The Year for Priests

“The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”

Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words of Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) in his Letter proclaiming a Year for Priests. This is a brilliant and timely initiative given the beating that priests have taken in many countries due to various scandals. We have learned once again that we must never take sin for granted and that we belong to a Church semper reformanda (“always in need of reform”). Evil is powerful. Yet in the face of the reality of sin there stands the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice overcame all sin.

So the first dimension of the Year for Priests is to re-discover the Priesthood of Christ himself. The Priest who sacrifices himself is the core of any understanding of what it means to be a priest who participates in the Priesthood of Christ. Saint Paul states our belief about Jesus Christ succinctly: “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven. And you who once were alienated and hostile in mind because of evil deeds he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through his death, to present you holy, without blemish, and irreproachable before him, provided that you persevere in the faith, firmly grounded, stable, and not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, am a minister.” (Colossians 1:19-23)

Paul’s words lead us naturally into the second dimension of the Year for Priests and that is to affirm those men who participate in the Priesthood of Christ ministerially. The pope’s letter cites John Vianney’s crisp description of the high points of what this means: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest. . . . after God, the priest is everything!. . .Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.” This is not a picture of a nine-to-five job. This is the priesthood in all of its simplicity, as well as its hiddenness, and let me say clearly, its grandeur.

Pope Benedict refers to his own early experience as a priest because it is really the only way to begin to share something of what the priesthood means. Words about roles, words about management, words about ministers in other ecclesial communities do not even begin to come close to this reality. I was trained in the seminary during a time when many clergy were hoping to be “more than sacrament machines.” Thank God that I was assigned to assist pastors who gloried in the sacraments and what they do to bring Christ, powerful and present, into each phase of people’s lives. To hear the confession of a dying man; to pray with a family gathered around their deceased grandma; to bless a newly-wed couple’s home, and most of all to celebrate the Eucharist with a group of ten people scrabbling for a living in the wilds of Zululand — words don’t even come close. God’s love is wonderful!

The third dimension of the Year for Priests is the other face of what we have just seen. It is the dimension of suffering. It should not be surprising that priests suffer – especially those who take their duties seriously. Our Master did no less. We learn that theoretically in the seminary, but it is in the day to day routine that it becomes an experience of the heart and one that draws the mind into understanding. Historically priests have suffered horribly for being priests: torture, crucifixion, starvation, you name it. The pope neatly sums it up: “I am also led to think, therefore, of the countless situations of suffering endured by many priests, either because they themselves share in the manifold human experience of pain or because they encounter misunderstanding from the very persons to whom they minister. How can we not also think of all those priests who are offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission and persecuted, even at times to offering the supreme testimony of their own blood?”

This is a good time to remember – and pray for – our priests.