By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
Saturday, May 15, is the day of the Ordination of our new priests for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It gives us the topic for our reflection this week.
Fulfilling God’s plan
You may have noticed in reading these articles that, from time to time, I like to make use of the expression, “according to God’s plan.” I do so because it seems to me to be an accurate summary of many of the things that we do as followers of Jesus Christ and members of the Church which He founded. First, it reminds us that it is His Church, which He founded with a definite plan for the continuation of His work on earth. Secondly, in an age which can sometimes give us the idea that we have control over everything, it reminds us that One greater than us has given us a plan of life for this world and a goal to attain in the life to come. Since He has given all this to us, He will also give us the means to be faithful to His plan of life, if we freely choose to do so, and the means to attain eternal life when our earthly life has ended. This is all “according to His plan.”
Jesus has willed that the living out of His plan for our salvation take place within the Church He founded, which has not just some, but all of the means necessary for our sanctification. I have quoted before the following words of Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical on the Church, but it is very appropriate that we place them before us again in the midst of this reflection.
He wrote: “As he hung upon the Cross, Christ Jesus not only satisfied the justice of the Eternal Father which had been violated, but he also won for us, his brothers and sisters, an ineffable flow of graces. It was possible for him of himself to impart these graces to the human race directly; but he willed to do so only through a visible Church made up of men and women, so that through her all might cooperate with him in dispensing the graces of Redemption. As the Word of God willed to make use of our nature, when in excruciating agony he would redeem mankind, so in the same way throughout the centuries he makes use of the Church that the work begun might endure” (Mystici Corporis, 12).
An indispensable part of this “plan” for our salvation within the community of the Church is the priest, through whom Jesus wills that these graces be given to us in time. We place the priest in the heart of the Church because that is where he comes from and it is within that Church that he is called to serve the faithful.
How the work of Jesus endures
The work of Jesus endures in His Church through the sacraments, which make His life-giving grace present to us in an inspanidual and personal way, and through the preaching of the Word. This enables what we read in Saint Paul’s Letter to be fulfilled: “This is the will of God; your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Although what Jesus did to bring about our salvation occurred at a particular point and time in human history, His work is not confined to time and place because He is not confined in this way. His work and His love are also not “generic,” but personal to you and to me. In order to make all of this present to us in time, Jesus chooses imperfect men to bring to us, inspanidually and personally, the benefits of what He accomplished once on the Cross.
I would not want you to look upon this as something highly technical and difficult to understand, because it is not. In fact, you actually experience it frequently in your own lives. Think for a moment about your own Christian life in relation to your present parish and other parishes in which you may have lived or grown up. When you were baptized, you received what Jesus brought about on the Cross: the forgiveness of the first sin, which we call original. In some cultures, there is such a great recognition of what has happened in Baptism, that those surrounding the Baptismal font kiss the head of the child right after his or her Baptism. When you and those you love receive Jesus for the first time in Holy Communion, it is because Jesus gave to His priests the power to change bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, that you and they are able to receive Him. When we sin after Baptism, we are able to go to the priest in Confession and he dispenses to us in a very inspanidual and personal manner the forgiveness that Jesus made possible by His Death and Resurrection. When we are seriously ill and in need of God’s consoling grace in a special way, the priest gives us the Sacrament of strength and spiritual courage in the Anointing of the Sick.
However, apart from these sacramental encounters, which are certainly the most important, you encounter the priest in so many other ways in your lives as Catholics. You hear him preach God’s Word as he “proclaims the Kingdom,” to help you know and live out the Gospel message; you turn to him for help and counsel in times of doubt, sorrow and trial; his love of God challenges you to fidelity and his zeal spurs you on.
When I visit the many parishes of the Archdiocese, so often the people want to tell me how much they love their priests! I can only be present in each particular community occasionally, although I try to visit the parishes as much as possible. However, the priest who shepherds the local flock in my name and in the name of the Church, is the one who is there with you. I am so delighted when I hear that so many of our priests are serving you faithfully and touching your lives in the name of Jesus.
The generous hearts of our young people
As I ordain six young men for the service of the Church of Philadelphia, I wish that all of you could see their youthful enthusiasm, strong faith and generous hearts. In a sense, you do see all this in the priests who serve you faithfully. We all know that we wish there were more than there are, but that too is linked to God’s mysterious plan.
To put that thought into context, we should dwell upon the following, written by the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas. We should take note than when he wrote these words, almost 800 years ago, he was answering a question about a shortage of priestly vocations! He writes: “God never abandons His Church; and so the number of priests will be always sufficient for the needs of the faithful.”
This doesn’t mean that we must not all do our part in the promotion of priestly vocations. We ask the faithful to encourage an esteem for the priesthood in the home, along with an example of a faith that is lived out. Those responsible for the promotion of vocations must do all they can to attract young men to the priesthood and the young must respond with generous and unselfish hearts to the call of Christ. However, the fact remains that priestly vocations are not a science of statistics but a great mystery of God’s personal call and the response of a loving heart.
The necessity of praying for priests and for priestly vocations
I have mentioned before the Wednesday audiences of the Popes, which are not only used as an opportunity for the faithful to see the successor of Peter, but also for the Holy Father to give an instruction on the Gospel or some aspect of our faith. As the Year of the Priest is drawing to a close, Pope Benedict has been reflecting on the gift of the priesthood and its various aspects for the last few weeks. This past week, after reflecting on the role of the priest in sanctifying the faithful, he also reminded his hearers of the necessity of praying for priests.
He said: “Dear friends, be conscious of the great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world; through their ministry, the Lord continues saving men and women, making himself present, sanctifying. Know how to thank God, and above all be close to your priests with your prayer and support, especially in difficulties, so that they will be increasingly shepherds according to the heart of God.”
Many years ago, in 1935 to be exact, another successor of Peter wrote a beautiful commentary on the priesthood in an Encyclical he wrote on that subject. Among the many wonderful insights that Pope Pius XI wrote at that time, I share just this one with you this week: “Nothing is more acceptable to God, of more honor to the Church, and more profitable to souls than the precious gift of a holy priest” (Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, 78). That statement has stood the test of time, because it is so true.
13 May 2010