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Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly BreastA Research Study on Procedural Justice for Priests—Diocesan and Religious
By James Valladares
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 James Valladares, PhD.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Priesthood Is the Love of the Heart of Jesus
On the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Friday, June 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a "Year for Priests" in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the death (dies natalis) of John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests worldwide. His objective was clear and definite: to deepen the commitment of all priests and to emphasise the paramount importance of an internal renewal, so as to ensure a more forceful and incisive witness to the Gospel in today's world. Wisely quoting the saintly priest, our Holy Father said: "The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus."
This penetrating insight makes it crystal clear that a priest is indeed a very precious gift both to the Church and to God's people. Said Jesus to his first priests: "You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last." Fully appreciative of this gratuitous and supernatural gift, Pope Benedict adds, "How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests, who, amid difficulties and misunderstandings, remain faithful to their vocation as 'friends of Christ,' whom he has called by name, chosen and sent?"
The Significance of a Gift
There are two very striking features of a genuine gift; it is gratuitous and generous. In other words, in spite of the fact that the recipient has no claim whatsoever, the benefactor gives it willingly and with no strings attached—it is gratuitous. Then the gift is given as a gesture of unfeigned goodwill, regardless of the cost to the benefactor—it is generous. Such is the priesthood: it is a gratuitous and generous gift of our Triune God.
These two features of a genuine gift are very vividly manifested in the heart-warming story of the widow in the Gospel. The wealthy came forward and ceremoniously made an ostentatious display of their largesse by putting their handsome gifts into the treasury. Their sole intent was to draw attention to themselves; theirs was a gift but with a string attached: self-centred and pretentious pride. By contrast, a poor widow crept up to the temple treasury and very humbly and inconspicuously put in two small copper coins; that was all she had.
Her gift was both gratuitous and generous. First, she was under no obligation whatsoever to put in anything, as she was extremely poor and was justifiably exempt. And second, she put in all that she had because of her heartfelt gratitude to God, and God deserved nothing short of the best she could offer. Commending her generosity, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on".
Without Me, You Cannot; Without You, I Will Not
Of the many possible ways in which God could have provided for the propagation of the human race, God, in his wisdom, power, and love, chose just one. God ordained that a husband and wife would serve as the transmitters of human life into which he would breathe a spiritual and immortal soul and so bring about the birth of a newborn child. In other words, a father and a mother serve as co-creators with God in begetting new human life. Such is God's marvellous wisdom, power, and love. And therein lies the sanctity of the Sacrament of Marriage and the dignity of parenthood. It is as though God, in spite of his almighty power, wisdom, and love, is saying to the parents: "Without me, you cannot; without you, I will not."
Similarly, of the many possible ways in which God could have provided for the spiritual nurture of people, in his wisdom, power, and love, he chose just one. He decided to share his divine power, mission, and authority with mere human beings, who would serve as transmitters of his divine life in and through their priestly and pastoral ministry. In other words, God just had no alternative but to choose humans to minister to humans. And so, Christ Jesus shared his Divine Priesthood with mere mortal human beings, thereby giving them a share in his priestly, kingly and sanctifying mission. Therein lies the sanctity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the dignity of the sacred priesthood. Truly, the "Priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus." It is as though God, in spite of his almighty power, wisdom and love, is saying to his priests: "Without me, you cannot; without you, I will not."
The priesthood is indeed a gratuitous and generous gift of God that defies both comprehension and gratitude. Once again, of the innumerable possible ways in which God could have provided for the spiritual and pastoral care of his family, he deliberately chose one and just one; he didn't even consider a second. He decided to share his power and authority with mere mortal humans, his priests, who would serve as a channel of his boundless love, his unfathomable wisdom, and his sublime power.
The priest is an "extraction from the common" to be "a consignment to the whole."
Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a priest is brought into Christ Jesus; he enters into relations with the Father through the Son, and through a deepening of this bond, he therefore becomes capable of revealing the nature of this God to the world: not an enigmatic and terrible God, but "a God with a human face, a God who is love." In explaining the term sanctification as "the giving over of a person to God," Pope Benedict XVI defines the essence of the priesthood as "a transfer of ownership, a being taken out of the world and given to God." In a word, a priest is a visible sign of God's presence.
In virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a priest is able to enter into contact with the person of Christ Jesus, and so speak and act in his name, representing to the world this power of love through which the priesthood of Christ finds expression. And, since he carries out his ministry in persona Christi (in the person of Christ Jesus), the priest continues the saving actions of Christ Jesus, "breaking the Bread of life and remitting sins," through which he has been granted the power to reintegrate man into the very heart of God, and to offer him the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.
At the conclusion of the International Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI officiated at a series of services, at which approximately 15,000 priests from all over the world were present. Addressing the questions of a representative set of priests, the Holy Father said, "Christ Jesus is drawing us into himself, allowing us to speak for him. He is at all times the only real priest, yet he is very present to the world today because he draws us into himself."
Next, the Sovereign Pontiff cautioned priests against a "theology of arrogance" that makes God a mere object, rather than a subject speaking to us. Instead, he said, priests must engage in a "theology stimulated by love" that seeks to dialogue with love and so come to a better knowledge of the Beloved. Finally, Pope Benedict urged priests to live out their priesthood "in a way that is so persuasive" that young people may see an example of a vocation lived fully. Indeed, there is no better advertisement for the priesthood than a happy priest.
A priest continues the saving actions of Christ Jesus.
As an alter Christus (another Christ), the sacrifice that the priest celebrates and the absolution he gives are grounded on this Otherness that passes through him, by means of the sacrament of Holy Orders, and makes him "a humble instrument pointing to Christ, who offers himself in sacrifice for the salvation of the world."
This is how the saintly Cure d'Ars, St. John Vianney, wisely described how immense a gift a priest is to his people: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy. 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."
"As far as the heavens are above the earth, as far as the east is from the west ..."
If I may be permitted to be personal, on a couple of occasions, I visited my sister and her family in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This is where I would spend my annual holiday. And while there, I would assist the pastor as and when it was necessary.
One day, I got a call from the lay chaplain of the local general hospital. He explained that a lady wished to see a Catholic priest urgently, as she was not expected to survive the night. He further explained that the pastor was away and not due to return until the next day. He also explained that the pastor of the neighbouring parish was away for a few days. He turned to me, because I was the only priest available in the area. Of course, he was apologetic for turning to me, even though he knew I was on my annual holiday. Without hesitation, I assured him that I would be willing to respond, if only he would be good enough to come and fetch me, as I had no transport. Minutes later, he was at my door, and a few minutes later, I was at the bedside of the patient.
Her joy truly knew no bounds. Very candidly, she confided that she had strayed from the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church years ago, in a moment of youthful recklessness and juvenile rebellion. That was some forty years earlier. However, in that crisis, it was her earnest desire to make her peace with God, even as she prepared for the final encounter. And for that, she needed the priestly ministry of God's visible representative: a priest. In God's Divine Providence, the only priest available then was one from another continent thousands of miles away, another distant city and another nationality and culture.
None of that mattered to the patient. For her, a priest, any priest—regardless of nationality, culture or language—is indeed the love of the heart of Jesus. He is God's representative, an extension of Christ Jesus and a channel of the Holy Spirit's life-giving power and love. With great fervour and heart-warming sincerity, that good lady made her peace with God in and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, reverently received the Sacrament of the Sick, and joyfully received the Holy Eucharist.
The manifest peace and inexpressible joy that descended upon her literally defy expression. The prodigal had returned home into the welcoming arms of a very merciful and forgiving Father, and the heavenly banquet had already been organised. "My daughter, whom I thought lost, has been found; and she whom all thought dead has come back to life." And that is exactly what did happen within the next few hours. Said Jesus, "I tell you there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine other virtuous people that have no need of repentance." And God rendered that possible in and through the sacramental ministry of a priest. Indeed, a priest is the love of the heart of Jesus.
