Crafted from the footprints the great Curé d’Ars left behind, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a letter to priests on the theme above; it launched the Year of the Priest on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 19 and gave direction for the event. As simple as touching and inspiring, it unveils the depths of the mystery and the ministry of the priesthood established by Jesus Christ on the eve of His Passion and Death.
St. John, who relates this solemn moment in the Chapter 13 of the Gospel he wrote, gave it a solemnity when he opened this chapter with these sublime words: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end” (Jn 13, 1). Two great elements of the ministry – His going to the Father and the love to the end - of Jesus are here highlighted as the motivation of what he was about to institute: the sacrament of His Precious Body and Blood and the Sacrament of Priesthood. No wonder, therefore, that the holy man whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated on this occasion, perceived the priesthood as the love of the Heart of Jesus and the Pope highlighted in this letter, published elsewhere in this issue.
Having lived his own priesthood to the core in the various postings along his life as a priest, he has words of praise for the great host of priests, all around the world, who carry on their task silently amidst so many forms of hardships and persecutions. In his own words, “This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself. I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ's words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as "friends of Christ", whom He has called by name, chosen and sent?” And as to prove that these words are not empty pleasantries he recalls fondly the parish priest he worked with as he immediately adds: “I still treasure the memory of the first parish priest at whose side I exercised my ministry as a young priest: he left me an example of unreserved devotion to his pastoral duties, even to meeting death in the act of bringing viaticum to a gravely ill person.”
The Holy Father underlines the greatness and the sacredness of this gift not without mentioning “situations which cannot be sufficiently deplored where the Church suffers as a consequence of infidelity of some of her ministers.” The recalling of these scandals is not for the priests to enter into a dejection. To the contrary, the Church is called to acknowledge frankly and completely the weakness of her ministers, yes; but such an awareness should not deter one to joyfully the greatness of God’s gift – the greatness “embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides.”
These are not, however, empty pleasantries with which it may seem he is trying to overwhelm the priestly community or entice candidates for this order. No one can do so and even less will do so; and still less this Pope as though as he is known. The letter is a call to priests to launch themselves totally in tasks they need to perform as part and parcel of this great gift that the priesthood. Drawing from the very Priesthood of Christ and as exercised by St. John Mary Vianney, he covers the whole gamut of elements which make the priestly life. From the life the priest needs to live as a member of the community of priests formed under the Bishop to the activity he needs to exercise towards the parcel of the Church entrusted to him the Pope almost left nothing untouched to the extent of reminding about the insights required to address issues which are a matter of concern.
It is in such a ministry that the priest is called to scream through the ministry of Word, the ministry of the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but above all else through his lifestyle the same words Jesus addressed to His Apostles in the Upper Room: "In the world you have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world" It is a quality of the priesthood coming from the Heart of Jesus.