St John Paul II & St John Vianney on the Priesthood

With today’s memorial of St John Vianney, patron saint of priests, it’s an opportune time to reflect on the wondrous gift of the priesthood — and how much we as laity should support, encourage, and love our priests.

Known for his great sanctity and heroic dedication to the Sacrament of Confession as the Curé of Ars, St John Vianney turned the little French village into a great place of pilgrimage.

So it was at Ars that St John Paul II gave a retreat for priests, deacons, and seminarians in October 1986. His three meditations resonate with profound depth, offering a gift to all priests, especially those who may be in need of a tonic or morale boost in trying circumstances.

The English text can be found in Fr George Rutler’s The Curé d’Ars Today, Appendix 2, pp. 249-73 (the source for all of the quotations below)The full text is also available in French and Italian on the Vatican website.

Here are some excerpts:

People can speak of priesthood as of a profession or function, including the function of presiding over the Eucharistic assembly. But we are not reduced by this to functionaries. This is so first of all because we are marked in our very souls through ordination with a special character that configures us to Christ the Priest…we are ‘set apart,’ totally consecrated to the work of salvation…

You know the saying of the Curé d’Ars: ‘Oh, the priest is something great! If he knew it, he would die!’

…[T]he baptized need the ministerial priesthood. By means of it, in a privileged and tangible manner, the gift of the Divine Life received from Christ, the Head of all the Body, is communicated to them. The more Christian the people become…the more they feel the need of priests who are truly priests.

It was for their salvation that the Curé d’Ars wanted to be a priest: ‘To win souls for the Good God!’…And when he was tempted to run away from his heavy charge as parish priest, he came back, for the salvation of parishioners.

‘Grant me the conversion of my parish, and I am ready to suffer whatever you wish for the rest of my life.’

‘The priesthood,’ as Jean Marie Vianney also said, ‘is the love of the Heart of Christ.’

Let us note what his vicar-general said to the Curé d’Ars: ‘There is not much love of God in this parish: you will put it there.’

The Curé d’Ars said: ‘Do not be afraid of your burden. Our Lord carries it with you.’

After recounting the difficulties that priests experience in a number of aspects of ministry, as well as personally, JP II notes:

sometimes there is the sentiment of a great spiritual poverty or even humiliating weakness. We offer to God this fragility of our ‘earthen vessels.’ It is good for us to know that the Curé d’Ars too knew many trials…

How could we bring a remedy to the spiritual crisis of our time, unless we ourselves grasp the means of a profound and constant union with the Lord, Whose servants we are?

The priestly ministry, then, living in a state of union with God, is the daily place of our sanctification.

JPII concludes with thanksgiving, and an “urgent appeal” to priests:

…I give thanks to Jesus Christ for this unheard-of gift of the priesthood, that of the Curé d’Ars and that of all the priests of yesterday and today. They prolong the sacred ministry of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

To this word of thanks, I join an urgent appeal to all priests: whatever may be your interior or exterior difficulties, which the merciful Lord knows, remain faithful to your sublime vocation…In critical times, remember that no temptation to abandonment is fatal before the Lord Who has called you…

Let us always pray for our priests, and remember to include them as we offer up our daily crosses to the Lord. In addition to supporting our own parishes materially, we can also support priests in need through Opus Bono Sacerdotii.

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Engaging the Gospel – Mark 6:7-13

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B): Gospel – Mark 6:7-13

Jesus bestows authority upon the Apostles and sends them forth

As today’s Gospel makes clear,

Christ is Himself the source of ministry in the Church. He instituted the Church. He gave her authority and mission, orientation and goal. In order to shepherd the People of God and to increase its numbers without cease, Christ the Lord set up in His Church a variety of offices which aim at the good of the whole body.

— Catechism paragraph 874.

Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to His apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry.

— paragraph 1536.

Ordination configures the priest to Christ as the Head, marks upon him an “indelible spiritual character” (1581-82) and “confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful” (1592).

Through the priest, “it is Christ Himself who is present to His Church as Head of His Body, Shepherd of His flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth” (1548). “Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to the affairs of the Lord, [priests] give themselves entirely to God and to [us]” (1579).

St. John Vianney, patron saint of all priests, summed up the gift of the ministerial priesthood:

If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die not of fright but of love. The Priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.

— quoted in paragraph 1589.

While those in Holy Orders have especially grave obligations, the laity are also called to proclaim the Gospel, and provide faithful witness to Christ, in every sphere of life:

The whole Church is apostolic, in that she remains, through the successors of St. Peter and the other apostles, in communion of faith and life with her origin: and in that she is ‘sent out’ into the whole world. All members of the Church share in this mission, though in various ways.

— paragraph 863.

Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth.

— paragraph 900.

It is from God’s love for all men that the Church in every age receives both the obligation and the vigor of her missionary dynamism, for the love of Christ urges us on.

