What is a Priest?

“The priesthood is the Love of the Heart of Jesus”

On the 19th of June 2009, at the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Benedict XVI opened a “Year for Priesthood” to “promote a commitment to interior renewal for all priests, in order to make their evangelical witness more incisive and vigorous”. It is under the patronage of St Jean Marie Vianney that the Pope wished to help priests to revitalise the gift of priesthood they have received in order to make their ministry more fruitful. In this perspective, we will try to reread Benedict XVI’s teaching by highlighting the intuitions and strong convictions on the priesthood that he has given to the Church.

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.

Revivifying the priesthood by a year of the priesthood.

A submission full of love of His will.

The Priesthood of Christ: The Heart of Christ

Let us therefore contemplate with Benedict XVI the priesthood of Jesus: “In Jesus, person and mission tend to coincide: all Christ’s saving activity was, and is, an expression of his “filial consciousness which from all eternity stands before the Father in an attitude of loving submission to his will.” Here, it seems clear, the priesthood of Jesus is considered primarily in its theocentric dimension. Jesus is turned towards his Father. It is thus in the intimacy of prayer and silence that Jesus initiates himself into the will of his Father. His mission among the people is only a prolonging of his prayer, that is to say, of his filial relation with the Father. Jesus prays and acts in perfect homogeneous continuity. Jesus passes time freely with his Father and gives himself fully to the people he has come to save. The efficacy of his ministry is rooted in the dependency which he maintains with his Father in prayer. The latter is the soul of all priestly acts.

With regard to the manner in which Jesus accomplishes his mission among the people, Benedict XVI insists as well on certain aspects of his ministry. It is without doubt a sensitive manner in which the Pope invites the priests to analyze their proper ministry.

In the homily given during Vespers of the Sacred Heart, Benedict XVI gives us a very beautiful meditation regarding the soul of the ministry of Jesus by contemplating his Heart: “The heart of God burns with compassion! On today’s solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Church presents us this mystery for our contemplation: the mystery of the heart of a God who feels compassion and who bestows all his love upon humanity.

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).

The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.

The priest has to clothe himself in Christ.

To let oneself be conquered by Christ

Such an attention paid to the identity of the priest makes us understand why Benedict XVI insists on the existential communion that the priest should establish with Christ. It is the central point of the whole priestly spirituality. The spiritual life of a priest is thus defined as a way of appropriating his new identity, in order to better fulfill his mission. The divine efficacy of his ministry comes at this price. “Letting oneself be conquered by Christ…clothing oneself with Christ…being in an existential communion with Christ”, so many strong expressions used by the Pope in order to exhort priests to holiness. Without denying that priests sanctify themselves through their ministry, the Holy Father simply intends to readjust the focus of view of the ministry that is too much focused on the functional. Yes, priests sanctify themselves through their ministry, but on the condition that they remain in an “existential communion with Christ” in the Spirit. That is why Benedict XVI insists so much on the place of prayer. We will speak more about that in another article.

In short, “Certainly this is not to forget that the efficacy of the ministry is independent of the holiness of the minister; but neither can we overlook the extraordinary fruitfulness of the encounter between the ministry’s objective holiness and the subjective holiness of the minister.” (Benedict XVI, Letter to the priests). This subjective holiness of the minister is thus nothing else, for the priest, than the appropriation and deployment of that fruit that he received the seed of at his ordination – his configuration to the priesthood of Christ. By more and more fixing his gaze on, and bringing his heart to, the Heart of Christ, the priest truly becomes a visible sign for the people of Christ’s love for mankind. With Benedict  XVI, “let us ask the Lord to inflame the heart of every priest with that ‘pastoral charity’ which can make him one in heart and mind with Jesus the High Priest, and thus able to imitate Jesus in complete self-giving.”