Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On the Year for Priests
"The Priest Is a Slave of Christ"
H.H. Benedict XVI
June 24, 2009
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Friday, June 19, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the
day traditionally dedicated to pray for the sanctification of priests, I
had the joy of inaugurating the Year for Priests. The year was
proclaimed on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the "birth into
eternal life" of the Curé d'Ars, St. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney.
Entering into the Vatican basilica for the celebration of vespers,
almost as a first symbolic gesture, I paused in the Choir Chapel to
venerate the relic of this saintly pastor of souls: his heart. Why a
Year for Priests? Why particularly in memory of the holy Curé d'Ars, who
apparently did nothing extraordinary?
Divine Providence has ordained that this personage would be placed
beside that of St. Paul. As the Pauline Year is concluding, a year which
was dedicated to the Apostle of the Gentiles, the epitome of an
extraordinary evangelizer who made various mission trips to spread the
Gospel, this new jubilee year invites us to gaze upon a poor farmer
turned humble pastor, who carried out his pastoral service in a small
If the two saints are quite different insofar as the life experiences
that marked them -- one traveled from region to region to announce the
Gospel; the other remained in his little parish, welcoming thousands and
thousands of faithful -- there is nevertheless something fundamental
that unites them: It is their total identification with their ministry,
their communion with Christ. This brought St. Paul to say: "Yet I live,
no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). St. John Vianney
liked to repeat: "If we had faith, we would see God hidden in the priest
like a light behind glass, like wine mixed with water."
The objective of this Year for Priests, as I wrote in the letter sent to
priests for this occasion, is to support that struggle of every priest
"toward spiritual perfection, on which the effectiveness of his ministry
primarily depends." It is to help priests first of all -- and with them
all of God's people -- to rediscover and reinvigorate their awareness of
the extraordinary and indispensable gift of grace that the ordained
ministry is for he who receives it, for the whole Church, and for the
world, which would be lost without the real presence of Christ.
Undoubtedly, the historical and social conditions in which the Curé
d'Ars lived have changed, and it is justifiable to ask oneself how it's
possible for priests living in a globalized society to imitate him in
the way he identified himself with his ministry. In a world in which the
customary outlook on life comprehends less and less the sacred, and in
its place "useful" becomes the only important category, the catholic --
and even ecclesial -- idea of the priesthood can run the risk of being
emptied of the esteem that is natural to it.
It is not by chance that as much in theological environments as in
concrete pastoral practice and the formation of the clergy, a contrast
-- even an opposition -- is made between two distinct concepts of the
priesthood. Some years ago, I noted in this regard that there is "on the
one hand a social-functional understanding that defines the essence of
the priesthood with the concept of 'service': service to the community
in the fulfillment of a function. … On the other hand, there is the
sacramental-ontological understanding, which naturally does not deny the
servicial character of the priesthood, but sees it anchored in the being
of the minister and considers that this being is determined by a gift
called sacrament, given by the Lord through the mediation of the Church"
(Joseph Ratzinger, Ministry and Life of the Priest, in Principles of
The terminological mutation of the word "priesthood" toward a meaning of
"service, ministry, assignment" is as well a sign of this distinct
understanding. The primacy of the Eucharist is linked to the
sacramental-ontological conception, in the binomial "priest-sacrifice,"
while to the other [conception] would correspond the primacy of the word
and service to the proclamation.
Considered carefully, these are not two opposing understandings, and the
tension that nevertheless exists between them should be resolved from
within. Thus the decree "Presbyterorum Ordinis" from the Second Vatican
Council affirms: "Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the
People of God are called together and assembled. All belonging to this
people … can offer themselves as 'a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to
God' (Rom 12:1). Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual
sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of
Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is
offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until
the Lord himself comes" (No. 2).
We then ask ourselves, "What exactly does it mean, for priests, to
evangelize? What is the so-called primacy of proclamation?" Jesus speaks
of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God as the true objective for his
coming to the world, and his proclamation is not just a "discourse." It
includes, at the same time, his actions: His signs and miracles indicate
that the Kingdom is now present in the world, which in the end coincides
with himself. In this sense, one must recall that even in this idea of
the "primacy" of proclamation, word and sign are inseparable.
