In the Heart of the Church

Opening Address for Plenary Assembly
"The Missionary Identity of the Priest in the Church as an Intrinsic Dimension of the Exercise of the Tria Munera"
Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy
March 16, 2009

Eminent Cardinals, venerated brothers in the Episcopacy and the Priesthood


I wish to give a heartfelt welcome to all the Members of the Congregation, in particular to the new Members who are participating in the Plenary Assembly for the very first time. I wish to extend my appreciation to all of you who have made many sacrifices to meet in the Eternal City.

I wish to join you in thanking the Lord who has enabled us to gather in this location cum Petro et sub Petro, and under the protection of the Apostle Paul, especially in this Pauline Year, in a spirit of communion, faith and love, which unites us in the service of the Church for the good of our priests, deacons and the entire People of God.

In recent years this Dicastery has made a significant contribution within the area of its competence. One recalls the important Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests issued in 1994; the Circular Letter The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community, issued in 1999; the Instruction, The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Community of 2002; and finally, in 2004, the Plenary Assembly which directed its attention to organs of collaboration in the Particular Churches, at the diocesan and parochial level, and to The Apostolate of Sanctuaries, seeking to underline clearly and comprehensively the specific theological and sacramental foundation which is at the root of the codified norm and the recent Magisterial provisions concerning diocesan and parochial bodies; in this way the Plenary Assembly indicated the means by which to restore to their proper nature or to remove inappropriate arrangements or practical implementation of the organs of participation at the diocesan and local level of the Particular Church, which at times are a mischaracterisation or indeed contrary to the universal law of the Church.

In harmony with the Magisterium of the Church and in a particular way with the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the recent interventions of the Holy Father, the Congregation today proposes a theme which it considers to be of particular relevance for the Church at this time: the missionary identity of the Priest within the Church as an intrinsic dimension of the exercise of the tria munera. The essential objective is to emphasise the relevance of the missionary identity of the Priest in the contemporary context of the life of the Church.

2. Missionary Urgency in the Contemporary World

The Church is missionary of her very nature insofar as, according to the will of God the Father, she draws her origin from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit (Ad Gentes, 2). Her missionary nature is intrinsic, rooted ultimately in the Trinitarian missions: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15), and in the same command to the Apostle to the Gentiles, “Go, I shall send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21).
The missionary urgency is renewed in our contemporary circumstances, and taking a glance at the whole world, this is true not only ad gentes but also within the flock that is constituted by the Church.

Since the beginning of his Pontificate Pope Benedict XVI has constantly reiterated the theme of the new circumstances in which the Church finds herself in post-modern society. We find ourselves before a society whose culture seeks to deny God and is profoundly marked by secularism, relativism, scientism, religious indifference, agnosticism, and by an often militant and anti-religious laicism. While this new post-modern culture is spreading especially in the countries of the West, and is dominant in the media, it is also expanding progressively to all peoples through the mobility of modern life and through modern means of communication.

The Pope, speaking to the German Bishops during World Youth Day in 2005 said, “We know that secularism and dechristianization are gaining ground, that relativism is growing and that the influence of Catholic ethics and morals is in constant decline. Many people abandon the Church or, if they stay, accept only a part of Catholic teaching, picking and choosing between only certain aspects of Christianity. […]Dear Brothers, as you yourselves said […]:"We have become a mission land". […] we should give serious thought as to how to achieve a true evangelization […] it is not enough for us to strive to preserve the existing flock, although this is very important […].I believe we must all try together to find new ways of bringing the Gospel to the contemporary world, of proclaiming Christ anew and of implanting the faith”. (Address to the German Bishops in the Piussaal of the Seminary of Cologne, 21st August 2005).

At the present time there is a growing awareness that, apart from the problems of post-modern culture, there is also both the problem of the high number of Catholics who live at a remove from religious practice and the acute problem of reduction of the number of those who, for various reasons, consider themselves to be Catholic; moreover there is the current problem of the extraordinary growth of so called “evangelical-pentecostal” and other sects.

