What is a Priest?
“The priesthood is the Love of the Heart of Jesus”
We could expect from the Pope to give advice and recommendations on how to live the ministry in its functioning form. Instead, he does so only in a second step. First, he urges us to return to the foundation of priestly action. Benedict XVI invites us to meditate on the identity of priesthood. The famous formula of the Curé d’Ars, which defines the priesthood as “the Love of the Heart of Jesus”, thus takes on a major role in the thinking of Benedict XVI. The actions and the lifestyle of priesthood will naturally derive from this.
To put it another way, the mission of priests can only be understood in the mystery of their consecration. The priest finds his true identity in his participation in the unique priesthood of Christ, the unique priest of the New Covenant: he is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest whose mission he continues. The priesthood of Christ, in its absolute newness in salvation history, constitutes the unique source and paradigm of the Christian priesthood, and in particular of the priest. Reference to Christ is thus the key to understanding the reality of the priesthood.
The Priest: Another Christ
With Benedict XVI, we understand better the wonder kindled by reflecting on the identity of the priest, who, by his sacramental consecration, is configured to Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church. It is this identity which the Holy Father reaffirms, following Tradition, with force and sensitivity. When he speaks about priests and their ministry, the Pope always returns to the question of their identity, reminding them of the bond which unites them to Christ in their very being. All that concerns the life of a priest is rooted in the manner by which the priest assumes his identity. The place accorded to the Curé d’Ars in Benedict XVI’s Letter to priests is significant. Without being a specialist, the Curé d’Ars knew how to express the grandeur of the priesthood, with the words: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” Benedict XVI thus invites all priests to enter into this perspective.
A priest, he says, should be in awe of the gift he has received: “In the Letter which I wrote to priests for this occasion, I wished to highlight that which gleams the most in the existence of this humble ministry of the altar: his total identification to his ministry.” He loved to say that “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” And, as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature, he exclaimed: “O, how great is the priest! … If he realized what he is, he would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host…”. (L’Osservatore Romano, n° 25, June 23rd, 2009). “By considering this pairing of identity with mission, each priest is able to become more aware of the need for that gradual identification with Christ which will guarantee him fidelity and the fruitfulness of Gospel witness.” (General Audience of July 1st, 2009). The pope continues: “When the ‘diptych’ of consecration and mission is not taken into account, it becomes truly difficult to understand the identity of the priest and his ministry in the Church. Indeed, who is the priest, if not a man who has been converted and renewed by the Spirit, who lives in his personal relationship with Christ, ceaselessly making the Gospel criteria his own? Who is the priest, if not a man of unity and truth, aware of his own limitations, and at the same time of the extraordinary greatness of the vocation he has received, namely, that of helping to spread the Kingdom of God to the very ends of the Earth? Yes! The priest is a man who belongs totally to the Lord, for it is God himself who has called him, and who establishes him in his apostolic service. For the very reason that he belongs completely to the Lord, he belongs completely to the people, for the people.”
Thus Benedict XVI, prior to any considerations regarding the action of the priest, insists upon the priest’s identification with, and representation of, Christ the Priest. One could say that what priests ought to reflect upon is not so much what they should do as what they should be: “The mission of each individual priest will therefore depend also and above all on knowledge of the sacramental reality of his ‘new being’. His ever-renewed enthusiasm for his mission depends on the certainty of his own identity, not artificially and humanly constructed, but freely and divinely given and received.” In this attention paid to the identity of the priest, Benedict XVI accentuates one consequence of this identification of the priest with Christ. By his priestly consecration, the priest does not belong to himself anymore. He is henceforward consecrated to the business of the Lord; the gift of the priesthood is granted to him in order that he might speak and act in persona Christi: “In the Sacraments, he dramatically renders visible what being a priest means in general; what we have expressed with our ‘Adsum – I am ready’, during our consecration to the priesthood: I am here so that you may make use of me. We put ourselves at the disposal of the One who ‘died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves…’ (2 Co 5:15). Putting ourselves at Christ’s disposal means that we allow ourselves to be attracted within his ‘for all’: in being with him we can truly be ‘for all’.” (Homily of Benedict XVI at the Chrism Mass, 2007).