'A Gift From the Heart of Christ'

Pope Benedict XVI formally closed the Year for Priests on June 11, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart, and said in his homily to priests that the past 12 months were aimed at reawakening “our joy at how close God is to us.”

The benefits the Year for Priests brought for priests, for the Church and for the world cannot be measured, and they will be evident for years to come, according to Pope Benedict XVI.

Speaking during his midday Angelus address June 13, two days after he formally closed the Year, the Holy Father said the events of the past 12 months were a reminder that “the priesthood is a gift from the heart of Christ, a gift for the Church and for the world.”

An estimated 15,000 priests from more than 90 countries came to Rome to attend the closing events for the Year, held to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests. The June 9-11 program comprised a Mass and prayer vigil with the Holy Father, a series of talks and meditations by senior clergy, and daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration.

In his homily to priests at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica June 11, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that the priesthood is “not simply an ‘office’ but a sacrament” and that the Year aimed at reawakening “our joy at how close God is to us, and our gratitude for the fact that he entrusts himself to our infirmities.”

The Holy Father reminded the priests present, whom the Vatican said comprised the largest ever gathering of concelebrants at a Mass, of the importance “to beg” God for vocations. He also warned of the devil’s attempts to destroy the priesthood, especially through the clerical sex-abuse scandal.

“It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the ‘enemy,’” Benedict XVI said. “He would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world. And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light — particularly the abuse of the little ones, in which the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God’s concern for our good, turns into its very opposite.”

The Pope stressed the Church would do everything possible “to weigh the authenticity” of vocations, adding that the scandal should make priests grow “in gratitude for God’s gift, a gift concealed in ‘earthen vessels’ which, ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes his love concretely present in this world.” He also called on the priests present to look upon all that happened “as a summons to purification.”

But his homily didn’t dwell on the scandal; rather, like the Year itself, its emphasis was on priestly holiness and the positive and vital contribution they have to offer the Church and the world. Priests, like anyone else, he said, need to remember God’s presence in the midst of temptation. And he said that, like the Good Shepherd, the Church, too, “must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray.” The “rod and the staff” help the Church exercise its love for people and for their true good, he said.

“Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated,” he said. “Nor does it have to do with love if heresy is allowed to spread and the faith [is] twisted and chipped away, as if it were something that we ourselves had invented.”

On the eve of the solemnity, the Holy Father was visibly moved during a prayer vigil for priests in St. Peter’s Square. He took five questions from priests, each one from one of the world’s five continents. He warned against turning the priesthood into a “normal profession, a job,” adding that today’s priests need to be on fire with love for Christ. He defended priestly celibacy, saying it is a great Yes to life and a scandal to the world because it anticipates eternal life with God.

He said today’s priests shouldn’t try to do everything, but should focus their energies instead on key areas: providing the Eucharist and the sacraments, preaching well, and helping the poor and suffering. He urged them not to neglect their own spiritual lives and, when needed, to “find the humility and the courage to rest.”

Addressing a question on secular tendencies in the priesthood, Pope Benedict said he has seen nearly three generations of theologians come and go, including times when such “scientific” ideas appeared to gain the upper hand, but which today “have grown old, and are practically worthless today; in fact, many of them seem ridiculous.” His words were greeted with applause.

In their talks and meditations, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said June 9 the sexual-abuse scandal must lead to a conversion, purification and reconciliation in the priesthood. Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet told priests June 10 that beyond the necessary purification it’s important to recognize “open opposition to our service to the truth, and there are attacks from both outside and inside that aim to divide the Church.”

German Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne lamented the drop in the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation, saying it has hurt the Church and priests. And Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, reminded the priests that while priests are called to minister to all Catholics, they have a special obligation to care for the poor.

Cardinal Hummes, whose department was in charge of organizing the Year for Priests, told Vatican Radio June 12 that the event was “positive, very positive” and that the observance would act as a new stimulus for priests to embrace a missionary spirit and for young men to say Yes to a priestly vocation.

Vatican officials generally were very pleased with the Year and the closing events in particular, with one telling the Register it went “far beyond” expectations. He stressed that the sexual-abuse scandal “had nothing to do” with the Year, but rather the central issue was “priests and priestly holiness.”

Looking at the secular press, he said, “you’d think it was all he [the Pope] talked about,” although he agreed that it needed to be discussed. He said that as far as he was aware, there are no plans to issue guidelines for priests and bishops on how to handle sexual-abuse cases — something some press reports speculated would happen during the closing celebrations.

Msgr. Francis Kelly, rector of the Casa Santa Maria, the American graduate college for priests in Rome, said the Year and the three-day event in Rome was a “morale booster” for priests around the world for two reasons: It served as “an antidote” to a “crisis of identity” in the priesthood and to the clerical sex-abuse scandal.

He was particularly struck by the Holy Father’s responses at the vigil.

“The answer he came back to over and over that night was that the priest needs to set priorities, according to their real identity, so that people are looking for a priest who, as the Pope said, is really in love with Jesus Christ, full of joy in his ministry,” he said.

“Therefore, the priority for the priest has to be developing that relationship with Christ, the priority of prayer, spending quality time in prayer, and the centrality of the Eucharist,” Msgr. Kelly said. The Pope, he added, was reasserting that these are all “essential conditions for having a fruitful and happy ministry, more important than some organizational gimmicks.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.