During his general audience on May 5, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on the mission of priests, focusing his remarks on the priest’s mission to sanctify mankind.
Holiness is proper to God, the Holy Father pointed out. He alone is absolute truth, goodness, love and beauty. As ministers of Christ, priests bring us into life-giving contact with the mystery of God’s holiness. Thanks to the priest’s preaching of the Gospel and his celebration of the sacraments, we are able to draw near to God and be gradually transformed into his image.
In the celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation, Christ’s sanctifying work is constantly made present and effective. In their devout celebration of the sacraments, priests sanctify the faithful and are themselves sanctified and configured ever more closely to Christ.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Sunday, during my pastoral visit to Turin, I had the joy of spending some time in prayer before the holy shroud, joining more than 2 million other pilgrims who were able to contemplate it during this solemn exhibition.
The holy shroud can nourish our faith and renew our devotion as Christians because it moves us to approach the face of Christ, the body of the crucified and risen Christ, to contemplate the paschal mystery, the heart of the Christian message.
Brothers and sisters, we are living members of the risen body of Christ, which is alive and at work throughout history (see Romans 12:5). Each of us has his own function — the task that the Lord has entrusted to us.
Called to Sanctify
Today, in this catechesis, I would like to return to the specific tasks of priests. According to tradition, these are essentially three: teaching, sanctifying and governing.
In an earlier catechesis, I spoke about teaching, the first of these three missions: proclaiming the truth, proclaiming God as revealed in Christ, or — in other words — the prophetic role of putting men and women in contact with the truth, helping them to know what is essential in their lives, what is essential in reality itself.
Today I would like to briefly reflect on the second task of a priest, the task of sanctifying men and women, above all through the sacraments and the Church’s worship.
Here, we need to ask ourselves first of all what the word “holy” means. The response is as follows: “Holy” is the specific quality of God’s own being, namely absolute truth, goodness, love, beauty — pure light. To make a person holy means, therefore, putting him or her in contact with God, with his light, truth, pure love.
It is obvious that such contact transforms a person. In ancient times, there was a firm conviction that no one could see God without suffering immediate death because the power of his truth and light was too great! If man were to touch this absolute power, he could not survive.
At the same time, there was another conviction: Without some minimum contact with God, man could not live. Truth, goodness and love are fundamental conditions of his being. The question, then, is how man can find this contact with God — which is so fundamental — without suffering death, overcome by the immensity of the divine being. The Church’s faith tells us that God himself brings about this contact, which little by little transforms us into true images of God.
Thus, we again come to the priest’s mission to “sanctify.” No man can put another man in contact with God through his own efforts.
An essential part of the grace of the priesthood is the gift and the task of creating this contact. It happens through the proclamation of God’s word in which we have an encounter with his light. It occurs in a very striking way through the sacraments.
Role of the Priest
Our immersion in the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection takes place in baptism, is strengthened in confirmation and in the sacrament of reconciliation, and is nourished in the Eucharist, the sacrament that builds up the Church as God’s people, as the body of Christ, as the temple of the Holy Spirit (see John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Gregis, No. 32).
Therefore, it is Christ himself who makes us holy, who, in other words, draws us into God’s realm. However, out of his infinite mercy, he calls some to “be with” him (see Mark 3:14) and to become, through the sacrament of holy orders and despite their human smallness, participants in his own priesthood, ministers of this sanctification, stewards of his mysteries, “bridges” in this encounter with him, in his mediation between God and men and between men and God (see Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5).
During recent decades, there has been a tendency to give priority to the element of proclamation in the identity and mission of the priest, separating it from the element of sanctification.
Often it has been said that we must go beyond merely sacramental ministry. But, is it possible to genuinely exercise the priestly ministry by “going beyond” sacramental ministry? Exactly what does it mean for priests to evangelize? What does the so-called primacy of proclamation consist of?
In the Gospels, Jesus affirms that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is the purpose of his mission. This proclamation, however, is not merely a matter of “speech.” It includes, at the same time, his own action.
The signs and the miracles that Jesus performs show that the Kingdom is a reality in this present age and that it coincides, in the end, with his very person, with the gift of himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading.
The same is true for ordained ministers. Priests represent Christ — the one sent from the Father — and continue his mission through the “word” and “sacrament” in this union of body and soul, of sign and word.
Referring to priests, St. Augustine, in a letter to Bishop Honoratus of Thiabe, affirms: “Therefore, the servants of Christ, the ministers of his word and of his sacraments, must do what he commanded or permitted” (Letter 228, 2).