Without me, you cannot; without you, I will not.
"The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus," as the saintly Curé of Ars often said, and so, the Holy Father waxes eloquent in a fatherly and reassuring tribute to the priests of the world:
This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself. I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ's words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden service and their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and misunderstandings, remain faithful to their vocations as "friends of Christ," whom he has called by name, chosen and sent?
Some years ago, for instance, there was a deplorable—in fact scandalous—case of bureaucratic bungling in one particular diocese. A very conscientious, industrious and highly esteemed pastor was unjustly and vindictively removed from office because of the conspiratorial malevolence of his detractors and enemies. As a pastor, he was faithfully fulfilling his pastoral duties as clearly delineated by canon law and the Theology of the Ministerial Priesthood. His spirited defence before his bishop and that of his knowledgeable and devoted parishioners was callously ignored. The hapless priest was declared guilty until proven innocent—if that was a viable alternative at all.
He lost no time in referring his appeal to the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome. A very protracted and intensive investigation was conducted. The pastor was found totally innocent, and the local bishop was instructed to have him reinstated as pastor of his parish. The bishop ignored the instruction and adamantly refused to comply.
The priest reiterated his appeal. And once again, the Congregation urged the bishop to have the priest reinstated, but the latter stubbornly refused to do so. Compelled by circumstances, the resolute priest had no alternative but to turn to the bishop of a neighbouring diocese, who welcomed him gladly, and had no hesitation in appointing him as pastor to a local parish. Subsequently, it was reported that the new appointee was greatly loved, highly respected, and most gratefully appreciated by his parishioners, in much the same way that he had been in his own diocese.
This isn't the first, and it certainly will not be the last instance, corroborating the prediction of Christ Jesus, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown ... Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you ... Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." "Priests will put nothing before the love of Christ Jesus."
In yet another diocese, three priests had their faculties withdrawn in the not-too-distant past. Two have reportedly had them reinstated, after a long time. No public announcement has been made. Both have repeatedly and publicly protested the injustice of the procedures, which have resulted in irreparable harm to their reputations and ministries. One has retired, now a physical and psychological wreck; the other has resumed his ministry outside the diocese, by sheer force of complex and irreversible circumstances. The third has not been officially dismissed, nor has he had his faculties formally revoked. Being in limbo, he went on to graduate as a nurse, and is presently serving in a large public hospital. To this day, he has no idea as to his personal or priestly status.
In his message for the 47th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Benedict XVI focussed on the theme: "Witness Awakens Vocations." By referring to the prophets, Jesus himself, and John the Baptist, the Holy Father calls us back to the reality that sharing in the ministry of Christ Jesus exposes us to misunderstanding, rejection and persecution. Like Christ Jesus, we have the choice to give witness faithfully or look for some course that avoids the pain, at the risk of compromising the message. "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
Admittedly, the entire faithful share in the mission of the Church, by virtue of their baptism. Nevertheless, we, in the ordained ministry, contribute in a very unique way to the life of the Church, especially through the sacramental ministry we celebrate and the leadership we are called to exercise. It is in this context that the Sovereign Pontiff highlights St. John Mary Vianney, Curé of Ars, as a model of a priest and a pastor, especially for his focus, commitment and prayer.
As all are aware, these are extremely difficult times for all involved in the pastoral ministry. This adverse and most unfortunate situation has been further compounded by the irresponsible and inexcusable tendency to tar all with the same brush. What has been particularly disconcerting is the unscrupulous and avaricious tendency in some to fabricate untruths, and to exploit a questionable situation, to their personal and financial advantage.
Reportedly, there have been recurring instances all over the world, where the individual priest or religious has not been supported by his bishop or superior, who callously relegates him to both isolation and oblivion. In a word, priests are both defenceless and helpless. As is patently clear, this is a deplorable travesty that does more harm than good; it also does little to help generate a climate that is favourable to the promotion of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.
Excerpted from Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast by James Valladares Copyright © 2012 by James Valladares, PhD.. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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