During his general audience on April 14, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would devote his weekly catecheses during the Easter season to a series of reflections on the priesthood. The Holy Father will discuss how priests’ lives need to be conformed to Christ, the head of the Church, especially as they carry out the ministries that have been entrusted to them: teaching, sanctifying and governing.
He devoted this audience to the teaching ministry. Priests are called to preach and teach not themselves, but Jesus Christ and his revelation of the Father — the living proclamation of the person of Christ, who is the source of our joy, peace and spiritual rebirth.
During this Easter season, which leads us to Pentecost and also leads us to the closing celebrations of the Year for Priests planned for June 9, 10 and 11, I would like to offer once again some reflections on the topic of the ordained ministry, meditating upon the fruitful reality of how a priest is conformed to Christ, the head, in carrying out the tria munera he receives, that is the three functions of teaching, sanctifying and governing.
However, in order to understand what it means for a priest to act in persona Christi Capitis — in the person of Christ the head — as well as the consequences of his responsibility to represent the Lord, especially in carrying out these three functions, we need, first of all, to clarify what “representation” means.
A Representative of Christ
The priest represents Christ. What does it mean to “represent” someone? In common parlance, it generally means to receive authority from a person to be present in his place — to speak and act in his place — when the one who is being represented is absent.
We might ask ourselves whether the priest represents the Lord in the same way. The answer is No, because Christ is never absent in the Church. The Church is his living body, and he is the head of the Church, present and at work in it. Christ is never absent. In fact, he is present in a way that is totally free of the limits of space and time thanks to his resurrection, which we contemplate in a special way during this Easter season.
Therefore, a priest who acts in persona Christi Capitis and as the Lord’s representative never acts in the name of someone who is absent, but rather in the person of the risen Christ himself, who makes himself present with his truly efficacious action. He truly acts and carries out what the priest himself could not do: the consecration of the bread and wine, so that they will be the real presence of the Lord; the absolution of sins. The Lord makes his own action present in the person who carries out these acts.
The three tasks of a priest — which tradition has identified as teaching, sanctifying and governing, based on Our Lord’s commission to his disciples — spell out the specific nature of this efficacious representation in three different yet profoundly united ways. These three tasks are actually the three actions of the risen Christ himself, who today in the Church and in the world teaches — and thus creates faith, gathers together his people, makes the truth present and truly builds up the communion of the universal Church. He also sanctifies and guides.
The Duty to Teach
The first task, of which I would like to speak today, is the munus docendi, namely the duty to teach. Today, in the midst of an educational crisis, the munus docendi of the Church that is exercised concretely through the ministry of each priest is particularly important.
We live in an era of great confusion over fundamental decisions in life and the basic questions about what the world is, where it came from, where we are going, what we must do in order to do good, how we should live, and what the values are that really matter. In this regard, there are all sorts of contradictory philosophies that emerge and disappear, creating confusion regarding these fundamental decisions about how to live because we no longer know, generally, from what and for what we were made and where we are going.
In this situation, the words of Our Lord — who had compassion for the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd — are fulfilled (see Mark 6:34). Our Lord made this remark when he saw the thousands of people who followed him into the desert because, with so many opinions present at that time, they no longer knew which was the true meaning of Scripture, what God was saying. The Lord, moved by compassion, interpreted God’s word — he who is himself the Word of God — and gave guidance in this way.
This is the in persona Christi function of a priest: to make present, amid the confusion and disorientation of our times, the light of God’s word, the light that is Christ himself in our world. Therefore, a priest does not teach his own ideas — a philosophy that he himself has invented or one he has found or one he likes. A priest does not speak on his own authority or for himself in order to gain admirers or supporters. He does not talk about his own things or his own ideas. Rather, amid the confusion of all these different philosophies, a priest teaches in the name of Christ who is present, offering the truth that is Christ himself, his word, his way of living and going forward.
For a priest, what Christ says about himself is truly valid: “My teaching is not my own” (John 7:16). That is, Christ does not put himself at the forefront, but, as Son, is the voice, the word of the Father. A priest must also speak and act in the same way: “My teaching is not mine. I do not spread my own ideas or what pleases me. Rather, I am the mouth and heart of Christ, and I present this one common teaching that the universal Church has created and that creates eternal life.”
