The Priest is Not His Own
The priesthood is a chosen state, a holy calling which demands a commitment, a firm "yes" to the call and will of God. Guadium et Spes 24, the text most frequently cited by Pope John Paul II in his writings, states that there is "a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself." In other words, because God is a Trinity, a communion of Divine Persons united in a bond of perfect and selfless love, man, too, who is created in the image of God, is called to live in communion. He will not find his perfection, fulfillment and happiness except through a sincere gift of himself to another in selfless, serving love.
This gift of self is most commonly expressed in the lives of men through the marriage bond. The couple pronounces their initial "yes" on their wedding day as a promise of a new life which is no longer lived "for oneself", but "for another": for spouse primarily, and then also for one's children. As these vows are lived out in daily life through the years, through all the tensions and trials of family life, the spouses who work with the grace of God grow ever more into a life of divine charity, reflecting more and more the communion of the Three Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
The "yes" pronounced by the priest on the day of his ordination is a commitment to an even more radical life of selfless, self-giving and serving love. Pope Paul VI, speaking to a group of priests, states:
Our response at once qualified our entire life with its awesome "yes," making our life that of one who is set aside from the ordinary manner in which others lead their lives. St. Paul says it of himself: "Set apart for the gospel of God." It is a "yes" which in a moment tore us from everything that we had: "they left everything and followed Him" (Lk 5:11); it is a "yes" which placed us in the ranks…of those who have set themselves to the task of serving and giving their lives, their whole lives, for others. (Paul VI to Lenten Preachers, Feb. 17, 1972)
This total dedication of the priest, the total gift of his life, is made first of all to God. Christ becomes his life, his love and his all.
[The priest] does not belong to himself in the same way as he does not belong to relatives or friends, nor does he belong to a specific country—universal charity will be his life. His very thoughts, will and feelings are not his own but belong to Christ, his life. (John XXIII, citing the last unspoken discourse of Pius XII in Sacerdotii nostri primordial)
Although the priest dedicates his life first of all to God, nevertheless, for the sake of God and in His service, his life is lived as a total self-emptying for others. And in this sense, too, the life of the priest is not "his own":
A priest no longer belongs to himself. His very spiritual life is conditioned by the communion of the brethren to whom his ministry is directed. He is at their disposal, at their service. Whatever helps to edify them is a matter of obligation for a priest. (Paul VI, General Audience, June 10, 1970)
Though the life of the priest is so completely immersed in the service of men, he does not become simply another man among men. He is and must grow to be ever more Christ present among us. He must empty himself so much of his own self that those whom he serves see only Jesus. In him, Christ is made present to every generation. In this sense, the priest is in an even more profound way "not his own", but Christ's:
They are yours, O Lord, these Your sons, who by a new title have become Your brothers, Your ministers. By means of their priestly service Your presence and Your sacramental sacrifice, Your gospel, Your grace, Your Spirit, in one word, the work of Your salvation will be communicated to men who are disposed to receive it; an immeasurable radiation of Your charity will diffuse itself through the present and future generation. (Paul VI to newly ordained priests of Colombia, September 5, 1968)
The priest's principal concern is always to lead men to God, to communicate to them the grace of Christ in administering the Sacraments, in preaching the Gospel, in guiding and consoling all in need, and most especially, in the celebration of the Eucharist.
As we have seen in previous Crusade Letters, the essence of the priesthood is intimately connected to the celebration of the Eucharist and the administering of the other Sacraments. As Pope John Paul II states, the Eucharist "is the principal and central raison d'être of the sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist" (Dominicae Cenae, 2). From the Eucharist flows the efficacy of all his other priestly ministries. But the priest does not celebrate the Eucharist as a mechanical instrument. "The ordained ministry…may never be reduced to its merely functional aspect since it belongs on the level of 'being'; [it] enables the priest to act in persona Christi" (John Paul II, Letter to Priests, 2004).
The priest acting in persona Christi must allow Christ to work through him as the minister of His grace. But in order to be a more efficacious channel for the grace of Christ, the priest will strive to be ever more conformed to the person of Christ and His divine and sacrificial love. This love found its supreme expression on the Cross and is continued throughout history in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. The priest, therefore, will gradually lose himself in order to find his very identity in the Eucharistic sacrifice. His manifestation of Christ to those about him will then become "more complete when he himself allows the depth of the [Eucharistic] mystery to become visible, so that it alone shines forth in people's hearts and minds, through his ministry" (John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, 2).
Just as Christ manifested the self-giving love of the Trinity most perfectly on the Cross and in the Eucharist, the sacramental "making-present" of Calvary, so too the priest must live his sacrifice, his gift of self to others for the sake of Christ, in his daily life as well, in order to become with and in Christ a visible sign of the endless love of the Triune God.
In a certain sense, when he says the words: "take and eat", the priest must learn to apply them also to himself, and to speak them with truth and generosity. If he is able to offer himself as a gift, placing himself at the disposal of the community and at the service of anyone in need, his life takes on its true meaning. (John Paul II, Letter to Priests on Holy Thursday, 2005)
Only by giving himself wholly does the priest become an effective instrument of the self-giving love of Christ. Though by his very ordination the priest is given the power to act in persona Christi, it is only by this total gift of himself to Christ in service to others that he becomes visibly Christ among us.
The life of the priest is therefore necessarily a life of service. Though we rightly pay priests honor and respect as their office demands, this outward regard does not reflect the interior attitude of the priest. If a priest lived for honors and prestige, he would only find frustration and emptiness, because such a desire does not correspond to the sacrificial nature of his priesthood. The priest who lives a life of sacrifice, service and zeal for the good of souls irradiates joy and fulfillment, for he lives the life God has chosen for him. It is the life of the "chosen one," the one favored by God. But as we all know, those who are "chosen" God unites most closely to the mystery of His Cross.
Pope Benedict XVI has on his papal coat of arms a bear carrying a pack saddle. He explains the choice of this symbol, which he already used as Archbishop of Munich-Freising, with the story of St. Corbinian, the first Bishop of Freising. Corbinian was traveling to Rome on a horse laden with his baggage. A bear came and devoured the horse; so in punishment, St. Corbinian obliged the bear (as only the saints can do!) to carry his pack the rest of the way to Rome.
Pope Benedict sees in this bear himself, bearing the weight of his papacy and priesthood. Following the interpretation of St. Augustine of Psalm 72:23, the Psalmist says, "A beast of burden have I become for You, and this is just the way for me to remain wholly Yours and always abide with You." St. Augustine, and like him, Pope Benedict himself, had to renounce the life they would have liked to have lived as a scholar and contemplative, in order to give themselves to the service of the Church. Yet precisely in this service of men, they find themselves nearest to God, which is their greatest joy. (cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones. Ignatius Press, pp. 154-156.) So too every priest must renounce himself, his own life and plans, to become a "beast of burden" for God. But precisely in this service, he will find himself filled with joy in God's presence.
Yet the joys of faithful service are not so immediately apparent to one considering a vocation to the priesthood. It demands a courageous "yes" to accept the demands of a life "set apart from others", though living in the midst of men in order to serve them. While we rightly give thanks for so many faithful, loving priests who show us the "face of the Father", we want to continue to pray for vocations, that young men of today have the courage to say yes to Christ! We also want to remember all those priests who are struggling to find meaning in their lives, that they may find in the victimhood of Christ their own identity and even joy.
Since the priestly state is so demanding, it is understandable that they should stand in special need of our prayer. Let us ask our Blessed Mother to spread the mantel of her "fiat" over all our priests, that with her they may bear every trial along the path of their vocation, and be transformed by grace into living images of Christ among men.
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