The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
7 June 2013
World Day of Prayer
for the Sanctification of Priests
My dearest friends and brothers in the priesthood,
On the occasion of the coming solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, 7 June 2013, on which we celebrate the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests, I cordially greet each and every one of you, and thank the Lord for the wonderful gift of the priesthood and for your fidelity to the love of Christ.
The invitation of the Lord to “remain in his love” (cf. Jn. 15:9) is valid for all the baptised, but on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it resounds with a new power in us, his priests. As the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI reminded us at the opening of the Year for Priests, quoting the Holy Curé of Ars, “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus” (cf. Homily at the celebration of Vespers of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, 19 June 2009). We must never forget that from this heart sprang the gift of the priestly ministry.
We know from experience that “to remain in his love” pushes us forcefully towards holiness. This holiness, as we know well, is not based in doing extraordinary actions, but in allowing Christ to act in us and in making his attitudes, his thoughts and his behaviour our own. The extent of holiness derives from the extent of Christ’s presence in us, insofar as we model the whole of our life on him, by the strength of the Holy Spirit.
We priests have been consecrated and sent to make present the salvific mission of the incarnate Divine Son. Our function is indispensable for the Church and for the world and demands from us complete fidelity to Christ and constant union with Him. Thus, by humble service, we are guides who lead to holiness the faithful entrusted to our ministry. In this way, we reflect in our life the desire expressed by Jesus himself in his priestly prayer after the institution of the Eucharist: “I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours… I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one… sanctify them in the truth… for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn. 17:9,15,17,19).
In the Year of Faith
Such considerations assume a special importance in relation to the celebration of the Year of Faith – announced by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI in the Motu Proprio Porta Fidei (11 October 2011) – which began on 11 October 2012, on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and which will end on the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, on 24 November next. The Church with her pastors, must be on a journey, to lead people out of the “desert” towards communion with the Son of God, who is the Life of the world (cf. Jn. 6:33).
In this perspective, the Congregation for the Clergy addresses this letter to all the priests of the world, to help each one to renew his commitment to live this event of grace to which we are called, and in a particular way to be leaders and animators eager for a rediscovery of the faith in its entirety and with all its attraction, and therefore motivated to believe that the new evangelisation is directed towards the genuine transmission of the Christian faith.
In the Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, the Pope interprets the sentiments of priests in many countries: “In the past it was possible to recognise a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people” (no. 2).
The celebration of the Year of Faith presents itself as an opportunity for the new evangelisation, to overcome the temptation to discouragement, and to let our own efforts be directed more and more under the influence and the guidance of the present Successor of Peter. To have faith means principally to be certain that Christ, conquering death in his flesh, has also made it possible for those who believe in Him to share this destiny of glory, and to satisfy the yearning for a perfect and eternal life and joy, which is in the heart of everyone. For this, “the Resurrection of Christ is our greatest certainty; he is our most precious treasure! How can we not share this treasure, this certainty with others? It is not only for us, it is to be passed on, to be shared with others. Our testimony is precisely this” (Pope Francis, General Audience, 3 April 2013).
As priests we must prepare ourselves the lead the other members of the faithful to a maturity of faith. We know that we are the first ones who have to open our hearts more fully. We remember the words of the Master of the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem “Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said: Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’. Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn. 7:37-39). Also from the priest as alter Christus, rivers of living water can flow, inasmuch as he drinks with faith from the words of Christ, opening himself to the action of the Holy Spirit. Not only the sanctification of the people entrusted to him, but also the satisfaction of his own identity, depends ultimately on the movement from the priest “opening” himself, to being a sign and instrument of divine grace: “The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say ‘not at all’ because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, ‘has already received his reward’, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad, sad priests, in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with ‘the odour of the sheep’. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the ‘odour of the sheep’, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men” (Idem, Homily for the Chrism Mass, 28 March 2013).
Transmitting the Faith
Christ has entrusted to his apostles and to the Church the mission of preaching the Good News to all people. St. Paul heard the Gospel as “the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rm. 1:16). Jesus Christ himself is the Gospel, the “Good News” (cf. 1Cor. 1:24). Our task is to be bearers of the power of the boundless Love of God manifested in Christ. The response to the generous divine Revelation is faith, the fruit of grace in our souls, which demands the opening of the human heart. “Only through believing, then, does faith grow and become stronger; there is no other possibility for possessing certitude with regard to one’s life apart from self-abandonment, in a continuous crescendo, into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God” (Porta Fidei, no. 7). After years of priestly ministry, with its fruits and its difficulties, the presbyterate can say with St. Paul: “I have fully preached the gospel of Christ!” (Rm. 15:19; 1Cor. 15:1-11; etc.).