It is therefore supremely important to give a warm welcome to the Holy Father’s invitation to a true “mission” directed towards those who, albeit baptised by us, have not been sufficiently evangelised by us, due to various historical circumstances. In his allocution to the Bishops of Brazil in 2007, the Pope said, “Consequently, there is a need to engage in apostolic activity as a true mission in the midst of the flock that is constituted by the Catholic Church in Brazil, and to promote on every level a methodical evangelization aimed at personal and communal fidelity to Christ.[…] What is required, in a word, is a mission of evangelization capable of engaging all the vital energies present in this immense flock” (Address to the Bishops of Brazil at the Catedral da Sé, São Paulo, 11th May 2007).

3. The Missionary Identity of the Priest and the Tria Munera

The exercise of the priestly ministry is seen to be fundamental within the People of God for responding to situations which are in contrast with the gospel. In this regard the foundations of the Priest’s true missionary identity ought to be recovered in order to overcome the problems afflicting humanity and which are reflected in the life of the Church.

The Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis (N° 5-6), on the ministry and life of priests develops this truth when it refers to priests as ministers of the Word of God, ministers of sanctification through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and as guides and teachers of the People of God: these are the tria munera of the Priest. Even if it is not explicit, the missionary identity of the priest is clearly present in these texts. The Priest who is “sent”, who participates in the mission of Christ, sent by the Father, finds himself enveloped in a missionary dynamic without which he could not truly live his proper identity (John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 26). The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis states that, even though belonging to a Particular Church, the priest has received a spiritual gift by virtue of his ordination, which prepares him for a universal mission, even to the ends of the earth ( Cf. Acts 1:8), “for every priestly ministry shares in the universality of the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles” (PDV 32). If we speak of a mission we must always remember that the one sent, the priest in this instance, is necessarily understood in relation to the one who sent him, and those to whom he is sent. Looking at his relationship with Christ, the first to be sent by the Father, one must emphasise the fact based upon the texts of the New Testament, that it is Christ himself who sends and constitutes the ministers of His Church so that they cannot be simply understood to be delegates of the community or of the priestly People. “The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant” (John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 12).

4. The Priest and the Need of a New Missionary Activity

The first truth that comes to light from this relationship with Christ is the importance of a profound identification and closeness with Him who consecrates and sends the priest. In fact, to be a missionary requires that one be a disciple. The Gospel of Mark affirms this, “He went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mk. 3:13-15). “He summoned those whom he wanted” and “that they might be with him”: this is discipleship! These disciples will be sent to preach and to cast out demons: these are the missionaries! The path of discipleship begins with the Lord’s call. The initiative is always his. This shows that the call is always a grace, which must be humbly and freely received and nurtured with the help of the Holy Spirit. God loved us first. This is the primacy of grace. After the call comes the encounter with Jesus to listen to his Word and to experience his love for each person and for the whole of humanity. He loves us and reveals the true God to us, who is Three and One, and who is Love. The gospel reveals how in this encounter the Spirit of Jesus transforms him whose heart is open. In fact, he who encounters Jesus experiences a profound involvement with his person and with his mission in the world, he believes in him, experiences his love, adheres to him, decides to follow in his footsteps unconditionally wherever this should lead him, devotes his entire life to him and, if necessary, is willing to die for him. He comes from this encounter with a heart joyous and enthusiastic and, fascinated by the mystery of Jesus, he sets forth to proclaim him to the world. In this way the disciple becomes like the Master, sent forth by him and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict XVI, in commenting on this extract from Mark’s gospel, presents the essence of the spiritual vocation of the priest as a “being with Christ” so that he is then “being sent by Him”. Staying with Him and being sent by Him are two things that are inextricably linked. Only he who has stayed with him learns to know Him and can truly proclaim Him. He who stays with him cannot keep to himself that which he has found but must pass it on. Otherwise one falls into an “activist void”; we know this from experience: where priests have allowed the being with the Lord to be evermore reduced on account of the increasing burden of work, they eventually lose the interior strength that sustains them, notwithstanding their heroic work. Their work becomes an empty activism” (Address to the seminarians, priests, male and female religious and members of the Pontifical Work for Vocations of Special Consecration, Apostolic Journey to Germany, 11th September 2006). For the Priest the “being with Him” always renews him, particularly and in an absolutely unique manner in the daily celebration of the Eucharist, but also in the daily prayerful reading of the Bible, in praying faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours, in personal and common prayer, in receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in solidarity with the poor, and in many other ways. It is a task of “staying with Him” so as to become his true disciples and thus proclaim him with vigour and effectiveness! “Staying with Him” so as then to proclaim Him to others: this is the central task of the Priest! In the final analysis it is a question of living a life centred upon God. “If this centrality of God in a priest's life is lost, little by little the zeal in his actions is lost” (Pope Benedict XVI To the Members of the Roman Curia, December 22nd 2006). The missionary vocation of Priests arises from this deep and intimate experience of God. In the present day this mission is necessarily developed in two spheres, that is: “ad gentes” and amongst the flock that already constitutes the Church, namely the baptised. The horizon of the mission ad gentes is ever expanding and requires a renewed missionary impulse. The Church looks with love, hope and care towards Africa and Asia, and especially China. Priests are called to hearken to the breath of the Spirit and to share this concern of the Universal Church. On the other hand, amongst the flock that is constituted by the Church in so-called Christian lands where sadly more than half of the baptised fail to participate in the life of the Church, having been so little evangelised, a missionary evangelization has become an urgent priority which can no longer be delayed. It is to this mission within the flock that we wish to give our attention in this Plenary Assembly. The mission “ad gentes” is, of course, the particular competence of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of the Peoples.

