I have thought I might slowly post highlights of Pope Benedict’s Letter Proclaiming a Year For Priests and make a few comments of my own.
Reflecting on the Holy Priesthood, Pope Benedict draws highly from the writings of St. John Vianney who 150th Birthday is being celebrated this year too:
Here the teaching and example of Saint John Mary Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference for us all. The Curé of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift 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”. He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature: “O, how great is the priest! … If he realized what he is, he would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host…” Explaining to his parishioners the importance of the sacraments, he 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 mortal 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: “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 … .
The words of St. John Vianney DO seem “excessive” by today’s standards. We tend to be a bit more cautious and sober in our speaking today. Today is my 20th Anniversary of Ordination to priesthood and I hardly think of God “obeying” me as I speak the words of consecration. And yet God does “obey” not for my sake but for the sake of his people. I have often thought, if I gave a good sermon, or taught effectively, or just saw anything go really well in my priestly activity it was not so much for my sake or my glory, but for God’s people and God’s glory. I have learned to ask that I preach and teach well and administer the sacraments effectively simply because God’s people deserve the very best. In the end I hope it is not God who obeys me but I who obey God and get out of the way so he can take over. Perhaps what St. John Vianney really refers to is a kind of subordinate obeying that God does. He inspires the Priest to ask for what he [Christ] wants, and in the end it is one Christ and one will, one obedience.
I want to show you a movie clip. I am no big fan of Hollywood, for lots of reasons. But I must say, it was a Hollywood movie that played a role in my discovery of a vocation to the priesthood. I went to this movie with my college girlfriend who also sang in Church Choir with me back in 1981. So here I sat in the theater with my girl and suddenly, in Dolby stereo rang out a choir singing the Kyrie from Viadonna’s Missa L’Hora Passa. And the camera panned into a scene from a solemn high mass in Latin (the movie was set in the 1940s). Robert DiNiro was the priest and he played the role of the priest perfectly. But strangely it was in a Hollywood movie that I first saw close up the dignity of the priest celebrant as he carefully pronounced the words of consecration. Yes I know it was an actor, but I saw for the first time displayed the power of what a real priest can do. I also beheld a liturgy beautifully celebrated which I must say, sadly, was not the usual case in my suburban parish church of the time. Well, I didn’t tell my girlfriend that evening, but for the first time the priesthood seemed attractive, from a movie, a Hollywood movie. I didn’t think of being a priest yet, but I had never thought of a priest as anything special before that night. Now I did. Here is the clip of what I saw and heard in 1981 (From the Movie True Confessions).