During his general audience on May 26, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on the mission of priests. He spoke about the priest’s duty to govern — in the name of Christ — the flock entrusted to his care.
The Holy Father described the correct Christian understanding of authority as a service to the true, ultimate good of the person, which is salvation in Christ. When correctly exercised in the Lord’s name, it is an expression of the constant presence and care of the Good Shepherd. A priest’s spiritual authority must be matched by an interior faithfulness to his pastoral mission and a personal readiness to obediently follow Christ’s lead. It is a service that builds up the Church in holiness, unity and truth.
Dear brothers and sisters,
The Year for Priests is drawing to an end. During my recent catecheses, therefore, I began to reflect on those duties that are essential to the priesthood, namely teaching, sanctifying and governing. I have already devoted two catecheses to these: one on the ministry of sanctification — especially through the sacraments — and one on the ministry of teaching. So, today I will speak about the priest’s mission to govern and to guide, by Christ’s authority and not his own, the portion of God’s people that God has entrusted to his care.
What Is Authority?
How can we, in today’s culture, understand this particular dimension, which involves the concept of authority and has its origins in Our Lord’s mandate to care for his flock? What is authority for us as Christians?
The cultural, political and historical experiences of the recent past, especially the 20th-century dictatorships of Eastern and Western Europe, have made us suspicious of authority today. This suspicion often becomes a claim that we must abandon any kind of authority that does not come exclusively from the people and is subject to their control and oversight.
However, a closer look at the regimes that sowed terror and death during the last century forcefully reminds us that authority within any context that is exercised without any reference to the Transcendent — to that supreme authority that is God — inevitably ends up turning against man.
It is important, then, to recognize that human authority is never an end in itself, but is always merely a means whose end, necessarily and throughout every age, is always the human person, who has been created by God with his own inviolable dignity and who is called to have a relationship with his Creator during his journey here on earth through life and in eternal life.
It is an authority that is exercised with a responsibility before God, the Creator. Authority that is understood in this way, whose sole aim is to serve the true well-being of the person and to show forth the supreme good that is God, not only is not foreign to man but, on the contrary, is a valuable aid to him in his journey towards total fulfillment in Christ, towards salvation.
Authority in the Church
The Church has been called and is committed to exercise this type of authority that is service. She exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ, who received from the Father all power in heaven and on earth (see Matthew 28:18). Indeed, Christ cares for his flock through the shepherds of his Church. It is he who guides, protects and corrects his flock, because he loves it deeply.
But the Lord Jesus, the supreme shepherd of our souls, intended that the Apostolic College — which is today comprised of the bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter — along with priests, who are their most valuable co-workers — would participate in this mission of caring for God’s people. They are educators in the faith who guide, inspire and sustain the Christian community or, as the [Second Vatican] Council says, see to it that the “faithful are led individually in the Holy Spirit to a development of their own vocation according to the Gospel, to a sincere and practical charity, and to that freedom with which Christ has made us free” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6).
Therefore, every priest is the go-between through which Christ himself loves others. It is through our ministry and through us, dear priests, that the Lord gathers, teaches, protects and guides souls.
In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, St. Augustine writes: “Let it be an obligation of love to tend the Lord’s flock” (123, 5). This is the supreme rule of conduct for God’s ministers: an unconditional love, like the Good Shepherd’s, full of joy, open to all, attentive to those who are near and considerate toward those who are far off (see St. Augustine, Discourse 340, 1; Discourse 46, 15); gentle with the weak, the humble, the simple, the sinners, in order to manifest God’s infinite mercy through reassuring words of hope (see his Letter 95, 1).
The Nature of Authority
Even though this pastoral commitment is based on the sacrament, its effectiveness nonetheless is not unrelated to a priest’s personal life. In order to be shepherds after God’s own heart (see Jeremiah 3:15), we need to be deeply rooted in a living friendship with Christ — not only in our mind but also in our freedom and our will — clearly aware of the identity we received through our ordination as priests. We must be unconditionally ready to lead the flock entrusted to us wherever the Lord wills and not in the direction that seems to us easier or more convenient.
This requires, first and foremost, a continuously growing willingness to allow Christ himself to govern the priestly lives of the clergy.
In fact, no one is truly capable of caring for Christ’s flock if he does not live in profound and genuine obedience to Christ and the Church. The docility of the people of God toward their priests depends on the docility of priests towards Christ. For this reason, a personal and ongoing encounter with the Lord, deep knowledge of him, and an effort to conform one’s own will to the will of Christ are always the foundation for pastoral ministry.
During the last few decades, the adjective “pastoral” often has been used practically in opposition to the concept of “hierarchical.” The idea of “communion” has also been interpreted in the same way, in the very same opposition. This is, perhaps, the point at which it might be useful to reflect briefly on the word “hierarchy,” which is the traditional word for the structure of sacramental authority in the Church. This is ordered according to the three levels of the sacrament of holy orders: episcopate, priesthood, diaconate.
