ROME — Holy Thursday is a day dedicated to the priesthood. How about a whole year?
Hoping to reinvigorate the priesthood, Pope Benedict XVI announced a Jubilee Year of the Priest beginning June 19, 2009.
During a March 16 plenary assembly with members of the Congregation for the Clergy, the Pope called for the event to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, and for the “spiritual perfection” of the Church’s priests.
St. John Vianney died on Aug. 4, 1859.
“The missionary dimension of a priest arises from his sacramental configuration to Christ the head,” said the Pope, highlighting the “indispensable struggle for moral perfection which must dwell in every truly priestly heart.”
“The ecclesial, communional, hierarchical and doctrinal dimension is absolutely indispensible for any authentic mission, and this alone guarantees its spiritual effectiveness,” said Pope Benedict, adding that priests must be “present, identifiable and recognizable — for their judgment of faith, personal virtues and attire — in the fields of culture and of charity, which have always been at the heart of the Church’s mission.”
“The announcement was a great surprise,” admitted Father Jim Steffes, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. Father Steffes hopes the year will help renew the priesthood.
Father Steffes said that just as the identity of Christ, the High Priest, was in his relationship with God the Father, “that, too, is where we find our identity as priests — in relationship with God.”
But too often priests’ identity is wrapped up in the things that they do. “Pastoral ministry and all that we need to be responsible for … that isn’t what our identity is,” he said. “We need to know who we are so that we can bring that to those entrusted to us. The Year of the Priest gives us a wonderful opportunity.”
Pope Benedict highlighted this dimension of the priesthood, as well.
“The centrality of Christ leads to a correct valuation of priestly ministry, without which there would be no Eucharist, no mission, not even the Church,” said the Pope. “It is necessary then, to ensure that ‘new structures’ or pastoral organizations are not planned for a time in which it will be possible to ‘do without’ ordained ministry, on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the promotion of the laity, because this would lay the foundations for a further dilution in priestly ministry, and any supposed ‘solutions’ would, in fact, dramatically coincide with the real causes of the problems currently affecting the ministry.”
Said Father John Cihak, a former professor of theology at Mount St. Angel Seminary who has recently been assigned to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, “The clergy and the laity are indispensable in the body of Christ. They complement one another as a man and woman do in marriage. There is a differentiation. The body of Christ has those who represent Christ the head. That’s about service and self-giving. When we confuse clergy and laity with a false sense of equality, that’s to the detriment of the whole body.”
Patron of Priests
In highlighting the Year of the Priest, Pope Benedict called upon the example of St. John Vianney. The humble French diocesan priest was assigned to the rural and spiritually dying town of Ars in central France. Through his example of personal holiness and attention to the sacraments, St. John was able to transform his parish. Pilgrims from all over the world came to receive the sacrament of reconciliation from the Curé of Ars, as he became known.
“He is not really well known,” said Father Cihak. “Most parish priests know very little about their patron.”
“In the New Evangelization, we need a renewal of parish life, and that means a renewal of the parish priesthood,” said Father Cihak. “St. Vianney is helpful for that because he shows us the parish priesthood is not so much about programs, but about personal holiness and personal witness.
“When you look at St. John Vianney, you don’t see a charismatic, talented sort of individual, but a humble man who knew what it means to get close to Christ — through confession, Mass, personal prayer and works of mercy. He took a fallow parish and made it a hotbed of holiness in about 10 years.”
Father Steffes agreed.
“He was a simple man who opened himself up to the will of the Father,” said Father Steffes.
In describing the saint, Father Cihak noted similarities between St. John and the Italian St. Pio of Pietrelcina.
“They both saw the importance of confession, and both had explicit battles with Satan,” said Father Cihak. “The parish priest’s battle against Satan cannot be overlooked. He does this through his priestly ministry, especially confession, where he is pulling souls out of the kingdom of darkness, and also as a spiritual father protecting his flock from evil.”
“A priest must fight if he’s to be a true spiritual father,” said Father Cihak. “We don’t enter the world on neutral ground.”
Example for Vocations
While it’s too early to know what sort of activities will be planned by the U.S. bishops’ conference to highlight the year, some seminaries, dioceses and individuals already have special plans.
The Diocese of Fall River, Mass., is planning a speaker series to include Father George Rutler, who penned a biography of St. John Vianney. Mount St. Mary’s Seminary is organizing a symposium on St. John Vianney in the fall.
In addition, Catholic actor Leonardo Defilippis has providentially been working on a one-man drama focused on St. John Vianney for the past 2 1/2 years. He plans to launch the drama on the saint’s feast day — Aug. 4, 2009.
Over the past two years, Defilippis has been asking his audiences if they’ve ever heard of the saint.
“About a fourth of the crowd has heard of him,” said Defilippis. “He’s a forgotten saint.”
And yet an important saint for today, he said. “We’re in an identity crisis — a crisis of ignorance, indifference and lukewarmness, and there’s no other priest like Vianney in the history of the Church.”
Defilippis hopes that his drama might help to create a movement for renewal in each diocese.
“St. Vianney converted everything by creating a movement of adoration within his parish, and then converted sinners through confession,” added Defilippis. “He came at a time following the French Revolution when it looked like the Church might be destroyed.”
“The Curé of Ars is the saint who will inspire all of us, especially young people, with a deeper understanding of the heroic life of the priest,” said Defilippis. “I believe we’ll see a tremendous upsurge in vocations because our youth are seeking a radical choice, a way to make a difference in our world, and John Vianney points the way through his dramatic life of self-sacrifice and his struggle with evil.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.