The central task of the priest is “to bring God to men and women,” Pope Benedict XVI once told the priests of Rome. Priests are tremendous gifts from Christ to his Church, and on May 13 I will have the joy of ordaining eight men to the priesthood for our archdiocese. As we prepare for this celebration, it is important to realize what a gift priests are for the whole Church.
Faithful priests are a blessing from God for his people. God could have chosen to give us his grace in an impersonal manner, but just as he chose to become a man, so too, does he call and consecrate men to be his priests and bring his grace to the world. Just as he called the apostles, he still calls today!
There is an element of mystery in the call to the priesthood. St. John Paul II noted this in his book “Gift and Mystery,” which was born out of his thoughts on 50 years of priestly ministry. “At its deepest level,” he said, “every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery; it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual. Every priest experiences this clearly throughout the course of his life. Faced with the greatness of the gift, we sense our own inadequacy. A vocation is a mystery of divine election: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, fruit that will last ….’”
Every Catholic was chosen by Christ at his or her baptism and given the mission of sanctifying the world. With the support of the sacraments and the clergy, you are called to be a saint whose life and charity radiate the Gospel. It bears repeating: Jesus did not intend for you to fulfill this mission on your own – he gave the Church priests as his instruments who constantly remind us that Christ is the Head, Shepherd, and Bridegroom of the Church.
At the Chrism Mass this year, Pope Francis, reminded priests that the Gospel they proclaim and serve can be described as “Good news. A single word – Gospel – that, even as it is spoken, becomes truth, brimming with joy and mercy.” The Holy Father also counseled his fellow priests, “We should never attempt to separate these three graces of the Gospel: its truth, which is non-negotiable; its mercy, which is unconditional and offered to all sinners; and its joy, which is personal and open to everyone. Truth, mercy and joy: these three go together.” In serving the faithful, priests are entrusted with bringing the “truth, mercy and joy” of Jesus Christ to them.
As we celebrate the gift of new priests, let us all renew our efforts to support all our priests, to pray ever more fervently for vocations to the priesthood, and to appreciate the gift they are to the Church.
St. John Vianney has some insightful words to offer. “The priest is not a priest for himself … he is for you. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts. If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, ‘What can we do in this church? there is no Mass; Our Lord is no longer there: we may as well pray at home.’ When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion.”
The enemies of the Church would like to see the priesthood fit in with the surrounding culture as it becomes more secular, and their tactics have not changed over the centuries. If the Church is to be faithful to her mission, then the laity and priests alike must renew their commitment to holiness and to supporting one another. We must return to our first love as Pope Francis said to a gathering of priests during the Year of Mercy. “I renew my first love: the memory of that time when the Lord touched my soul and called me to follow him, the memory of the joy of having cast the nets of our life upon the sea of his word.” I urge you to pray that the hearts of all priests may be filled with the joy of the Gospel and set aflame with the love of Jesus Christ so that may be shepherds after the heart of Jesus!