We must reflect on whether, in certain cases, having undervalued the faithful exercise of the munus sanctificandi has not perhaps led to a weakening of the faith in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments and, in the final analysis, in the present action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the world.
Jesus Alone Can Save
Who, therefore, saves the world and saves man? There is only one answer: Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, who was crucified and who rose from the dead.
Where is the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which brings salvation, made a reality here and now? In Christ, at work through the Church, especially in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where the redemptive sacrifice of the Son of God becomes a present reality; in the sacrament of reconciliation, where people return to a new life from the death of sin; and in every other sacramental act of sanctification (see Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5).
Therefore, it is important to give catechesis in order to help the faithful understand the value of the sacraments. But it is equally necessary, following the example of the saintly Curé of Ars, to be open, generous and attentive in giving to our brothers and sisters the treasures of grace that God has placed in our hands — treasures of which we are not “masters” but rather custodians and stewards.
Especially in our own time — in which, on the one hand, faith seems to be growing weaker, and, on the other hand, there is a deep need and widespread quest for spirituality — each priest needs to remember that, in his mission, the missionary proclamation, worship and the sacraments are never separate from each other; and that he must promote a healthy sacramental ministry in order to form God’s people and help them to fully live the liturgy, the Church’s worship, and the sacraments as gratuitous gifts from God, free and efficacious acts in his work of salvation.
As I pointed out during this year’s chrism Mass, “At the center of the Church’s worship is the notion of ‘sacrament.’ This means that it is not primarily we who do something, but God comes first to meet us through his action; he looks upon us, and he leads us to himself. ... God touches us through material things ... that he takes up into his service, making them instruments of the encounter between us and himself” (Holy Chrism Mass, April 1, 2010).
The truth according to which “it is not we men who do something” in the sacrament also has an effect — and must have an effect — on priestly awareness. Each priest knows that he is an instrument that is needed for God’s work of salvation; but always only an instrument. This awareness must make him humble and generous in administering the sacraments and respecting canonical norms, but also deeply convinced that his mission is to ensure that all men and women, united to Christ, can offer themselves to God as a living and holy sacrifice that is acceptable to him (see Romans 12:1).
Called to Holiness
St. John Mary Vianney continues to be a model of the primacy of munus sanctificandi and of the proper interpretation of sacramental ministry.
One day, when confronted by a man who said he had no faith and who wanted to argue with him, St. John Vianney responded: “O, my friend, you’re talking to the wrong person. I don’t know how to reason ... but if you are in need of consolation, place yourself there. … (He pointed with his finger to the kneeler in the confessional.) Believe me, many others have knelt there before you, and they never regretted it” (see A. Monnin, Il Curato d’Ars. Vita di Gian Battista Maria Vianney, Vol. I, Turin, 1870, pp. 163-164).
Dear priests, live the liturgy and our worship with joy and love. It is an act that the risen Christ carries out in us, with us and for us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I would like to renew the invitation I recently made to “return to the confessional as a place in which to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, but also as a place in which ‘to dwell’ more often, so that the faithful may find compassion, advice and comfort, feel that they are loved and understood by God and experience the presence of Divine Mercy alongside the real presence in the Eucharist” (Address to the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 11, 2010).
I would also like to invite each priest to celebrate and live the Eucharist in a more intense way, which is at the heart of the mission to sanctify. It is Jesus who wants to be with us, to live in us, to give himself to us, to show us God’s infinite mercy and tenderness.
It is Christ’s unique sacrifice of love which is a reality that is brought about among us and that goes all the way to the throne of grace, to God’s presence, embracing all mankind and uniting us to him (see Address to the Clergy of Rome, Feb. 18, 2010).
The priest is called to be minister of this great mystery, in the sacraments and in his life. If “the great ecclesial tradition has rightly separated sacramental efficacy from the concrete personal situation of the individual priest, so that the legitimate expectations of the faithful are appropriately safeguarded,” this does not take anything away from the “necessary, indeed indispensable, aspiration to moral perfection that must dwell in every authentically priestly heart.”
God’s people rightly expect an example of faith and a witness to holiness from their pastors (see Benedict XVI, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, March 16, 2009). It is in the celebration of the holy mysteries that the priest finds the source of his sanctification (see Presbyterorum Ordinis, 12-13).
Dear friends, be aware of the great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world.
Through their ministry, the Lord continues to save men and women, to make himself present, to sanctify. Give thanks to God and, above all, remain close to your priests with your prayers and support, especially in moments of difficulty, that they may increasingly become shepherds according to God’s heart. Thank you.