In the Heart of the Church
"21st Century Priests: Little and Great,
Noble in Spirit as a King,
Simple and Natural as a Peasant"
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza
Congregation for the Clergy
October 4, 2011
Here is a translation of an address given in Los Angeles by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, at a meeting with priests of the archdiocese.
Very dear Priests:
A few decades ago, American writer Dorothy Thompson published in a magazine article the results of careful researchon the ill-famed concentration camp of Dachau.
A key question addressed to the survivors was the following: "In the midst of the Dachau hell, who remained for the longest time in a balanced condition? Who kept his sense of identity for the longest time?" The answer in unison, was always the same: "the Catholic priests." Yes, the Catholic priests! They were able to keep their balance in the midst of so much madness, because they were conscious of their vocation. They had their hierarchy of values. Their dedication to their ideal was total. They were conscious of their specific mission and of the profound reasons that sustained it.
In the midst of the earthly hell, they gave their testimony: that of Jesus Christ!
We live in an unstable world. There is instability in the family, in the world of work, in the various social and professional associations, in schools and in institutions.
The priest must be, however, constitutionally a model of stability and maturity, of full dedication to his apostolate.
Along the uneasy path of society, a question often comes to a Christian's mind: "Who is the priest in today's world? Is he a Martian? Is he a stranger? Is he a fossil? Who is he?"
Secularization, gnosticism, atheism, in their various forms, are increasingly reducing the space of the sacred, they are sucking the blood from the contents of the Christian message.
The men of technology and well-being, the people characterized by the fever of pretense, experience extreme spiritual poverty. They are victims of a serious existential anxiety and manifest themselves incapable of resolving the underlying problems of their spiritual, family and social life.
If we wished to question the most widespread culture, we would realize that it is dominated and impregnated by systematic doubt and a suspicion of everything that refers to faith, reason, religion and natural law.
"God is a useless hypothesis and I am perfectly sure that he does not interest me," wrote Camus.
In the best of hypotheses, a dense silence falls on God, but often one comes to an affirmation of the incurable conflict of two existences destined to eliminate one another: either God or man.
If afterward we were to look at the whole of the picture of moral behavior, we would not fail to see the confusion, disorder and anarchy that reigns in this field.
Man makes himself the creator of good and evil.
He concentrates his attention egoistically on himself.
He substitutes the moral norm with his own desire and pursuit of his own interest.
In this context, the life and ministry of the priest acquire decisive importance and urgent validity. Better still -- allow me to say it -- the more marginalized he is, the more important he is, the more he is regarded as outdated the more he is timely.
The priest must proclaim to the world the eternal message of Christ, in his poverty and radicalism; he must not reduce the message but, instead, comfort people; he must give society -- anesthetized by the message of some hidden directors, holders of the powers that count -- the liberating strength of Christ.
Everyone feels the need of reform in the social, economic and political field; everyone desires that, in labor union struggles and the economic realm, the centrality of man be reaffirmed and observed as well as the pursuit of objectives of justice, solidarity, and convergence toward the common good.
All this will be only a wish if the heart of man is not changed, of so many men, who for their part will renew society.
Look, the Church's real field of battle is the secret landscape of man's spirit, and one doesn't enter it without much tact, much compunction, in addition to counting on the grace of state promised by the sacrament of holy orders.
It is right that the priest insert himself in the ordinary life of men, but he must not yield to the conformisms and compromises of society.
Healthy doctrine, but also historical documentation show us that the Church is able to resist every attack, all the assaults that political, economic and cultural powers can unleash against her, but she cannot resist the danger that comes from forgetting this word of Jesus: "You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world." Jesus himself indicates the consequence of this forgetfulness: "But if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?" (cf. Matthew 5:13-14).
Of what use would be a priest so like the world that he becomes an imitation priest and not transforming leaven?
In the face of a world anemic of prayer and adoration, the priest is, in the first place, the man of prayer, of adoration, of worship, of the celebration of the Holy Mysteries.
In the face of a world submerged in consumer, pansexual messages, attacked by error, presented in the most seductive aspects, the priest must speak of God and of eternal realities and, to be able to do so with credibility, he must be a passionate believer, as well as "clean!"
The priest must accept the impression of being in the midst of people as one who starts from a logic and speaks a language that is different from that of others: "do not conform yourselves to the mentality of this world," (Romans 12:12). He is not like "others." What people expect from him is, in fact, that he not be "like others."
In the face of a world submerged in violence and corroded by egoism, the priest must be the man of charity. From the most pure heights of the love of God, which he experiences particularly, he descends to the valley, where many live a life of loneliness, of lack of communication, of violence, to proclaim to them mercy, reconciliation and hope.
The priest responds to the needs of society by making himself the voice of those without a voice: the little ones, the poor, the elderly, the oppressed, the marginalized.
He does not belong to himself but to others. He does not live for himself and does not look for what is his. He looks for what is Christ's, what is his brothers'. He shares the joys and sorrows of all, without distinctions of age, social category, political membership, religious practice.
He is the guide of that portion of the People of God that has been entrusted to him. He is certainly not the head of an anonymous army, but pastor of a community made up of persons, each of whom has a name, a history, a destiny, a secret.
The priest has the difficult but eminent task of guiding these people with the greatest religious care and with scrupulous respect of their human dignity, their work, their rights, with the full awareness, then, that the condition of children of God corresponds in them to an eternal vocation, which is realized in full communion with God.
The priest will not hesitate to give his life, either in a brief but intense period of generous dedication without limits, or in a daily, long donation in the drop-by-drop progression of humble gestures of service to his people, tending always to the defense and formation of human greatness and of the Christian growth of each of the faithful and of the whole of his people.
A priest must be simultaneously little and great, noble in spirit as a king, simple and natural as a peasant. A hero in overcoming himself, sovereign of his desires, a servant of the little ones and weak ones; who is not humbled in face of the powerful, but who bends down to the poor and the little ones, a disciple of his Lord and head of his flock.
No more precious gift can be given to a community than a priest according to the heart of Christ.
The hope of the world consists in being able to count, also for the future, on the love of limpid, strong and merciful, free and meek, generous and faithful priestly hearts.
Friends, if the ideals are lofty, the way difficult, the terrain perhaps less mined, the misunderstandings are many, but we can do all things in him who strengthens us (cf. Philippians 4:13).
The eclipse of the Light of God and of his Love, is not the extinguishing of the Light and Love of God. Already tomorrow, what had interposed itself, darkening the faith, flinging the world into a terrible darkness, can become less dense, and after the long pause, too long, of the eclipse -- the sun returns, full and splendid.
Beyond the anxieties and disputes that agitate the world, and which also make themselves felt within the Church, in action are secret, hidden forces fruitful in holiness.
Beyond the flow of words and speeches, of programs and plans, of initiatives and organizations, there are holy souls that pray, suffer, expiate adoring the God-with-us.
Among them are children and adults, men and women, young and old people, educated and ignorant souls, sick and healthy, and there are also so many priests, who not only are dispensers of the Mysteries of Christ, but in the present-day Babel are sure signs of reference and hope, for those who seek plenitude, meaning, the end, happiness.
Let us stay united, dear friends, in the Cenacle of the Church, around Mary our Mother, with Peter and the Apostles, submerged in the Communion of Saints, so that we can also be, truly, signs of reference and hope for all.
It is my wish, which I convert into a prayer for all of you who are here present and for all your Brothers, who are not here now. Henceforth I will always have you with me.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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