— paragraph 851.

Question for reflection: What priests have been most helpful to my spiritual life?

Holy Orders

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1533-1600:

  • When Christ endowed the apostles with authority, and commanded them to go forth and make disciples, He gave the Church an ongoing mission until He comes again; hence the apostolic ministry also continues over time, bestowed through the sacrament of Holy Orders.
  • Its name comes from the Latin ordo, “order,” referring to an established civil body, with a special connotation of governance; by ordination, one is incorporated into such an order.
  • There are three degrees of Holy Orders, each deriving from a Greek term in the New Testament: bishops, from episkopos (“overseer”); priests, from presbyteros (“elder”); and deacons, from diakonos (“servant”).
  • Christ is the supreme Priest, the one mediator between God and humankind, Who is prefigured by the priests offering sacrifice in the Old Testament: from Melchizedek and Aaron to those consecrated for worship in the Temple.
  • While this one priesthood of Christ is shared by all the baptized, the ordained priest is configured to Him in a profoundly different way; this sacrament confers a gift of the Holy Spirit, indelibly marking the soul, so that the priest receives the sacred power to act in the person of Christ, the Head of His Body, the Church.
  • The ministerial priesthood exists to serve the faithful by teaching the faith, exercising pastoral governance, and celebrating the sacraments, above all the Eucharist; by promising celibacy (in the Latin Rite, not in the Eastern Churches) the priest expresses his single-hearted commitment to shepherd his flock.
  • Priests who are consecrated as bishops receive the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders; as successors of the apostles, bishops are responsible for their own flocks, while also caring for the universal Church; they form the apostolic college in our day, in communion with the head of the college, the Bishop of Rome.
  • Bishops have the authority to celebrate this sacrament, ordaining through the laying on of hands and continuing the apostolic line; the priest is ordained as the bishop’s co-worker in apostolic mission, and so exercises his ministry in communion with, and obedience to, the bishop.
  • The ordination of deacons configures them in a special way to Christ, not as Priest, but as Servant; aside from performing some liturgical roles to assist bishops and priests, deacons are dedicated to charitable works and other ministries of service.
  • Holy Orders have been integral to the Church’s life since its inception; St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early 100s, urged reverence for bishops, priests, and deacons, “For without them, one cannot speak of the Church.”

Live Your Faith

“If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die not of fright but of love….The Priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.” So wrote St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests.

Only through the ministry of His priests does Jesus give Himself to us in the Eucharist. No priest, no Eucharist – a reality that our persecuted brothers and sisters, and those in remote mission territories, know too well.

Let us be ever mindful of praying for our bishops and priests, that the Lord may protect and sustain them, and ask Him to keep raising up good and holy priests for His Church.  

The Sacraments

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1113-34, 121012, 1667-79:

  • Christ instituted the seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
  • Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist are sacraments of initiation because they lay the foundations of Christian life; Reconciliation and Anointing are sacraments of healing; Holy Orders and Matrimony are ordered to loving service of others.
  • Sacramentum is the Latin rendering of what the Eastern Fathers called “mysteries” in Greek; the Latin had the connotation of an oath, as a sacred pledge.
  • The sacraments are by the Church, in the sense that Christ works through her; at the same time, they are for the Church, because the sacraments make the Church, by generating, nourishing, and revitalizing Christian life in the faithful.
  • Because we are human beings composed of both body and soul, it helps us to have physical, tangible ways of grasping spiritual realities; Christ gives us this help through the sacraments, which He instituted as outward signs to confer grace.
  • Prefigured in the Old Testament, and by the words and actions that Jesus performed during His earthly ministry, the sacraments are truly powers that come forth from the Body of Christ.
  • Christ Himself acts through the sacraments to apply to us personally the fruits of his Paschal Mystery – His Passion, Death and Resurrection; He is present in such a way that when anyone baptizes, He baptizes, and so forth for all the sacraments.
  • Because Christ is at work, the sacraments are efficacious by the very fact of being performed (ex opere operato); i.e., grace is conferred, regardless of whether the minister is worthy, or holy, or not.
  • Yet our dispositions as recipients can affect how open we are to that sacramental grace, and how much we might benefit from it.
  • The seven sacraments are distinguished from other practices called sacramentals, such as blessings; instituted by the Church, sacramentals do not confer grace, but dispose us to receive and cooperate with grace.

Live Your Faith

If the Risen Lord were scheduled to make a public appearance, to offer a healing embrace to anyone who sought Him, there would be extraordinary excitement and overflowing crowds.

Yet this is the same offer that Christ makes to us, continually, through the sacraments. Christ is there to touch and heal us. How faithfully do we go to meet Him?

Let us not neglect these great gifts of grace, but instead receive them with due preparation and reverence.