5. The Priest, Disciple and Missionary in the exercise of the “Tria Munera”

The Second Vatican Council presents the Priest as minister of the Word, minister of sanctification through the Sacraments, and through the Eucharist in a unique way, and as pastor, guide and teacher of the People of God (Cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, nn. 4-6). The “tria munera” are the context of his being a disciple and a missionary.

5.1. In the Sphere of the Munus Docendi

To be a true missionary within the flock of the Church in the present circumstances it is essential and indispensable for the priest to decide not only to evangelise and to welcome those who seek him in the parish or elsewhere, out but also to “arise and go forth” first of all in search of the baptised who no longer take part in the life of the ecclesial community, as well as those who know little or nothing of Jesus Christ. This new mission ought to be received with an ongoing enthusiasm in each parish with a zeal capable of reaching out to all the baptised of one’s territory and also to the non-baptised. The Kerigma must be given particular emphasis in this specifically missionary proclamation of the Gospel. This initial or renewed kerigmatic proclamation of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one, and of his Kingdom is undoubtedly marked by a unique zeal and anointing of the Holy Spirit. The Kerigma is the content par excellence of missionary preaching. In the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990), John Paul II wrote: “In the complex reality of mission, initial proclamation has a central and irreplaceable role, since it introduces man "into the mystery of the love of God, who invites him to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ" and opens the way to conversion. Faith is born of preaching […]. The subject of proclamation is Christ who was crucified, died and is risen: through him is accomplished our full and authentic liberation from evil, sin and death; through him God bestows "new life" that is divine and eternal. This is the "Good News" which changes man and his history, and which all peoples have a right to hear. This proclamation is to be made within the context of the lives of the individuals and peoples who receive it. It is to be made with an attitude of love and esteem toward those who hear it, in language which is practical and adapted to the situation. In this proclamation the Spirit is at work and establishes a communion between the missionary and his hearers, a communion which is possible inasmuch as both enter into communion with God the Father through Christ” (N°44). Hence it is necessary to undertake once again “in season and out of season” this initial proclamation with perseverance, conviction, evangelising joy, be that in homilies, during Holy Mass or in other evangelising moments, by catechesis, home visitation, within the public square, in the means of social communication, within encounters with our baptised who no longer attend to the life of the ecclesial community; all in all, wherever the Spirit leads us and where He gives us an opportunity that ought to be grasped. This missionary commitment shall be directed to the poor as matter of preference. As Jesus himself has said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk. 4:18). The above-mentioned address to the Bishops of Brazil, Benedict XVI stated: “A particular problem which you face as Pastors is surely the issue of those Catholics who have abandoned the life of the Church. It seems clear that the principal cause of this problem is to be found in the lack of an evangelization completely centred on Christ and his Church […] In the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, I stated that "being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (no. 1). Consequently, there is a need to engage in apostolic activity as a true mission in the midst of the flock that is constituted by the Catholic Church (…) to promote on every level a methodical evangelization aimed at personal and communal fidelity to Christ. No effort should be spared in seeking out those Catholics who have fallen away and those who know little or nothing of Jesus Christ […]In this work of evangelization the ecclesial community should be clearly marked by pastoral initiatives, especially by sending missionaries, lay or religious, to homes on the outskirts of the cities and in the interior, to enter into dialogue with everyone in a spirit of understanding, sensitivity and charity. On the other hand, if the persons they encounter are living in poverty, it is necessary to help them, as the first Christian communities did, by practising solidarity and making them feel truly loved. The poor living in the outskirts of the cities or the countryside need to feel that the Church is close to them, providing for their most urgent needs, defending their rights and working together with them to build a society founded on justice and peace. The Gospel is addressed in a special way to the poor, and the Bishop, modelled on the Good Shepherd, must be particularly concerned with offering them the divine consolation of the faith, without overlooking their need for "material bread". As I wished to stress in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, "the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the sacraments and the word" (no. 22)”” (N°3).