This fact — that a priest does not invent, does not create and does not proclaim his own ideas insofar as the doctrine he proclaims is not his but Christ’s — does not mean, on the other hand, that he is neutral, like a spokesman reading a text that he has perhaps not made his own.
Here, too, the example of Christ is relevant. Christ said: “I am not from myself, and I do not live for myself, but I come from the Father, and I live for the Father.” Thus, in this profound identification, Christ’s teaching is the teaching of the Father, and he himself is one with the Father.
The priest who proclaims Christ’s word, the faith of the Church and not his own ideas, must also say: “I do not live from myself and for myself, but I live with Christ and from Christ and, because of this, all that Christ has said to us becomes my word even if it is not my word.” In his life, a priest has to identify himself with Christ so that the word that is not his own becomes, nonetheless, a deeply personal word.
On this topic, speaking of priests, St. Augustine said: “And we, what are we? We are ministers (of Christ), his servants, because all that we give you is not our own but rather something we bring from his storeroom. We too base our lives upon it because we are servants like you” (Sermon 229/E, 4).
The teaching that a priest is called to give, the truths of the faith, should be made his own and lived out on an intense, personal spiritual journey, so that a priest truly enters into deep, interior communion with Christ himself. A priest believes, accepts and seeks to live, first and foremost as his own, all that the Lord has taught and the Church has passed down, on that journey of identification with his own ministry of which St. John Mary Vianney is an exemplary witness (see “Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests”). “United in this same charity — as St. Augustine once again affirms — we are all hearers of the one in heaven who is for us the only teacher” (Enarr. in Ps. 131, 1, 7).
Consequently, the voice of the priest might often seem to be the “voice of one crying in the desert” (Mark 1:3). However, this is where his prophetic strength lies — not in being absorbed into any prevailing culture or mentality, but in showing the only newness that is capable of bringing about a true and deep renewal of man — that Christ is the Living One, the God who is near, the God who is at work in life and for the life of the world, and who gives us the truth, the way to live.
The Teaching Ministry
By carefully preparing his Sunday sermons, without neglecting his weekday sermons, through his efforts to provide catechetical formation in schools and in academic institutions, and, in a special way, through that unwritten book that is his own life, the priest is always a teacher, always teaching. Not, though, with the presumption of one who imposes his own truths, but rather with the humble and joyful certainty of one who has found the Truth and who has been gripped and transformed by it and who, therefore, can do nothing other than proclaim it.
Indeed, no one can choose the priesthood for himself. It is not the way to achieve security in life or to win a social position. No one can give it to himself nor seek it by himself. The priesthood is a response to the Lord’s call, to his will, to become a herald not of one’s own personal truth but of the Lord’s truth.
Dear brother priests, the Christian people needs to hear the true doctrine of the Church in our teaching, so that they can renew their encounter with Christ, who gives joy, peace and salvation. Sacred Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers and the doctors of the Church, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, make for indispensable reference points for carrying out the munus docendi that is so essential for conversion, the journey of faith and the salvation of mankind.
“Priestly ordination means being immersed [...] in the Truth” (Homily for the Chrism Mass, April 9, 2009), a truth that is not simply a concept or a set of ideas to transmit and absorb, but is the person of Christ, with whom, through whom and in whom we must live — this is what necessarily makes the proclamation timely and understandable. Only this awareness of truth made a person in the incarnation of the Son justifies the missionary mandate: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Only if it is the truth is it addressed to every creature, and is not imposing something, but opening hearts to what they were created for.
Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord entrusted a great task to his priests: to be heralds of his word, of the truth that saves; to be his voice to the world and to bring to the world that which truly works for the well-being of souls and for the authentic journey of faith (see Corinthians 6:12).
May St. John Mary Vianney be an example for all priests! He was a man of great wisdom and heroic strength in resisting the cultural and social pressures of his time in order to lead souls to God. Simplicity, fidelity and relevance were the essential characteristics of his preaching, in which his faith and his holiness shone through. The Christian people were edified by him and, as happens with authentic teachers in every age, they recognized in him the light of the truth. In short, they recognized in him what must always be recognized in a priest: the voice of the Good Shepherd.