By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
Since we are in the midst of the Vocation Awareness Week and since one of the super-priorities of our archdiocesan initiative “Call to Conversion and Holiness” is prayer for more priests for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, we make vocations our topic this week.
One body, many members
As I look back on the many topics we have covered in this column, I see that we have drawn attention to many groups and inspaniduals who are present among us. We have thanked, praised and encouraged the many missions and vocations that are lived out within our Archdiocese and in the universal Church.
This is how it should be, because we are all familiar with the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and inspanidually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them” (Romans 12:4-6).
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council elaborates on this truth beautifully. Speaking of the relationship of priests, men and women religious and the lay faithful, it states: “For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the people of God entails a unifying purpose, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. The faithful in their turn should enthusiastically lend their cooperative assistance to their pastors and teachers. Thus in their spanersity all bear witness to the admirable unity of the Body of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 32).
Every vocation depends upon the ministry of the priest
The priest is never merely a priest for himself, nor does he exist in a vacuum. He is intimately united with all the vocations lived out in the body of Christ because all of these vocations are in need of the mercy and grace which pass through him. Let us briefly speak about the interrelationship of these vocations.
The Code of Canon Law reminds us that there exist Christian faithful who are consecrated to God in their own special manner and serve the salvific mission of the Church through the profession of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience (cf. Can. 207, par. 2). As we dwell upon religious vocations in a special way this week, I would like to call our attention to the vocation to the religious brotherhood which exists in the Church.
For many years, we have had splendid examples of the living out of this vocation in our Archdiocese. We pay tribute to the religious brothers who teach in high schools and colleges within our Archdiocese; to those who exercise the works of charity in various apostolates; to those who are very much a part of orders and congregations which contain both priests and religious brothers; to each and to all a word of thanks and a word of encouragement to those who may wish to investigate this vocation further.
Many of us owe a particular debt of gratitude to religious sisters who follow the invitation of Jesus in the Gospel, and that early practice of the Church, of consecrated virginity for the sake of the kingdom of God. They witness to the realities that are beyond this world by the practice of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience and by their carrying out of the particular apostolates of their religious communities.
We remind the young women who may be thinking of a religious vocation that there is a wide variety of apostolates represented in so many religious communities, so that all the needs of the Church may be served and the particular talent of an inspanidual may be well used for the sake of the kingdom.
We refer to chastity, poverty and obedience as “evangelical counsels” from the Latin word evangelium, which means “Gospel.” These counsels, practiced by men and women religious, cannot be separated from the rest of the Gospel, which speaks of constant conversion of heart and which gives us the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life. According to God’s plan, this conversion is perfected in the Sacrament of Penance, and the Eucharist is given to us through the Sacrifice of the Mass. Therefore, the ministry of the priest is always intimately involved in the living out of the evangelical counsels.
In the living out of the vocations to marriage and the single life, the central place must also be given to the “Call to Conversion and Holiness,” that Jesus makes to us all. That is why this is the name we have given to our archdiocesan initiative. More than ever, when fidelity seems to be so difficult in the midst of a world that does not always help us in leading a virtuous and faithful life, constant turning towards God in conversion and penance and being fed with the gift of the Eucharist must be the source of strength for those called to the vocations of marriage and the single life. Again, we see the necessary intimate link between the vocation of the priest and the fidelity of all of Christ’s members.
The priest is not his own
The priesthood of Jesus Christ does not exist for its own sake. That would be a contradiction in terms. Everything about the priesthood of Jesus Himself was an emptying out, a self-giving, a sacrifice which culminated in the perfect sacrifice in which He offered Himself upon the Cross for our salvation. The humility of Bethlehem, the obedience of Nazareth, the teachings and miracles of the public life all culminated in the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
In his encyclical on the sacred liturgy, Pope Pius XII wrote: “The priestly life which the spanine Redeemer had begun in His mortal body by His prayers and sacrifice should not cease. He willed it to continue unceasingly through the ages in His Mystical Body, which is the Church; and therefore He instituted a visible priesthood to offer everywhere a clean oblation (Malachi 1:11), so that all people all over the world, being spanerted from sin, might serve God conscientiously, and of their own free will” (Mediator Dei, 1).
Since the very essence of the Christian priesthood is to “do what Jesus did” at the altar, it is also necessary for the priest to strive to live out the message of Jesus in every other aspect of his life. He does this first by his own response to the call to conversion and holiness.
The Letter to the Hebrews teaches us that “every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people” (Hebrews 5:1-3).
The priest who forgives sins in the confessional must also seek forgiveness. I would like to express gratitude at this time to the members of religious orders and congregations in the Archdiocese who help make the Sacrament of Penance easily available to our priests. Although a priest may, and often does, approach any other priest to go to confession, there are also several places in the Archdiocese where the priests of religious orders and congregations are always available to hear the confessions of priests. Our lay faithful should know of this generous service offered to brother priests, and the quiet humility of so many of our priests who seek forgiveness themselves in the sacrament of penance.
Likewise, just as all vocations are nourished by the Eucharist, the priest himself is sanctified by the sacrifice he offers. This is why the Church has always urged that priests celebrate Mass each day, even if they are not assigned to do so publicly, so that they may continue to sanctify themselves and respond to the universal call to holiness in their own unique way. Let us not forget the “sacrifice of praise” offered in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. While many can and do celebrate this form of liturgical prayer, deacons and priests do so by obligation. This is in order to fulfill their call to pray for themselves and for the entire Church.
Since Vocation Awareness Week celebrates, in particular, vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life, I urge all to recite frequently the following prayer I composed for an increase in vocations for the Archdiocese:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the Eternal Father
Son of the Virgin Mary,
we thank you for offering your life
in sacrifice on the Cross,
and for renewing this sacrifice
in every Mass celebrated throughout the world.
In the power of the Holy Spirit
we adore you and
proclaim your living Presence in the Eucharist.
We desire to imitate the love you show us
in your death and resurrection,
by loving and serving one another.
We ask you to call many young people
to religious life,
and to provide the holy and generous priests
that are so needed in your Church today.
Lord Jesus, hear our prayer. Amen.
13 January 2011