5.2. In the Sphere of the Munus Sanctificandi

The proclamation of the Word of God is part of all Sacramental celebration, since the Sacrament demands faith from the one who receives it. This indicates that the celebration of the Sacraments and of the Eucharist in particular, has an intrinsic missionary dimension that can be conveyed in the proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom to those who have been scarcely or not at all evangelised by us. It must be equally underlined that the Eucharist is the centre and life of the Church and of that of all the Christian faithful. In this point one can say that the Eucharist is the culmination of the mission. The missionary seeks out individuals and peoples to bring them to the Supper of the Lord, the primary eschatological proclamation of the Banquet of Eternal Life with God in Heaven, which will be the fulfilment of salvation according to the Father’s plan of redemption. The Eucharist also has the quality of a missionary mandate: every Mass ends with the sending of each participant to missionary work within society. In celebrating the Eucharist and upon receiving the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus, the Christian Community is deeply united to the Lord and filled with His boundless love. At the same time over and over again the Faithful receive Jesus’ commandment, “love one another as I have loved you”, and feel compelled by the Spirit to go forth and proclaim to all creation the Good News of God’s love and of unfaltering hope in His saving mercy. The Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis of the Second Vatican Council states: “the Eucharist shows itself as the source and the apex of the whole work of preaching the Gospel” (N°5). The beautiful, serene, dignified, devoted celebration of the Eucharist and the other Sacraments according to the liturgical norms becomes a special evangelisation for the Faithful who are present. All of the Sacraments receive their sanctifying strength from the death and resurrection of Christ and they proclaim the unceasing mercy of God. Their essence and their missionary effectiveness must be constantly underlined.

