As well has the Holy Father’s much lauded homily which closed the Year for Priests, another highlight of the events of last week was Benedict XVI’s question and answer session with priests at a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday. Hardly reported was how moved the Pope was: after greeting the 10,000 clergy present in the popemobile, tears of joy could be seen rolling down his cheeks according to some observers.
The Vatican Information Service has today provided this helpful summary of the Pope’s responses, given to five priests, one from each of the five continents:
“Asked by a Brazilian priest how pastors must face the difficulties they encounter in their ministry, the Pope recognised that “today it is very difficult to be a pastor, especially in countries where Christianity is a faith of ancient standing. Parishes become ever larger, ... and it is impossible to know everyone, impossible to do everything that is expected of a pastor”. In this context he underlined the importance of the faithful “seeing that the priest does not just do a job, with so many hours of work after which he is free and lives for himself, but that he is a man impassioned by Christ. ... To be filled with the joy of the Gospel with all our being is the main condition”, to which must be added “three fundamental priorities: the Eucharistic and the Sacraments, ... announcement of the Word and ... Caritas, the love of Christ”. Another priority “is the personal relationship with Christ. ... Prayer is not a marginal aspect. It is the priest’s ‘profession’ to pray, also in representation of those people who do not know how to pray or do not find the time to pray. Individual prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours, is fundamental nourishment for our souls, for all our activity”.
A priest from Ivory Coast asked how to avoid a rupture between theology and doctrine and ensure “that study is not entirely academic but also nourishes our spirituality”. In his reply Benedict XVI recognised “the abuse of theology” when it becomes “arrogance of reason, failing to nourish the faith and obscuring the presence of God in the world. Yet there is a theology that wishes to know more out of love for the Beloved”, he said. “This is the true theology that comes from the love of God, of Christ, and wishes to enter into deeper communion with Christ”. The Pope encouraged theologians to be courageous, telling them not to be afraid of “the phantasm of science, ... not to chain themselves to every hypothesis of the moment, but to think on the basis of the great faith of the Church which is present in all times and opens the way to the truth. ... Formation is very important, but we must also be critical: the criterion of faith is the criterion with which to see theologians and theologies. ... It is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we see the summary of our faith, and this Catechism is the true criterion with which to discern whether a theology is acceptable or not”.
Another priest, this time from Europe, asked the Pope to speak on “the profundity and authentic significance of ecclesiastical celibacy” also in view of the “worldly criticisms” to which it has been subjected. The Holy Father said that “a great problem of modern Christianity is that we no longer think of the future of God: the present moment of this world seems sufficient. ... In this way we close the doors to the true greatness of our existence. The meaning of celibacy - as an anticipation of the future - is precisely to open these doors, ... to show the reality of the future which we must live here in the present, and in this way bear witness to our faith. We truly believe that God exists, ... that we can found our lives on Christ and on the life to come”. On the subject of worldly criticism, the Pope noted how “for the agnostic world ... celibacy is a great scandal because it shows that God is considered to be real and is lived as a reality. ... Celibacy is a definitive ‘yes’, it is allowing oneself to be taken by the hand of God, giving oneself into the Lord’s hands, into His ‘self’. Thus it is an act of faithfulness and trust, an act which presupposes the faithfulness of marriage, ... which is the biblical form, the natural form, of being man and woman, foundation of the great Christian culture and of other great cultures of the world. If this is lost, the roots of our culture will be destroyed. Thus celibacy confirms the ‘yes’ of marriage with its ‘yes’ to the world to come. This is how we wish to proceed and actualise this scandal of a faith which founds all of existence on God. ... We pray to the Lord to help us free ourselves from secondary scandals, to make this great scandal of our faith present: the trust, the power of our life founded in God, in Christ Jesus”.
The fourth question, put to the Holy Father by a priest from Japan, focused on the way to experience the Eucharist and worship with dignity, without falling into clericalism or losing touch with reality. Recalling the words of St. Augustine, Benedict XVI explained that “the sacrifice of Christians is that of being united by the love of Christ in the unity of the one Body of Christ. The sacrifice lies precisely in emerging from ourselves, in allowing ourselves to be attracted by the communion of the one bread, the one Body, and thus entering the great adventure of the love of God. Thus we must always celebrate, love, meditate upon the Eucharist as a school of liberation from the ‘self’. ... The Eucharist is the exact opposite of clericalism, of closure in oneself. ... Living the Eucharist in its original meaning, in its authentic profundity, is a school of life, it is the best protection against any temptation towards clericalism”.
Finally, a priest from Australia asked the Pope what could be done to contrast the decline in vocations. “There is a great temptation”, the Holy Father replied, “to transform the priesthood - the Sacrament of Christ - into a normal profession, into a job that has its working hours, ... thus making it like any other vocation, making it accessible and easy. Yet this temptation does not resolve the problem. ... As the Lord invites us, we must pray to God, knock at the door, at the heart of God, that He may give us vocations, pray insistently and with great determination and conviction, because God does not close Himself to insistent, incessant and trusting prayer, even if He lets us wait .... longer that we expect”. Moreover, “each of us must do everything we can to live our own priesthood convincingly”. We must invite people to pray, “to have this humility, this trust in speaking with God forcefully and decisively. And we must “have the courage to speak to the young if they think that God is calling them and, ... above all, help them to find a life context in which to live their vocation”.