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Friday, 29 April 2011

Pope John Paul II and priestly identity


One of the themes of Pope John Paul II's pontificate was his insistence on the necessity of the priesthood and his personal and heartfelt encouragement to priests, both in positive spiritual terms and, occasionally, in correction and admonition.

At the time Pope John Paul II was elected to the Papacy, it was quite common to hear, even in official circles, that the shortage of vocations to the priesthood was a work of the Holy Spirit, encouraging the laity to take their full part in the ministry of the Church. The fact that this is heard much less today (although there are still some dinosaurs who persist in the error) is largely due to the consistent teaching of Pope John Paul II on its falsity.

I well remember during the first year of his pontificate, the Pope's Maundy Thursday letter to priests. This was the first of a series that continued almost every year during his reign.In that letter, there was a moving exhortation to priests who were weary or doubtful:
Dear Brothers: you who have borne "the burden of the day and the heat" (Mt 20:12), who have put your hand to the plough and do not turn back (cf. Lk 9:62), and perhaps even more those of you who are doubtful of the meaning of your vocation or of the value of your service: think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years; feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence. And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a Priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest, just as they also so eagerly wait to hear the divine words of pardon: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis! So deeply do they feel the absence of a Priest among them!... Such places are not lacking in the world. So if one of you doubts the meaning of his priesthood, if he thinks it is "socially" fruitless or useless, reflect on this!
In his letter to priests for Maundy Thursday 1986 Pope John Paul II reflected at length on the ministry and life of the Curé of Ars. He addressed in particular the question of the priest's identity:
Saint John Mary Vianney gives an eloquent answer to certain questionings of the priest's identity, which have manifested themselves in the course of the last twenty years; in fact it seems that today a more balanced position is being reached. The priest always, and in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the Priest. It is not the world which determines his status, as though it depended on changing needs or ideas about social roles. The priest is marked with the seal of the Priesthood of Christ, in order to share in his function as the one Mediator and Redeemer.
The movement to a "more balanced position" concerning the priesthood was undoubtedly due in large part to the inspiration, example, and encouragement given by the Pope himself from the very start of his pontificate.
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