By Fr. Joe DeFrancisco
While celebrating the Eucharist in homage to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on June 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI announced “The Year for Priests.”
The Holy Father chose to use this year as a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the death of a saintly priest, St. John Vianney.
Pope Benedict believed the Cure d’Ars to be a timeless example of a man who so completely identified himself with the self-emptying mission of Christ.
Imitating Jesus, the Good Shepherd, St. John Vianney ministered to the poor, evangelized those weak in faith and ministered “mercy” to the most rejected of society. In his homily outlining the meaning of his announcement, Pope Benedict stated: “The aim of this Year for Priesthood is to support each priest’s struggle towards spiritual perfection, upon which the effectiveness of his ministry particularly depends, and to help priests, and with them the entire People of God, to rediscover and revive awareness of the extraordinary gift of grace which ordained ministry represents for those who receive it.”
Indeed, the sacramental gift of priesthood is something shared both by baptized Christians and ordained ministers. The Letter to the Hebrews exalts the Old Testament priesthood of Melchizedek, a pre-figure of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. This priesthood is one in which the priest is a self-offering, ministering the blessings of God’s Covenant, offering compassion and mercy, and sharing the spiritual graces of Word and sacrament.
The Letter states that there is only one high priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4). Pope Benedict acknowledged in his homily that there exists two distinct expressions of this one priesthood, that of baptized Christians offering their ordinary service to the world and church, and that of ordained ministers offering themselves as representatives of Christ “building up the Kingdom of God in love and in truth” (homily on the Feast of the Sacred Heart).
The Holy Father emphasized through the year in various homilies and exhortations to priests and laity that we must foster a close complimentarity between the priesthood of the laity — which invites us to continuous service — and the ministry of ordained priests — which bestows specific sacramental “faculties” on men to minister Christ’s sacramental love and presence to the faithful.
In essence, this year is meant to challenge all Christians to return to the heart of priestly life, and this is personal, spiritual renewal. The Gospels demonstrate very well the core source of Jesus’ public ministry, his life of contemplative prayer. Through a life of prayer, the Holy Spirit empowers our dual priesthood to enliven the charismatic gifts and sacramental graces offered to the world. Having created a solid spiritual foundation, the Holy Father inspires a further challenge to priests, a daily commitment to grow in moral perfection as well.
Because of the radical social complexities and changes within our global environment, the pope exhorts priests to become more visible and identifiable symbols of charity and faith and to lead exemplary pastoral lives — in order to inspire younger generations to priestly life and service.
Above all, says the Holy Father, “the Church needs priests and ministers capable of helping the faithful to experience the Lord’s merciful love … and inspire others to acts of self-giving.” (Homily in honor of the Sacred Heart)
St. John Chrysostom, one of our great Eastern Fathers, wrote six beautiful tractates on the pastoral and spiritual meaning of the priesthood. In one book entitled, “The Glory of the Priesthood,” St. John indentifies what he believes to be the core meaning and power of our shared priesthood. He invited the faithful to contemplate the very moment at Eucharist where the priest co-mingles the sacred Communion with our Lord’s precious blood.
This “miracle” of Eucharist through the ministry of priests validates Jesus’ commissioning of men to bring his presence to the world. It is the co-mingling of the sacred-divine and the imperfect, broken human men that perfectly symbolizes priestly ministry on earth.
The Holy Spirit has called men and women to inspire and lead us to holiness and most of all, to Christ. Pope Benedict’s closing prayer within his homily best summarizes what our entire priestly lives ought to become, “that our Lord set on fire all priestly hearts with the fire of charity.”
(Fr. DeFranciso is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)