Our Debt of Gratitude
Have you ever wondered what popes do on vacation? I am amazed and edified when I learn how papal vacations are spent. Pope John Paul II, in addition to hiking in the highlands, would call together groups of philosophers for extended discussions. Pope Benedict XVI wrote his book, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as various official writings that bear the mark of his faith and genius while on vacation.
There is something else Pope Benedict has done while on vacation, in fact, something he does every chance he gets. He gathers with priests to speak with them about their lives and ministry and also to answer their questions. It is said of our Holy Father that he is most at home in these settings, in company with his brother priests speaking about the things of priesthood.
Pope Benedict XVI
Indeed, the Holy Father so deeply reveres the priesthood that he, more than anyone else, has sought to root out from its ranks those who would harm a young person or behave in ways utterly at odds with this high calling. In an article which I wrote during Holy Week, I recalled the role of then Cardinal Ratzinger in securing approval of the Charter for the Protection of Young People and the Essential Norms that go with it, documents that have immeasurably helped the U.S. bishops and their co-workers to create an environment wherein sexual abuse is not tolerated and wherein children and young people are safeguarded. I was present at meetings in Rome at which it became evident that our future Pope understood the problem and championed the efforts of U.S. bishops to root out abuse from our midst. Pope Benedict deserves our thanks, not criticism, our prayers, not the barrage of attacks to which he has been subjected.
We priests owe the Holy Father a particular debt of gratitude. Nearly a year ago, he designated the Year for Priests to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, the patron saint of parish priests, an exemplar of priestly holiness and zeal.
This year was meant to be both a celebration and a challenge. It is a celebration of Jesus, our great high priest, the eternal priest, who laid down his life for us and for our salvation. It recognizes those called by God to priestly ordination so as to be sacramentally identified with Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church and thus continue his saving work until the end of time. It is also a way of thanking the wonderful priests who serve in our parishes, day in day out, with fidelity, zeal and holiness. I join with parishioners throughout the diocese in expressing profound gratitude to our priests for answering their vocation and for serving us with such love!
The Year for Priests is also a challenge, and here, I'll speak personally. I was ordained a priest some 33 years ago and the years have flown by. They have been busy, happy years, but also filled with challenges and trials I could not have imagined on that sunny day in May when I was ordained. When the Holy Father designated the Year for Priests, I knew it was again time to take stock, to undergo an examination of conscience with regard to my priestly service, to see whether or not I was growing in a life of prayer, in virtue, and in the capacity to give myself to the Lord and to those to whom I have been sent.
The measure for such a self examination is not my own plans or wishes but rather Jesus Christ in whose priesthood I am privileged to share. So often during this Year for Priests I returned to Jesus' priesthood, as I know that my brother priests have also done. I reminded myself of Jesus' complete identification with the Word he preached; there was no gap between his person and his preaching, for He is the Word Incarnate. I thought of St. John Vianney whose life of prayer and penance completely opened his mind and heart to the living Word of God. As a result, his preaching, his words of instruction in the confessional and his catechesis were highly effective in bringing hundreds of thousands of people to Christ and to His Church. What a difference one holy priest can make! Even people estranged from the Lord are attracted to a priest deeply in love with the Lord and totally at the service of the Church.
As this Year for Priests unfolded, I reflected on Jesus' gift of self. Like the Word He preached, Jesus was the sacrifice He offered. In the liturgy for the Easter season we repeat the words of St. Paul who proclaimed Christ to be our paschal sacrifice. Scripture attests to the costly nature of this sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah, for example, foretold the terrible sufferings of the sinless Christ and makes clear that these sufferings are to be borne for our sake, to amend for our sins and to heal us of our iniquity.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus did this once for all because He offered himself in our place to the Father. And the Gospels remind every priest how he perpetuates the one sacrifice of Christ for the world's salvation, namely, by the celebration of the Eucharist established by Christ at the Last Supper.
These are truths of the faith I have known almost from the first stirrings of a priestly vocation in my heart in the late 1950s. But in this Year for Priests, reflecting on St. John Vianney's sufferings for his people: his battle with the devil, his exhausting hours in the confessional, and his explicit instruction that suffering makes one's priestly ministry fruitful – I've found myself, like many other priests, asking for the grace to grow in acceptance of the sacrificial nature of the priestly life, to be both priest and victim. Every priest must bear the marks of Christ's sacrificial love, a love that is at the heart of our existence.
We, your priests, owe you, God's people, a debt of deepest thanks for your strong faith, your efforts to live the faith and to pass it on, for your understanding and assistance in living out our vocation. With you we give thanks to Jesus for the gift of the priesthood and ask the Eucharistic Lord to send us many vocations to the priesthood, to sustain our seminarians and to help us be shepherds after His own mind and heart.