The Church’s Alter Christi

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis

Weekly General Audience June 24, 2009

During his general audience on June 24, Pope Benedict XVI focused his remarks on the Year for Priests, which he inaugurated on June 19, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Holy Father pointed out that the Year for Priests begins as the Year of St. Paul draws to an end and commemorates the sesquicentennial of the death of St. John Vianney, known as the Curé of Ars, who is the patron saint of parish priests. Pope Benedict XVI invited all the faithful to consider how Sts. Paul and John Vianney both identified themselves completely with their ministry, striving to live in constant communion with Christ.

He encouraged priests to use this time to grow in the spiritual perfection that is essential to the effectiveness of their ministry and that enables the faithful to appreciate more fully the great gift of grace which the priesthood is for priests themselves, for the Church and for the world.

Dear brothers and sisters,

June 19, on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a day traditionally dedicated to prayer for the sanctification of our priests, I had the joy of inaugurating the Year for Priests, which was proclaimed on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the “birth into eternal life” of the Curé of Ars, St. John Baptist Mary Vianney.

As I was entering St. Peter’s Basilica to celebrate vespers, I stopped by the Choir Chapel in what was, first of all, a symbolic gesture to venerate a relic — the heart of this saintly shepherd of souls.

Why a Year for Priests? And why, specifically, a year commemorating the holy Curé of Ars, who, from all appearances, never accomplished anything extraordinary?

The Example of the Saints

In God’s providence, the figure of St. John Vianney has been placed beside that of St. Paul. As the Year of St. Paul — a year dedicated to the Apostle to the Gentiles, a model of extraordinary evangelistic activity who made various missionary trips in order to spread the Gospel — [is now concluded], this new Jubilee Year invites us to look at a poor farmer who became a humble parish pastor and carried out his pastoral service in a small village.

The lives of these two saints are very different from each other. One traveled from one area to another in order to proclaim the Gospel, while the other welcomed thousands and thousands of the faithful, remaining the whole time in his small parish. Yet, both men have something very basic in common: Both totally identified with their ministry and both shared a deep communion with Christ.

St. Paul expressed this in the following words: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

St. John Mary Vianney liked to repeat: “If we had faith, we would see God hidden in the priest like a light behind a glass and like wine mixed with water.”

The aim of the Year for Priests, as I wrote in the letter I sent to priests on this occasion, is to support each priest’s struggle “towards spiritual perfection, on which the effectiveness of his ministry primarily depends,” and to help priests first of all — and with them all of God’s people — to rediscover and renew their awareness of the extraordinary and indispensible gift of grace that the ordained ministry represents for he who receives it, as well as for the entire Church and for the world, which would be lost without the real presence of Christ.

The Concept of Priesthood

There is no doubt that the historical and social conditions in which the Curé of Ars lived have changed, and it is only fitting to ask ourselves how priests living in today’s global society can imitate him in the way he identified himself with his ministry.

In a world where the common view of life leaves less and less space for the sacred and where functionality becomes the only important category in its place, the Catholic concept of priesthood could easily lose its due esteem, even within our ecclesial consciousness.

Oftentimes, both within theological circles as well as in concrete pastoral practice and clergy formation, a contrast — and sometimes an opposition — is made between two distinct concepts of the priesthood.

In this regard, I pointed out some years ago that there exists, “on the one hand, a social-functional understanding that defines the essence of the priesthood with the concept of ‘service’: service to the community in the fulfillment of a function. … On the other hand, there is the sacramental-ontological understanding, which naturally does not deny the service character of the priesthood, but sees it anchored in the being of the minister and considers that this being is determined by a gift called sacrament, given by the Lord through the mediation of the Church” (J. Ratzinger, Ministero e vita del Sacerdote, in elemneti di Teologia fondamentale. Saggio su fede e ministero, Brescia 2005, p. 165).

Even the shift in terminology for the word “priesthood” to a meaning of “service, ministry and mission” is a sign of this distinct understanding. The primacy of the Eucharist is associated with the sacramental-ontological understanding, which is expressed in the words “priesthood” and “sacrifice,” while the other understanding is associated with the primacy of the word and the ministry of proclamation.

Sacrifice and Proclamation

As you can clearly see, there is no contradiction between the two concepts, and any tension that exists between the two is resolved from within. This is what the Second Vatican Council affirmed in its decree Presbyterorum Ordinis: “Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the people of God are called together and assembled. All belonging to this people … can offer themselves as ‘a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God’ (Romans 12:1).

“Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until the Lord himself comes” (No. 2).

What does it mean for priests to evangelize? What is this so-called primacy of proclamation?

Jesus speaks about the proclamation of the Kingdom of God as the true purpose for which he came into the world, and his proclamation was not merely “speech.” It included, at the same time, his works.

His signs and miracles showed that his Kingdom had come to this world as a present reality and ultimately coincides with his very person. In this regard, it is good to remember that word and sign are inseparable vis-à-vis the primacy of proclamation.

When Christians preach, they do not proclaim mere “words,” but “the Word,” and this proclamation coincides with the very person of Christ and is ontologically open to a relationship with the Father and is obedient to his will.

Alter Christus

Therefore, authentic service to the Word requires a priest to strive for ever deeper self-denial so that, together with St. Paul, he can say, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”

A priest cannot consider himself a “master” of the Word, but rather its servant. He is not the Word. Rather, as John the Baptist (whose birth we celebrate today) proclaimed, he is the “voice” of the Word: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths’” (Mark 1:3).

However, being a “voice” of the Word does not constitute merely a functional element for priests. On the contrary, it presupposes a substantial “losing of oneself” in Christ and participating in the mystery of his death and resurrection with all of their being: intelligence, freedom, will and the offering of their own bodies as a living sacrifice (see Romans 12:1-2).

It is only by participating in Christ’s sacrifice — in his chènosi — that the proclamation becomes genuine! This is the path that priests must walk with Christ in order to get to the point where they can say to the Father, along with Christ, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:46).

Proclamation, therefore, always includes the sacrifice of oneself as a condition for the proclamation to be authentic and effective.

As an alter Christus (another Christ), the priest is deeply united to the Word of the Father, who, by becoming man, took the form of a slave and became a slave (see Philippians 2:5-11).

Priests are Christ’s servants in the sense that their lives, ontologically configured to Christ, take on an essentially rational character. The priest is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ at the service of mankind. Precisely because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people: He is the minister of their salvation, of their happiness, of their genuine deliverance, growing in maturity as he progressively takes on the will of Christ through prayer and through “heart to heart” contact with him. This is the essential condition of all proclamation, which implies participation in the sacramental offering of the Eucharist and docile obedience to the Church.

Identifying With Christ

The holy Curé of Ars often said with tears in his eyes: “How frightening it is to be a priest!” and “How we ought to pity a priest who celebrates the Mass as though it were a routine event! How wretched it is to be a priest without any interior life!”

May the Year for Priest lead all priests to identify totally with Christ, who was crucified and who rose again, so that, imitating St. John the Baptist, they may be ready to “diminish” so that he might grow — so that, following the example of the Curé of Ars, they may be constantly and more deeply aware of the responsibilities of their mission, which is both sign and presence of the infinite mercy of God.

Let us entrust this Year for Priests, which we have just begun, along with all the priests of the world to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.

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