Subordination and its juridical nature are the two ideas that public opinion most associates with the reality of “hierarchy.” Consequently, many people think of the idea of hierarchy in stark contrast with the flexibility and the dynamism of pastoral service, and even with Gospel humility. But this is a false caricature of hierarchy, which, historically, arose from the abuse of authority and the advancement of careers. These are in fact abuses and do not stem from the nature of “hierarchy” itself.
The common opinion is that “hierarchy” is always something connected to domination and therefore does not correspond to the true meaning of the Church: unity in Christ’s love. But, as I have said, this is a mistaken interpretation, which has its origin in past abuses and does not correspond to the true meaning of what the hierarchy is.
Let us begin with the word itself. Generally, it is said that the meaning of the word “hierarchy” is “sacred dominion.” But this is not the real meaning. The real meaning is “sacred origin.” In other words, this authority does not come from man himself, but has its origin in the sacred, in the sacrament.
Therefore, it subordinates the person to his vocation, to the mystery of Christ, making the individual a servant of Christ. Only insofar as he is a servant of Christ can he govern and guide for Christ and with Christ.
For this reason, he who enters the sacred order of the sacrament, the “hierarchy,” is not a despot, but takes on instead a new bond of obedience to Christ. He is bound to him in communion with the other members of the sacred order of the priesthood.
Even the Pope — who is a reference point for all the other shepherds and for the communion of the Church — cannot do as he pleases. Quite the contrary, the Pope is the custodian of the obedience to Christ and to his word, summarized in the regula fidei which is the Creed of the Church. He must take the lead in obedience to Christ and to his Church.
Hierarchy therefore implies a threefold bond. First of all, there is the bond with Christ and with the mandate that the Lord gave to his Church. Secondly, there is the bond with the other shepherds in the one communion of the Church. Finally, there is the bond with the faithful entrusted to each shepherd within the order of the Church.
So it becomes clear that communion and hierarchy are not opposed to each another but rather affect each other mutually. Together, they are a single thing: hierarchical communion.
Therefore, the shepherd is a shepherd precisely when he guides and protects the flock, sometimes keeping it from scattering. Without this clear and explicitly supernatural viewpoint, the priest’s duty to govern makes no sense. On the other hand, when it is sustained by true concern for the salvation of each member of the faithful, it is particularly important and necessary even in our time.
If the goal is to proclaim Christ and lead men to a saving encounter with Christ so that they will have life, the task of guiding becomes a service that is lived out in completely giving oneself over to building up the flock in truth and holiness, often going against the current, and remembering that the one who is the greatest must become the smallest and that one who governs must be as one who serves (see Lumen Gentium, 27).
Faithfulness to Christ
From what can a priest draw the strength to exercise his ministry today in complete faithfulness to Christ and to the Church, totally dedicated to his flock?
There is only one answer: in Christ the Lord. Jesus’ way of governing is not by domination. Rather, it was the humble and loving service of the washing of the feet.
Christ’s kingship over the universe is not an earthly triumph, but climaxes on the wood of the cross, which becomes a judgment for the world and the reference point for exercising an authority that is the true expression of pastoral charity.
The saints, including St. John Mary Vianney, exercised with love and dedication the task of caring for the portion of God’s people that was entrusted to them, demonstrating that they, too, were strong and resolute men, with the sole aim of promoting the true well-being of souls, capable of paying a personal price, to the point of martyrdom, in order to remain faithful to the truth and justice of the Gospel.
Dear priests, “Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint, but willingly ... be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2).
Therefore, do not be afraid to lead each of the brothers and sisters he has entrusted to you to Christ, certain that each word and each action, if they come from obedience to God’s will, will bear fruit. Appreciate the merits and recognize the limits of the culture in which we live, with the firm conviction that proclaiming the Gospel is the greatest service we can render to man.
In fact, there is no greater good in this earthly life than to lead men to God, to reawaken faith, to lift mankind out of torpor and despair, and to give the hope that God is near and that he guides the history of each individual and the history of the world.
This is, without a doubt, the profound and ultimate meaning of the task of governing that the Lord has entrusted to us. It involves forming Christ in believers, through a process of sanctification that involves conversion of values and attitudes, in order that Christ live in every member of the faithful. St. Paul summarizes his pastoral ministry in these words: “My children, for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19).
Dear brothers and sisters, I would like to invite you to pray for me, the Successor of Peter, who has a specific task in governing the Church of Christ, and to pray as well for all your bishops and priests. Pray that we will be able to take care of all the sheep of the flock entrusted to us, including those who are lost.
To you, dear priests, I address a cordial invitation to the closing celebrations of the Year for Priests June 9-11 here in Rome. We will meditate on conversion and mission, on the gift of the Holy Spirit and on our relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we will renew our priestly promises, sustained by the support of all of God’s people. Thank you!