"What a frightening thing to be a priest!"

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The Holy Father is elucidating his plan for The Year of the Priest. Here is his Wednesday audience:

Dear brothers and sisters,

The Heart of Jesus and the Heart of the Curé d'Ars

Last Friday, June 19, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the day traditionally dedicated to pray for the sanctification of priests, I had the joy of inaugurating the Year for Priests. The year was proclaimed on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the "birth into eternal life" of the Curé d'Ars, St. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney. Entering into the Vatican basilica for the celebration of vespers, almost as a first symbolic gesture, I paused in the Choir Chapel to venerate the relic of this saintly pastor of souls: his heart. Why a Year for Priests? Why particularly in memory of the holy Curé d'Ars, who apparently did nothing extraordinary?

Two Saints: Paul and Jean-Marie

Divine Providence has ordained that this personage would be placed beside that of St. Paul. As the Pauline Year is concluding, a year which was dedicated to the Apostle of the Gentiles, the epitome of an extraordinary evangelizer who made various mission trips to spread the Gospel, this new jubilee year invites us to gaze upon a poor farmer turned humble pastor, who carried out his pastoral service in a small town.

If the two saints are quite different insofar as the life experiences that marked them -- one traveled from region to region to announce the Gospel; the other remained in his little parish, welcoming thousands and thousands of faithful -- there is nevertheless something fundamental that unites them: It is their total identification with their ministry, their communion with Christ. This brought St. Paul to say: "Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). St. John Vianney liked to repeat: "If we had faith, we would see God hidden in the priest like a light behind glass, like wine mixed with water."

Support in the Struggle for Spiritual Perfection

The objective of this Year for Priests, as I wrote in the letter sent to priests for this occasion, is to support that struggle of every priest "toward spiritual perfection, on which the effectiveness of his ministry primarily depends." It is to help priests first of all -- and with them all of God's people -- to rediscover and reinvigorate their awareness of the extraordinary and indispensable gift of grace that the ordained ministry is for he who receives it, for the whole Church, and for the world, which would be lost without the real presence of Christ.

Undoubtedly, the historical and social conditions in which the Curé d'Ars lived have changed, and it is justifiable to ask oneself how it's possible for priests living in a globalized society to imitate him in the way he identified himself with his ministry. In a world in which the customary outlook on life comprehends less and less the sacred, and in its place "useful" becomes the only important category, the catholic -- and even ecclesial -- idea of the priesthood can run the risk of being emptied of the esteem that is natural to it.

Priest in Service

It is not by chance that as much in theological environments as in concrete pastoral practice and the formation of the clergy, a contrast -- even an opposition -- is made between two distinct concepts of the priesthood. Some years ago, I noted in this regard that there is "on the one hand a social-functional understanding that defines the essence of the priesthood with the concept of 'service': service to the community in the fulfillment of a function. On the other hand, there is the sacramental-ontological understanding, which naturally does not deny the servicial character of the priesthood, but sees it anchored in the being of the minister and considers that this being is determined by a gift called sacrament, given by the Lord through the mediation of the Church" (Joseph Ratzinger, Ministry and Life of the Priest, in Principles of Catholic Theology).

Priest in Sacrifice

The terminological mutation of the word "priesthood" toward a meaning of "service, ministry, assignment" is as well a sign of this distinct understanding. The primacy of the Eucharist is linked to the sacramental-ontological conception, in the binomial "priest-sacrifice," while to the other [conception] would correspond the primacy of the word and service to the proclamation.

Considered carefully, these are not two opposing understandings, and the tension that nevertheless exists between them should be resolved from within. Thus the decree "Presbyterorum Ordinis" from the Second Vatican Council affirms: "Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God are called together and assembled. All belonging to this people can offer themselves as 'a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God' (Rom 12:1). Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until the Lord himself comes" (No. 2).

Proclamation as Holiness

We then ask ourselves, "What exactly does it mean, for priests, to evangelize? What is the so-called primacy of proclamation?" Jesus speaks of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God as the true objective for his coming to the world, and his proclamation is not just a "discourse." It includes, at the same time, his actions: His signs and miracles indicate that the Kingdom is now present in the world, which in the end coincides with himself. In this sense, one must recall that even in this idea of the "primacy" of proclamation, word and sign are inseparable.

Christian proclamation does not proclaim "words," but the Word, and the proclamation coincides with the very person of Christ, ontologically open to the relationship with the Father and obedient to his will. Therefore, authentic service to the Word requires from the priest that he strains toward a deep abnegation of himself, until being able to say with the Apostle, "It is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me."

Servant of the Word

The priest cannot consider himself "lord" of the word, but rather its servant. He is not the word, but rather, as John the Baptist proclaimed, (precisely today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist), he is the "voice" of the Word: "A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths'" (Mark 1:3).

Victimhood of the Priest

Now then, to be the "voice" of the Word doesn't constitute for the priest a merely functional element. On the contrary, it presupposes a substantial "losing oneself" in Christ, participating in his mystery of death and resurrection with all of oneself: intelligence, liberty, will, and the offering of one's own body as a living sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1-2). Only participation in the sacrifice of Christ, in his kenosis, makes the proclamation authentic! And this is the path that should be walked with Christ to the point of saying with him to the Father: Let it be done, "not what I will but what you will" (Mark 14:36). The proclamation, therefore, always implies as well the sacrifice of oneself, the condition so that the proclamation can be authentic and effective.

Abiding Heart to Heart With Christ

Alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father, who in incarnating himself, has taken the form of a slave, has made himself a slave (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). The priest is a slave of Christ in the sense that his existence, ontologically configured to Christ, takes on an essentially relational character: He is in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ at the service of man. Precisely because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people: He is the minister of their salvation, of their happiness, of their authentic liberation -- maturing, in this progressive taking up of the will of Christ, in prayer, in this "remaining heart to heart" with him. This is therefore the essential condition of all proclamation, which implies participation in the sacramental offering of the Eucharist and docile obedience to the Church.

Sayings of the Curé d'Ars

The holy Curé d'Ars often repeated with tears in his eyes: "What a frightening thing to be a priest!" And he added: "How we ought to pity a priest who celebrates Mass as if he were engaged in something routine. How wretched is a priest without interior life!"

Entrustment to Our Lady

May this Year of the Priest bring all priests to identify themselves totally with Jesus, crucified and risen, so that in imitation of St. John the Baptist, we are willing to "decrease" so that he increases; so that, following the example of the Curé d'Ars, they constantly and deeply understand the responsibility of their mission, which is sign and presence of the infinite mercy of God. Let us entrust to the Virgin, Mother of the Church, this Year for Priests just begun and all the priests of the world.

[Translation by Zenit]

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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