The pope is clearly up to something. We have just finished the year of
We are not living in the real world, the “real world” being the Word of God as clarified in
The prime mission of the priest, as explained by Vatican II, is to preach The Word. But the classical understanding of the mission of the priest is to offer sacrifice. The pope explains that both are the same thing in that they are both the gift of self.
The pope confronts the problem/mystery and explains it in the following address:
“To find a solution to this problem, we should first ask ourselves, What does it mean to “evangelize”? What really happens when someone does this? And just what is this Gospel? The Council could certainly have referred to the Gospels to establish the primacy of preaching. I have in mind here a short but significant episode from the beginning of Mark. Everyone was seeking out our Lord for his miraculous powers, but he goes off to a remote place to pray (Mark 1:35-39); when he is pressed by “Simon and those who were with him,” our Lord says, “Let us go on to the nearby villages, so that I may preach there also, for this is what I have come out to do” (1:38). Jesus says that the purpose of his coming is to preach the
But we must take a further step, beyond the brief but meaningful passage of Mark, and take a look over the entire Gospel, for a correct understanding of Jesus’ own priority. He preaches the
But we must go a step further. Jesus does not convey a knowledge that is independent from his own person, as any teacher or storyteller would do. He is something different from, and more than, a Rabbi. As his preaching unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that his parables refer to himself, that the “Kingdom” and his person belong together, that the Kingdom comes in his person. The decision that he demands is a decision about how one stands toward him, as with Peter, who said, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Ultimately, the message of his preaching about the
We take yet another step forward with the Paschal vision
This brings us back to the
I would like to recall now an episode from the early days of Opus Dei, which illustrates the point. A young woman had the opportunity to listen for the first time to a talk given by Fr. Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. She was very curious to hear a famous preacher. But after participating in a Mass he celebrated, she no longer wanted to listen to a human orator. She recounted later that from that moment on, her only interest was to discover the word and will of God.
The ministry of the word requires that the priest share in the kenosis of Christ, in his “increasing and decreasing.” The fact that the priest does not speak about himself, but bears the message of another, certainly does not mean that he is not personally involved, but precisely the opposite: it is a giving-away-of-the-self in Christ that takes up the path of his Easter mystery, and leads to a true finding-of-the-self, and communion with him who is the Word of God in person. This Paschal structure of the “not-self” that turns out to be the “true self” after all, shows, in the last analysis, that the ministry of the Word reaches beyond all “functions” to penetrate the priest’s very being, and presupposes that the priesthood is a sacrament.” [refer to Ratzinger’s distinction between “Mysticism” where the absolute is in the self; “Monotheism” where the absolute is the divine call; and “Enlightenment” where the absolute is scientific knowledge: Truth and Tolerance Ignatius (2004) 28-32].
The key for today is to remember that both laity and ministers are priests because they are empowered to master themselves, gain possession of themselves and make the gift of themselves. The laity do it by Baptism, the ministers do it by Orders. They are equally priests but in irreducibly different ways: the laity make the gift of self to God in the world; the ministers make the gift of self in service of the laity. Both laity and ministers have their first mission to speak of God.
This cannot take place without a personal encounter with Christ. This means reading the Word of God as the absolute reality, taking it deep within, hearing it, mulling it over, changing one’s life style to accommodate to it. Benedict wrote:
“In today’s world, as in the troubled times of the Curé of Ars, the lives and activity of priests need to be distinguished by a determined witness to the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI rightly noted, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”. Lest we experience existential emptiness and the effectiveness of our ministry be compromised, we need to ask ourselves ever anew: “Are we truly pervaded by the word of God? Is that word truly the nourishment we live by, even more than bread and the things of this world? Do we really know that word? Do we love it? Are we deeply engaged with this word to the point that it really leaves a mark on our lives and shapes our thinking?”. Just as Jesus called the Twelve to be with him (cf. Mk 3:14), and only later sent them forth to preach, so too in our days priests are called to assimilate that “new style of life” which was inaugurated by the Lord Jesus and taken up by the Apostles.
It was complete commitment to this “new style of life” which marked the priestly ministry of the Curé of Ars. Pope John XXIII, in his Encyclical Letter Sacerdotii nostri primordia, published in 1959 on the first centenary of the death of Saint John Mary Vianney, presented his asceticism with special reference to the “three evangelical counsels” which the Pope considered necessary also for diocesan priests: “even though priests are not bound to embrace these evangelical counsels by virtue of the clerical state, these counsels nonetheless offer them, as they do all the faithful, the surest road to the desired goal of Christian perfection”. The Curé of Ars lived the “evangelical counsels” in a way suited to his priestly state. His poverty was not the poverty of a religious or a monk, but that proper to a priest: while managing much money (since well-to-do pilgrims naturally took an interest in his charitable works), he realized that everything had been donated to his church, his poor, his orphans, the girls of his “Providence”, his families of modest means. Consequently, he “was rich in giving to others and very poor for himself”. As he would explain: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back”. When he lacked money, he would say amiably to the poor who knocked at his door: “Today I’m poor just like you, I’m one of you”. At the end of his life, he could say with absolute tranquility: “I no longer have anything. The good Lord can call me whenever he wants!”