Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Cure of Ars - The Year of the Priest

The pope is clearly up to something. We have just finished the year of St. Paul. We have just begun the year of the priest. The world culture is in a clear state of non-transcendence. We have just finished a century in which we have murdered 100,000,000 people between China, Russia, Germany and global abortion. The latter accounts for the continual state of war that we are in.

We are not living in the real world, the “real world” being the Word of God as clarified in Brazil (2007) and the Synod on the Word of God (2008). The priest is key here. The Cure, explaining to his parishioners the importance of the sacraments, would say: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest… After God, the priest is everything! … Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is”. These words, welling up from the priestly heart of the holy pastor, might sound excessive. Yet they reveal the high esteem in which he held the sacrament of the priesthood. He seemed overwhelmed by a boundless sense of responsibility: “Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love… Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth… What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods … Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there … The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you.”

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 Kingdom of God. Therefore this should also be the defining priority of all his ministers: they come out to proclaim the Kingdom, and that means, to make the living, powerful and ever-present God take first place in our lives. Now, for the correct understanding of this priority, two further insights can be gained from this brief pericope. First, this evangelization is to go hand in hand with a withdrawal into the solitude of personal prayer—such interior recollection appears, in fact, to be a necessary pre-condition for the preaching. Second, the preaching is connected with the “casting out of devils” (1:39): it is a matter not just of speech, but of effective action. And the preaching takes shape in no bright, happy world, but in a world tyrannized by demons, into which it intervenes, to liberate.

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 Kingdom of God, and he does so especially with parables, but also with signs, in which the living presence of the Kingdom draws near to men. Word and sign are inseparable. Whenever the signs are seen merely as wonders, but without meaning, Jesus ceases to perform them. But no more does he allow his evangelizing to be taken for a merely intellectual affair, a matter for discussion alone. His words demand decision; they bring reality. In this sense, his word is “incarnate”: the mutual relation of word and sign expresses a “sacramental” structure. 2

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 Kingdom of God turns out to be quite clearly Jesus’ own Paschal mystery, his destiny of death and resurrection. We see this, for example, in the parable of the murderous vine-dressers (Mark 12:1-11). Word and reality are here intertwined in a new way: the parable arouses the anger of his adversaries, who do everything the parable says. They kill the son. This means that the parables would be void of meaning, were it not for the living person of the incarnate Son who has “come out [ex¯elthon] for this” (Mark 1:38), who “was sent” from the Father (Mark 12:6). The parables would be empty without a confirmation of his word by the Cross and the Resurrection. We now understand that Jesus’ preaching can be called “sacramental” in a deeper sense than we could have seen before. His word contains in itself the reality of the Incarnation and the theme of the Cross and the Resurrection. It is “deed/word” in this very profound sense, instructing the Church in the mutual dependence of preaching and the Eucharist, and in the mutual dependence, as well, of preaching and an authentic, living witness.

We take yet another step forward with the Paschal vision St. John presents us in his Gospel. Peter had said that Jesus is the Christ. John now adds that Jesus Christ is the Logos. He himself is the eternal Word of the Father, who is with God and who is God (John 1:1). In him, this Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In Christian preaching, one is not dealing with words, but with the Word. “When we speak of the ministry of the word of God, the inter-Trinitarian relation is also understood.” 3 Yet at the same time, “this ministry participates in the function of the Incarnation.” 4 It has rightly been pointed out that the fundamental difference between the preaching of Jesus and the lessons of the Rabbis consists precisely in the fact that the “I” of Jesus—that is, he himself—is at the center of his message. 5 But we must also remember that Jesus himself understood that what especially characterized his speaking, was that he was not speaking “in his own name” (cf. John 5:43 & 7:16). His “I” is totally open to the “Thou” of the Father; it does not remain in itself, but takes us inside the very life of the Trinity. This means that the Christian preacher will not speak about himself, but will become Christ’s own voice, by making way for the Logos, and leading, through communion with the Man Jesus, to communion with the living God.

This brings us back to the Vatican II Decree on the Priesthood. It emphasizes a common characteristic found in all forms of preaching. The priest should never teach his own wisdom. What always matters is the word of God that impels towards truth and holiness (no. 4). With St. Paul as a model, the ministry of the word demands that the priest divest himself profoundly of his own self: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

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.” [1][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”.[32] 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?”.[33] 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.[34]

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”.[35] 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”,[36] his families of modest means. Consequently, he “was rich in giving to others and very poor for himself”.[37] As he would explain: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back”.[38] 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”.[39] 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!”[2]

[1] J. Ratzinger, “The Ministry and Life of Priests” from a reprint of HPR of August-September 1997.

[2] Letter: Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the ‘Dies Natalis’ fo the Cure of Ars.

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