Christian proclamation does not proclaim "words," but the Word, and the
proclamation coincides with the very person of Christ, ontologically
open to the relationship with the Father and obedient to his will.
Therefore, authentic service to the Word requires from the priest that
he strains toward a deep abnegation of himself, until being able to say
with the Apostle, "It is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me."
The priest cannot consider himself "lord" of the word, but rather its
servant. He is not the word, but rather, as John the Baptist proclaimed,
(precisely today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist), he is the
"voice" of the Word: "A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare
the way of the Lord, make straight his paths'" (Mark 1:3).
Now then, to be the "voice" of the Word doesn't constitute for the
priest a merely functional element. On the contrary, it presupposes a
substantial "losing oneself" in Christ, participating in his mystery of
death and resurrection with all of oneself: intelligence, liberty, will,
and the offering of one's own body as a living sacrifice (cf. Romans
12:1-2). Only participation in the sacrifice of Christ, in his kenosis,
makes the proclamation authentic! And this is the path that should be
walked with Christ to the point of saying with him to the Father: Let it
be done, "not what I will but what you will" (Mark 14:36). The
proclamation, therefore, always implies as well the sacrifice of
oneself, the condition so that the proclamation can be authentic and
Alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the
Father, who in incarnating himself, has taken the form of a slave, has
made himself a slave (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). The priest is a slave of
Christ in the sense that his existence, ontologically configured to
Christ, takes on an essentially relational character: He is in Christ,
through Christ, and with Christ at the service of man. Precisely because
he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all
people: He is the minister of their salvation, of their happiness, of
their authentic liberation -- maturing, in this progressive taking up of
the will of Christ, in prayer, in this "remaining heart to heart" with
him. This is therefore the essential condition of all proclamation,
which implies participation in the sacramental offering of the Eucharist
and docile obedience to the Church.
The holy Curé d'Ars often repeated with tears in his eyes: "What a
frightening thing to be a priest!" And he added: "How we ought to pity a
priest who celebrates Mass as if he were engaged in something routine.
How wretched is a priest without interior life!"
May this Year of the Priest bring all priests to identify themselves
totally with Jesus, crucified and risen, so that in imitation of St.
John the Baptist, we are willing to "decrease" so that he increases; so
that, following the example of the Curé d'Ars, they constantly and
deeply understand the responsibility of their mission, which is sign and
presence of the infinite mercy of God. Let us entrust to the Virgin,
Mother of the Church, this Year for Priests just begun and all the
priests of the world.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then addressed the people in several languages. In
English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Friday, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – a day
traditionally devoted to prayer for the sanctification of priests –
marked the beginning of the Year for Priests commemorating the
sesquicentennial of the death of the Curé of Ars, Saint John Mary
Vianney, patron of parish priests. The Pauline Year now ending and the
current Year for Priests invite us to consider how the Apostle Paul and
the humble Curé of Ars both identified themselves completely with their
ministry, striving to live in constant communion with Christ. May this
Year for Priests help all priests to grow towards the spiritual
perfection essential to the effectiveness of their ministry, and enable
the faithful to appreciate more fully the great gift of grace which the
priesthood is: for priests themselves, for the Church and for our world.
Configured to Christ in the sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest is
called to become an alter Christus, "another Christ". His personal union
with the Lord must thus unify every aspect of his life and activity.
During this Year for Priests, let us entrust all priests to Mary, Mother
of the Church, and pray that they will grow in fidelity to their mission
to be living signs of Christ’s presence and infinite mercy.
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking visitors present at
today’s Audience, especially those from Norway, Sweden, Malawi, South
Africa, Indonesia and the United States. My particular greeting goes to
the Catholic educators participating in the annual Rome Seminar
sponsored by the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas. I also greet the many
student groups present. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy
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