5.3. In the Sphere of the Munus Regendi

The current missionary urgency demands that priests lead the communities entrusted to them towards missionary activity deeply animated by pastoral love and fully aware of their role as ministers of Christ. The integrating aspect of the munus regendi is the priest’s personal capacity to sustain the missionary spirit and the sense of co-responsibility amongst the Lay Faithful, since he depends on them for the new evangelisation. In fact the co-responsibility and co-participation of the Lay Faithful in the mission of the Church in no way diminishes the fact that it is the priest who is the shepherd. In the Pope’s meeting with the priests of the Diocese of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso he said: “I believe that this is one of the important and positive results of the Council: the co-responsibility of the entire parish, for the parish priest is no longer the only one to animate everything. Since we all form a parish together, we must all collaborate and help so that the parish priest is not left on his own, mainly as a coordinator, but truly discovers that he is a pastor who is backed up in these common tasks in which, together, the parish lives and is fulfilled” (Church of St Justin Martyr, Auronzo di Cadore, 24 July 2007). In the munus regendi the priest, insofar as it pertains to the mission of his parish, must gather together the members of the parish community to assume the burden of this mission with him. In virtue of his baptism and confirmation the lay person is called by the Lord to be an evangeliser. In this way the priest should gather together his Lay Faithful, form them and send them out to fulfil the mission under his guidance. The positive outcome of the parochial mission requires a good missionary methodology. The Church has two thousand years of experience in this regard. Nevertheless, each historical period is marked by new circumstances that must be acknowledged for an effective missionary activity. An authentic missionary identity also requires that the priest highlights his genuine presence as a shepherd. In it is this context that one can understand the pastoral importance of clerical garb which is a sign of the universal identity of the priest. The more society is pluralist and secularist the more it needs symbols identifying the sacred (Cf. Paul VI, Catechesis of the General Audience of 7th September 1969; Allocution to clergy (1st March 1973); Insegnamenti of Paul VI, VII N° 1065 (1969) and XI, N° 176; Can. 284, The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, N°66, and Circular Letter The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community (1999) Ch. IV, N°3). In a similar but altogether deeper way the witness of priestly celibacy can and must be a sign of the transcendence of the Kingdom of God. It must be noted that the present circumstances reveal the urgent need for a profound disposition of availability on the part of priests that they might be able to change not only from a particular pastoral assignment but also the city, region or country according to the different needs so as to be open to the mission which may be necessary in every possible circumstance and, for the love of God, going beyond their own personal tastes and plans. The very nature of the priestly ministry, therefore, they must imbued with and animated by a deeply missionary spirit, a truly Catholic spirit that will make it commonplace for them to look beyond the confines of their own Diocese, nation or rite to the needs of the Church as a whole, and to preach the Gospel in all places. (Cf. Vatican Council II, Decree Optatam Totius, N°20; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, N° 1565; John Paul II Post Synodal Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, N°18).

6. The Missionary Formation of Priests and Priestly Vocations

Every priest ought to receive an appropriate missionary formation, since the Church wishes to dedicate herself with renewed urgency and zeal to the mission ad gentes and to missionary evangelisation towards the baptised themselves, especially those have drifted away from the life and activity of the ecclesial community. This formation ought to begin in the seminary, following a systematic, wide ranging and thorough approach. There is an ever greater need to establish a link between the period of seminary formation and the initial stage of ministry and ongoing formation, which must be united and harmonious with one another, fit for the mission, since it in this work that the presbyterate becomes ever more what it actually is: a precious and indispensable pearl offered by Christ to the Church and to all humanity.

7. Conclusion

If missionary activity is a constitutive element of ecclesial identity, we must be grateful to the Lord who renews, even in the recent Pontifical Magisterium, this clear awareness throughout the Church and amongst priests in particular. The missionary urgency in the present time is great indeed, and it requires the renewal of pastoral care that perceives itself to be in a permanent mission both ad gentes and where the Church is already established, seeking out those whom we have baptised and who have a right to the evangelised by us. Neither priests nor the entire community of the Church must spare themselves, whether in season or out of season, in this pressing missionary evangelisation, both intense and broad in all spheres of contemporary society, most notably amongst the poor. This permanent “missionary tension” cannot but benefit the renewal of a true priestly identity in every priest, who precisely in the missionary exercise of the tria munera will find the principle means of personal sanctification , and thus of the fulfilment of his own priestly and human vocation. In order to reach this goal, according to the Heart of the Good Shepherd, may the mission and the priest look unstintingly at the Blessed Virgin Mary who, full of grace, brought forth the Lord to all the world, as the “light of the nations”, and who ever continues to visit the peoples of each generation who are yet pilgrims along the paths of the world to show them the face of Jesus of Nazareth, our true and only Saviour.


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