To collaborate with Christ in the transmission of the faith is the task of every Christian, in the characteristic organic cooperation between the ordained faithful and the lay faithful in the Holy Church. This joyful obligation implies two profoundly united aspects. The first, the bond with Christ, which means meeting Him personally, following Him, having a friendship with Him, believing in Him. In today’s cultural context, the testimony of our lives is particularly important – a condition of authenticity and of credibility – which makes it evident how the power of the love of God makes his Word effective. We must not forget that the faithful are looking for the priest to be a man of God and of his Word, his mercy and the Bread of Life.
A second element of the missionary character of the transmission of the faith is found in the joyful welcome of the words of Christ, the truths that he teaches us, the content of Revelation. In that sense, a fundamental instrument will be the ordered and organic exposition of Catholic doctrine, anchored in the Word of God and in the eternal and living Tradition of the Church.
In particular, we must commit ourselves to live the Year of Faith and to make it a providential occasion to understand that the texts of the Second Vatican Council, which are the heritage of the Council Fathers, according to the words of blessed John Paul II, “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition… I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as, the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning” ” (John Paul II, Ap. Let. Novo millennio ineunte, 6 January 2001, 57: AAS 93 , 308, no. 5).
The Content of the Faith
The Catechism of the Catholic Church – called for by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 as an instrument of service to catechesis and brought about through the collaboration of the whole Episcopate – illustrates to the faithful the strength and the beauty of the faith.
The Catechism is an authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which makes the pastoral ministry easier: attractive, incisive, deep, solid homilies; catechetical courses and courses of theological formation for adults; the preparation of catechists, the formation of different vocations in the Church, particularly in the Seminaries.
The Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith (6 January 2012), offers a full list of initiatives for living this privileged time of grace in full unity with the Holy Father and the Episcopal College: pilgrimages for the faithful to the See of Peter, to the Holy Land, to Marian shrines, the next World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this coming July; symposia, conferences and gatherings, also on an international level, and in particular those dedicated to the rediscovery of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council; the organisation of groups of the faithful for reading and the communal in-depth study of the Catechism with a renewed commitment to spreading its teaching.
In the current relativist climate it seems appropriate to stress how important is the knowledge of the content of authentic Catholic doctrine, inseparable as it is from the encounter with appealing testimonies of faith. The Acts of the Apostles recounts that the first disciples in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
In this sense the Year of Faith is a particularly favourable occasion for a more attentive reception of the homilies, the catechesis, the allocutions and the other statements of the Holy Father. For many of the faithful, to have available the homilies and discourses from the audiences will be a great help for passing on the faith to others.
This concerns the truth by which we live, as St. Augustine said when, in a homily on the redditio symboli, he describes the handing over of the Creed: “You therefore have received and returned it, but in your minds and in your hearts you must keep it ever present, you must repeat it in your beds, think of it again in the squares and not forget it during meals: and also when your body sleeps, your hearts must be watchful” (Augustine of Hippo, Discourse 215, on the Redditio Symboli).
In Porta Fidei there is a path to help understand more deeply the content of the faith and the act by which we freely entrust ourselves to God: the act with which we believe and the content to which we give our assent are signposted in a deeply united way (cf. n. 10).
To grow in Faith
The Year of Faith represents therefore, an invitation to conversion to Jesus, the only Saviour of the World, to grow in the faith as a theological virtue. In the prologue to the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI wrote on the negative consequences of presenting Jesus as a figure from the past about whom little is certain: “Such a situation is difficult for the faith, because it makes its authentic point of reference uncertain: the intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, threatens to fumble in the emptiness” (p. 8).
It is worth meditating more on these words “the intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends”. It concerns the personal encounter with Christ, an encounter of each one of us, and of each one of our brothers and sisters in the faith, whom we serve in our ministry.
To encounter Jesus, like the first disciples – Andrew, Peter, John – like the Samaritan woman or like Nicodemus; to welcome him into our own house like Martha and Mary; to listen to him reading the Gospel again and again; by the grace of the Holy Spirit, this is the sure path to growth in the faith. As the Servant of God Paul VI wrote: “The faith is the way by which eternal truth enters into the soul” (Insegnamenti, IV, p. 919).
Jesus invites us to feel that we are children and friends of God: “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (Jn. 15:15-16).
Means to grow in faith – The Eucharist
Jesus invites us to ask with full confidence, to pray with the words “Our Father”. He proposes to everyone, in the Sermon on the Mount, a goal which to human eyes seems like madness: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In order to exercise a good pedagogy of holiness, capable of adapting itself to the circumstances and the pace of the individual person, we must be friends of God, and men of prayer.
