A priest’s relationship of friendship with Christ is at the foundation of his identity and mission, and so it is on that foundation of a relationship with Christ that the formation of future priests must rest, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver told a gathering of seminary formators and spiritual directors.
The archbishop said this at the Institute for Priestly Formation’s annual symposium, which took place Feb.19-22 at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. The Omaha-based Institute for Priestly Formation assists bishops in the spiritual formation of diocesan seminarians and priests.
Some 110 bishops, priests, and lay members attended the event, titled “Christ the Foundation and Center: The Integration of Human and Spiritual Formation.” Among the speakers were priests and lay faculty members of seminaries from around the country.
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop emeritus of Chicago, opened the symposium with an address in which he shared some of his own personal experiences of his 51 years of priesthood.
Archbishop Aquila spoke on “The Priest as a Man of Charity: On the Integrating Role of Charity as Friendship in Human and Spiritual Priestly Formation.”
Basing his comments on Saint John Paul II’s 1992 letter on the formation of priests, titled Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Shall Give You Shepherds), the archbishop noted that “the model for priestly formation is found in Christ’s appointing the twelve to be with him and to be sent out.”
Quoting John Paul II’s letter, he added that the time a future priests spends in seminary is aimed at developing “a relationship of deep communion and friendship” with Christ. The candidate to the priesthood seeks to “learn how to respond from the heart to Christ’s basic question: ‘Do you love me?’ For the future priest the answer can only mean total self-giving.”
“Thus,” Archbishop Aquila explained, “John Paul II teaches that one’s formation to the priesthood is to be oriented to charity and the gift of self. More concretely, it should be oriented to answer with one’s life to Christ’s love and gift of self to us, members of the Church.
“In the heart of the future priest is to be a deep receptivity to the love of Jesus Christ, who loves us first.”
“I wish for all of you the grace to rekindle daily the gift of God you have received with the laying on of hands,” the archbishop added, quoting Saint John Paul II, “to feel the comfort of the deep friendship which binds you to Jesus and unites you with one another.”
Abide in me
The archbishop asserted that “at the heart of everything the ordained priest does in relationship with [Christ]” are the following words from John’s Gospel: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
“To abide in Christ means to enter into a relationship of friendship with Him that is analogous to the relationship between God the Father and the Son,” he explained. “Jesus is the Way. Becoming sons in the Son, we are inserted in the very life of the Trinity.”
Archbishop Aquila explained that “Christ’s love for His Father—and friendship is a habitual form of love—is manifested in His obedience unto death and gift of self for the Church.”
“Analogously,” he continued, “our love for and friendship with Christ is manifested in our obedience and gift of self to Him and to the Church. For this reason, the Lord says: ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.’”
The prelate reminded those present that God is the one who loves first, “teaching us in this way how to love, loving us when we were sinners.”
“He gave His own life for us,” he added, “his friends and enemies. For this reason, each and every one of us can personally say with St. Paul that Christ ‘loved me and gave Himself up for me.’”
“Here we have the foundational encounter and experience upon which all priestly formation rests,” the archbishop concluded. “The priest is to be a man of charity because he must know himself as a beloved son.”