the effectiveness of their ministry depends”; and 2) to make clear to all “the importance of the priest’s role and mission in the Church and in contemporary society.”

Bishops rule the Church but it is priests who do most of the work. Priests are appointed by the bishop to be his representatives in parishes and in many other works of the diocese. It is common knowledge among priests that, if the bishop mandates something and the pastors do not support it, very little will be done. An example of this is a special collection that the pastors do not support. If they do not promote it, it will bring in very little money.

Priests have taken a big hit since Vatican II, especially with regard to the sex abuse scandals in the USA and elsewhere. A few traitors among us, abusing children and teenagers, have tarnished the reputation of all of us. It will take time and sacrificial service on the part of priests to restore the good will and good reputation which priests once enjoyed. At the present time there are many who suspect all of us of being a danger to children, even though the guilty ones were small in number percentage-wise and the vast majority of priests are faithful, chaste servants of the Lord.

Benedict says that the priest’s mission is carried out in the Church. That mission, he says, is ecclesial, communal, hierarchical and doctrinal. These characteristics are what make his mission authentic and guarantee its spiritual effectiveness. The Pope goes on to say that we priests “proclaim Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Christ, Crucified and Risen, Sovereign of time and history, in the glad certainty that this truth coincides with the deepest expectations of the human heart.”

The Pope says that every priest must be well aware that he is not preaching himself to the people. Rather, “every priest must be well aware that he is bringing to the world Another, God himself.” Then he makes a startling statement that every priest should meditate on when he says, “God is the only treasure which  ultimately people desire to find in a priest.” This attitude is surely present in the minds of pious Catholics from Eastern Europe and South America who kiss the hand of a priest when they meet him. In this way they show reverence for the hands that hold the Body of Christ, that baptize, that are raised in absolution over the sinner in the sacrament of penance.

I welcome the “Year for Priests” as an opportunity to stress the importance of the priest in the Church and the world. Without the priest there is no Church, no Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, no Eucharist, no forgiveness of sins. Because we are all sinners and are in need of forgiveness and salvation, we all need priests. They are beacons of hope in a despairing world. Imagine what your life would be like if there were no priests available to provide the sacraments and to preach the Word of God.

In order to be effective instruments of Christ, priests must strive for spiritual perfection—they must strive for intimate union which Christ in a life of constant prayer and self sacrifice. For no one can give what he does not have. If the priest does not have Christ in his heart and mind, he cannot communicate him to others.

It is essential for us priests to listen to our Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ. He is asking us during this “Year for Priests” to rededicate ourselves to Christ Jesus, to strive to be saints, and to be generous in making ourselves available to the people of God.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.