In prayer we learn to carry the Cross, that Cross open to the whole world for its salvation which, as the Lord revealed to Ananias, would accompany the mission of the newly converted Saul: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). Also to the faithful of Galatia, St. Paul presents this synthesis of his life “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20).
In the Eucharist the mystery of the sacrifice of the Cross is made present. The liturgical celebration of the Holy Mass is an encounter with Jesus, who offers himself as a victim for us and transforms us in Him. “By its nature, the liturgy can be pedagogically effective in helping the faithful to enter more deeply into the mystery being celebrated. That is why, in the Church’s most ancient tradition, the process of Christian formation always had an experiential character. While not neglecting a systematic understanding of the content of the faith, it centred on a vital and convincing encounter with Christ, as proclaimed by authentic witnesses. It is first and foremost the witness who introduces others to the mysteries” (Benedict XVI, Ap. Exhort. Sacramentum Caritatis, 22-II-2007, no. 64). It should not be surprising therefore, that in the Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith, it is suggested that the celebration of the faith in the liturgy be intensified, and in particular in the Eucharist, where the faith of the Church is proclaimed, celebrated and reinforced (cf. no. IV, 2). If the Eucharistic liturgy is celebrated with great faith and devotion, the fruits are certain.
The Sacrament of Mercy that brings forgiveness
If the Eucharist is the Sacrament that builds up the image of the Son of God in us, Reconciliation is that which makes us experience the power of the divine mercy, which liberates the soul from sin, and enables it to sense the beauty of the return to God, the true Father loved by every one of his children. For this the sacred minister is the first person who must be convinced that “only by behaving as children of God, without despairing at our shortcomings, at our sins, only by feeling loved by him will our life be new, enlivened by serenity and joy. God is our strength! God is our hope!” (Pope Francis, General Audience, 10 April 2013).
The priest must himself be a sacrament of this merciful presence in the world: “Jesus has no house, because his house is the people, it is we who are his dwelling place, his mission is to open God’s doors to all, to be the presence of God’s love” (Idem, General Audience, 27 March 2013). We cannot therefore bury this marvellous supernatural gift, nor distribute it without having the same sentiments as He who loved sinners, all the way to the Cross. In this sacrament, the Father gives us a unique opportunity to be, not only spiritually, but also in ourselves and with our own humanity, that welcoming hand which, like the Good Samaritan, pours oil which gives relief to the wounds of the soul (Lk. 10:34). We hear, as our own, these words of the Pontiff; “A Christian who withdraws into himself, who hides everything that the Lord has given him, is a Christian who... is not a Christian! He is a Christian who does not thank God for everything God has given him! This tells us that the expectation of the Lord’s return is the time of action — we are in the time of action — the time in which we should bring God’s gifts to fruition, not for ourselves but for him, for the Church, for others. The time to seek to increase goodness in the world always… Dear brothers and sisters, may looking at the Last Judgement never frighten us: rather, may it impel us to live the present better. God offers us this time with mercy and patience so that we may learn every day to recognise him in the poor and in the lowly. Let us strive for goodness and be watchful in prayer and in love. May the Lord, at the end of our life and at the end of history, be able to recognise us as good and faithful servants” (Idem, General Audience, 24 April 2013).
The sacrament of Reconciliation is therefore also the sacrament of joy: “While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Lk. 15:11-24). Every time we go to Confession, we find the joy of being with God, because we have experienced his mercy perhaps many times, when we manifest to the Lord our shortcomings due to tepidity and mediocrity. Thus our faith is strengthened as sinners who love Jesus, and we know we are loved by him: “When someone is summoned by the judge or is involved in legal proceedings, the first thing he does is to seek a lawyer to defend him. We have One who always defends us, who defends us from the snares of devil, who defends us from ourselves and from our sins! Dear brothers and sisters, we have this Advocate; let us not be afraid to turn to him to ask forgiveness, to ask for a blessing, to ask for mercy! He always pardons us, he is our Advocate: he always defends us! Don’t forget this!” (Idem, General Audience, 17 April 2013).
In Eucharistic adoration, we can say to Christ, present in the Sacred Host, with St. Thomas Aquinas:
Plagas sicut Thomas non intúeor
Deum tamen meum Te confiteor
Fac me tibi semper magis crédere
In Te spem habére, Te dilígere.
Also with the apostle Thomas, we can repeat with our priestly heart, when Jesus is in our hands: Dominus meus et Deus meus!
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Lk. 1:45). With these words Elizabeth greeted Mary. We appeal to Her, who is Mother of priests and who has preceded us in the journey of faith, that each one of us may grow in faith in her divine Son, and thereby bring to the world the Life and the Light, the warmth of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Mauro Cardinal Piacenza